La Jolla Schools cluster group working on autonomy plan

Association gears up to finish proposal to increase local control, flexibility

By Kathy Day

As the first day of school approaches (Sept. 4) there’s the regular bustle of teachers getting classrooms ready, parents buying school clothes, kids bemoaning the end of summer, and the La Jolla Cluster Association ramping up its activities.

Lisa Bonebrake, a parent representative to the group formed in 2010 to speak in a unified voice on matters facing La Jolla’s five public schools, said last week it had a relatively quiet summer. But that doesn’t mean members haven’t been busy behind the scenes looking for ways to get more local control and keep people informed about issues in education.

School clusters are groups throughout the district defined by the schools that “feed” to the area high schools. Clusters are led by boards that consist of parents, teachers, staff and administrators from each school.

Last year, seven clusters worked together to challenge school trustees when they passed plans to add new “career technical education” requirements for graduation. Students would have had to begin to make choices regarding career paths in seventh grade, and those already on paths would have had to alter their schedules to fit in new technology requirements.

Many principals, career counselors, parents and high school students in the district were totally opposed, Bonebrake said.

“After hundreds of parents attended a meeting at Muirlands with district officials about the requirements, the administrators and trustees reviewed this input and revised their thinking.”

They rescinded the vote at the next board meeting.

“It didn’t hurt that an online petition, developed by the clusters working together, had more than 2,000 signatures within 72 hours after that Muirlands meeting,” she added. “This is the power that comes with communities getting informed and working together.”

With that behind them, the La Jolla Cluster board will be staying on top of budget issues and working on a partnership between the La Jolla public schools and the San Diego Unified School District that would gain “more autonomy and financial control,” she said.

Since 2002, La Jolla High has had an autonomy agreement — which is in the midst of being revised — and now the cluster is looking at ways to build on that model, Bonebrake said.

Developing such a document has to be teacher-driven because their union, the San Diego Education Association, has a say in teachers’ working environments.

Not wanting to impose on teachers during the summer, the cluster essentially suspended work on the agreement, but “a lot of language has been drafted,” Bonebrake said.

Those working on the committee include La Jolla Elementary fifth-grade teacher Melissa Roy Wood and Muirlands teachers Julie Latta and Rob Tindall.

The next step will be a meeting with the union and its president, Bill Freeman.

“This came about because the board asked what the clusters want,” Bonebrake said. “Our answer is we need to ask teachers and principals what they would do if they could change the policies to be freed of some of the responsibilities that take time away from teaching.”

While getting an autonomy agreement is foremost on the 2012-13 list of what they want to accomplish, the La Jolla Cluster will also be holding board elections in the fall and, shortly, updating its website. Organizing a speaker series is also on the to-do list.

Last year, it brought Lynn O’Shaugnessy in to talk about college admission and financial options. A planned talk by author Richard Louv never came to fruition because of scheduling conflicts, Bonebrake said.

The cluster also arranged a second showing of “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary that tackles the pressures on teens to succeed.

Details on the speaker will be announced later, but meanwhile Bonebrake and the other board members are keeping a close eye on two state initiatives as well as a local one that could dramatically affect school budgets later this year.

The cluster “does not support or oppose and political issues or candidates” but rather sees its role as one of advocacy, she said.

In the past, it has researched and disseminated information on important measures. Bonebreak said she suspects it will do the same this year on the state and local measures, and the next school board race.