School board chief upbeat
Gary DeSmet has come full circle. After teaching for 17 years in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, DeSmet finds himself as president of the school board.
“I’m empathetic to teachers,” he said. “I gave it all I had (as a teacher) – and it wasn’t enough.”
“It was the hardest work I’ve ever done,” he added.
Being on the school board isn’t an easy job either. DeSmet, who’s served on the board for three years, estimates he puts in about 20 hours a week on board business, although he said his wife would put the figure higher than that. “But I’m thinking about it all the time,” he added.
It took DeSmet about a year-and-a-half to have an epiphany moment on what it meant to be a school board member. It occurred at a three-day California School Board Association conference.
“You’ve got five individuals, but only as a unit can we carry a voice,” he said. “When we come together, that’s when we’re a board.”
One of the things he learned at the conference was to focus on five things that affect the entire district – and stay focused.
“Pivot (a school consulting firm the district has been using) has helped us stay focused,” he said.
One of Pivot’s recommendations was to have the principals, the leadership team, the board and the cabinet sit down three times a year to get everybody talking.
“We all sit down together, break into smaller groups and talk about what’s bugging us, what’s important and what’s working well,” he said. “We identify what’s going right in the classrooms and then replicate it.”
The district has instituted a number of new policies over the past two years, and while he’s excited about the programs, such as the “A-to-G” high school curriculum, he knows that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. “‘A-to-G’ isn’t a test-score rising program,” he said. “But districts that have instituted ‘A-to-G’ have almost a zero dropout rate. That’s engagement. That’s a victory.”
One of the things he’d like to see the district move toward is two years of pre-kindergarten for all students.
“Two years of pre-kindergarten erases the achievement gap,” he said. “If every kid gets two years, by the time they enter kindergarten, they’ll know their numbers and letters and they’ll be socially interacting.”
“I think that’s the best investment a community could make,” he continued. “It would only cost $2,500 a kid each year. Five-thousand dollars over two years erases that gap,” he said. “Without it, some kids never make up the ground.”
Despite taking the reins just as the district is going to cut nearly $2.6 million at a special meeting in January, DeSmet is optimistic.
“We can get through this,” he said. We don’t need to panic. This is the most hopeful environment I’ve ever been in.”
He points to programs such as “A-to-G,” the Freshman Teams and the career tech education among others.
“We’re in the midst of change,” he said. “We’re always in the midst of change.” And the school district is no different.
“Change is resisted mightily,” he continued. “But our vision hinges on people growing into change.”
The one vision that is constantly articulated is that students graduating from high school will be college and career ready.
“The first reflex you get from people is that everybody’s going to college,” he said. “What we’re talking about is having the same skill set.”
He points out that whether students go to college or into the workforce, they need certain skills, such as a sense of math, of written expression, science, logic and social studies.
“This isn’t a cookie cutter,” he said. “We have to grow into it. But we have some great resources at the high school.”
While the district has been putting new programs into place, and has more on the drawing board, the biggest challenge facing the district is money.
While the district has shifted into basic aid, meaning it gets almost all if its money from property taxes and is therefore supposedly immune from state budget cuts, it doesn’t quite work that way. The state is demanding money from basic aid districts as part of what it calls a “fair share.”
This coming fiscal year, the district is going to have to send Sacramento a check for more than $2.5 million as its “fair share” kickback.
One thing voters may see on the ballot again is another parcel tax measure. It’s been brought up a couple of times recently by boardmember Helen Marsh, and DeSmet isn’t distancing himself from such talk.
“What are our options,” he said. “Pass the hat during a parade? Have a fundraiser?”
He points out that the district has received a number of grants that have kept the wheels from falling off, but he admits that you can’t budget based on grants.
“We lost school funding in Proposition 13,” he said. “And two-thirds (to pass a parcel tax) is a high bar. But a parcel tax doesn’t have to be that big.”
DeSmet is looking forward to the challenges coming down the pike and is optimistic.
“Nothing stays the same. Nothing stays static,” he said. “We’re growing.”