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Martinez School District Grapples with New Challenges
High absentee rates, low math scores and prospect of teacher layoffs cast a cloud over recent school board meeting; plus, city leaders discuss latest refinery incident, plan Feb. 15 meeting
Thanks to the financial support that I continue to receive from residents, I am happy to provide this post from another freelance journalist. I’m sure Sam Richards is familiar to many of you through his coverage of Martinez for the East Bay Times and Bay City News Service over the years. He provided the following report from last week’s Martinez Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting. Upgrading to a paid subscription will allow me to continue to provide reports like this on various topics of interest in Martinez.
By Sam Richards
Though the data on which the latest numbers are based is incomplete, in large part because of COVID-19-related issues, Martinez Unified school board members find themselves grappling with high student absenteeism and relatively low math success numbers.
This situation was discussed at length at the Martinez Unified School District board’s Jan. 30 meeting, during a presentation on the district’s Data Dashboard information (https://tinyurl.com/ye23tupn). That information is presented on the California School Dashboard, to provide information about progress of local districts and their schools to point out areas where student learning should improve.
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On that dashboard, Martinez students ranked “low” in math success, and “medium” in English language arts. The math number is substantially below the state standard; the “medium” in English is marginally above the state standard, according to Renee Lopez, MUSD’s district’s director of educational services.
The district also achieved a “medium” rating for English language learner progress.
The state dashboard also shows Martinez as ranking high in two categories where a low score is preferred – chronic absenteeism (very high) and suspension rate (high). Lopez told the board that 21.3 percent of Martinez students in 2022 were considered to be chronically absent, defined as missing at least 10 percent of the school year.
Those English and math numbers came along with another number – a 95.1 percent high school graduation rate, which on the dashboard ranks as “very high.” School board member Yazmin Llamas noted that discrepancy.
“Are we graduating kids that are not prepared?” asked Llamas, who said the data was “humbling.” “This is worse than I thought it was.”
School officials noted there have been extenuating circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has added significantly to the absenteeism rate, especially, but also to all these numbers, and not just in Martinez, but statewide. The chronic absenteeism rate statewide is almost 30 percent. Statewide dashboard figures are available here:
The local numbers “show we have work to do to support the success of all students,” said Lopez, noting the district is forming a team to take a deeper look at some of the more troubling numbers.
“We’re really taking our time to build that team, analyze that data and look for root causes,” she said.
Board member Carlos Melendez said he doesn’t believe the situation is as dire as these state numbers make it out to be, and that they lack several levels of context. The numbers as presented, he said, largely serve to frustrate.
“And if it’s going out to the public, there’s going to be more frustration,” Melendez said.
School district Superintendent Helen Rossi said she expects the poor numbers to get better, in Martinez and beyond, as scholastic life continues to return to pre-pandemic norms.
Anamarie Avila Farias of Martinez, however, said she believes some of these issues predate the pandemic, and that the board needs to take this dashboard information seriously.
“This really needs leadership for a local school board to fix,” Farias, a member of the Contra Costa County Board of Education, told the MUSD board.
Possible teacher layoffs
Declining student enrollment, combined with some smaller levels of state funding, will result in less overall district revenue in 2023, district officials told the board, and if the funding picture doesn’t change over the next few months, as many as five fewer teachers could be on staff by this fall.
Andy Cannon, the district’s chief business official, told the board that the state education budget is looking at a $29.5 billion shortfall over the three-year 2021-2024 window, and that ongoing inflation, slowing growth in personal income tax and regional job losses could exacerbate matters.
Add to that the Martinez district’s Average Daily Attendance drop from 3,612 per day in 2021-22 to 3,518 this school year. All California school districts receive per-pupil ADA funding, and lower attendance means a drop in those payments. Such ADA drops have been common throughout California, with students’ families moving out of state and students transferring to private schools or online charter schools among the various reasons.
Dr. Caroline Cota, the school district’s director of personnel services, said affected staff will be notified by March 15. Layoff notices could be confirmed, or rescinded, by mid-May, depending on how many resignations and retirements are fielded by then, and by potential adjustments in enrollment.
Cannon said much will depend on the annual May state budget revise, which could call for more, or less, school funding than reported in the initial state education budget.
Starting in March, members of the community should again be able to participate in school board meetings remotely via Zoom, as was the case during part of the pandemic, as well as in person. The school board voted to reinstate the virtual option, starting in March, allowing the public to call in via Zoom to make comments. The district’s Zoom license expires in June, so it’s to be determined whether this option will continue past that time.
Watch the Jan. 30 school board meeting here.
Now, on to a few other items of interest.
Another refinery incident
In the wake of yet another incident last week at the Martinez Refining Company, city officials announced at Wednesday’s council meeting plans to hold a special public study session on Feb. 15 at 6 p.m. with county officials, prior to the regular City Council meeting, to provide further education on the Community Warning System, the various alert levels involved and what they mean in terms of communicating incidents with the public, as well as the city’s own efforts to expand and strengthen its communications with the community over such events. Council members also expressed growing frustration with the continuing episodes at the refinery. Residents will be able to attend either in person at City Hall or on Zoom.
The refinery reported on its Facebook page Tuesday that it was working to extinguish “smoldering material in out-of-service equipment.” The smoldering continued through the night and into the following morning, triggering a Level 1 alert of the Community Warning System (CWS) “out of an abundance of caution.” Residents reported seeing smoke from the refinery on Tuesday. Level 1 alerts are limited in terms of communication with the affected community and do not result in automatic calls to residents or shelter-in-place orders.
Contra Costa Health Services said on Twitter that its hazardous materials teams conducted air monitoring throughout the smoldering incident and that no threat to public health was detected.
In announcing plans for the Feb. 15 study session on the CWS and the city’s own emergency communications initiatives, City Manager Michael Chandler said the latest incident “reiterated to us that we need to have more public education and a formal discussion about how all these different aspects work together.”
He also provided several other refinery-related updates.
The city and county were awaiting a required 72-hour report from the refinery on last week’s smoldering incident.
The county is in the process of reviewing applications from community members who applied to sit on the oversight committee tasked with leading an independent investigation into the Thanksgiving night toxic dust release from the refinery. The first meeting of the committee is expected to take place later this month.
The city is expecting the refinery’s final 30-day report on the Thanksgiving dust incident to be released and made public in the coming days.
Contra Costa Health Services is planning to begin a safety inspection of the refinery the week of Feb. 13 focusing on the unit that was involved in the Thanksgiving night hazardous materials release.
Mayor Brianne Zorn expressed urgency in addressing the concerns about incidents at the refinery and improving communications with the community so that residents aren’t left in the dark.
“The refinery keeps having these Level 1 incidents faster than we can implement a notification system,” she said. “Every time there’s an event, which is happening every couple of weeks, the community is asking us what is going on, and we don’t really have a good mechanism to tell them what is going on. There’s a lot of information, and it’s flowing in a lot of different places.
“I really want to see us moving forward on this much quicker than what we probably thought we were going to have to do after the first event, which we thought was maybe an isolated event and it clearly has not been the case.”
Councilman Mark Ross, who sits on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board of Directors, said, “I mentioned to the air district at our meeting today how concerned I was about this and I wanted a deeper dive about what’s going on there, and I will be doing that with staff at the air district on Monday.”
Disaster relief from storms available
The city announced in its newsletter that federal disaster relief is now available for residents who suffered property or business damage as a result of the series of storms that battered the region from late December to late January. Residents can apply for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at www.disasterassistance.gov
Note: Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to fill out my reader survey. For those who haven’t, there’s still time to do so at this link. Your feedback will help guide the content and format of the newsletter going forward. … I’ll have an update and some views to share later this week on the city’s ongoing efforts to craft blueprints for housing development and repairs and upgrades to the marina/waterfront.