When the Contra Costa County Board of Education voted last week to approve Clayton Valley High's petition to become a charter school, you could almost hear the gnashing of teeth in the administrative offices of the Mt. Diablo school district.

District officials -- notably Superintendent Steven Lawrence -- turned obstructionism into an art form during Clayton Valley's months-long pursuit. The district's objection from the get-go was the effect on its budget, even if it was veiled as concern for the charter's viability.

The hurdles placed before charter organizers included a laundry list of academic and financial conditions, followed by a foot-dragging, bureaucratic review process. Organizers' requests for district budget figures needed to compare current costs with projections were handled at the same pace glaciers descend mountains.

Meanwhile, Lawrence composed an online newsletter explaining that funds for a charter would cost students at other schools, stirring a bitter divide that pitted parent against parent and school against school.

The Mt. Diablo school board eventually denied the petition, citing doubts about the charter's financial plan, only to be overruled by the county board in a unanimous vote.

In the aftermath, you have to ask why the district didn't handle this differently.

Mt. Diablo trustee Cheryl Hansen, who listened with an open mind and became a minority voice in supporting the petition, wonders why more attention wasn't paid to why Clayton Valley wanted its independence instead of whether it should be permitted.


Advertisement

"I think what happened," she said, "was the district's immediate response was very adversarial, rather than asking, 'What's at the root of your issues?' "

Among the concerns officials might have unearthed is that the physical facilities at Clayton Valley were in disrepair, eroding student discipline detracted from a learning atmosphere, and the freedom to explore new teaching techniques was constrained by district policies.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Mt. Diablo district is its size -- 50 schools and 34,000 students -- and the practice of shoehorning them into a one-size-fits-all educational approach.

The Clayton Valley organizers -- an overwhelming majority of the school's teachers supported this movement -- united behind the notion that expanded curriculum, innovative teaching techniques, extended school hours, new technologies and tutoring programs are among a host of possibilities worth exploring at a time when education is suffering.

District officials need look no further for confirmation than scores compiled by their high schools on the most recent Academic Performance Index. Five of the six -- Northgate is the exception -- failed to hit the state's 800 target number. Doing the same thing isn't working.

"That's a warning," Hansen said. "The other warning is when you look at how our high schools compare to similar schools in the state, we are in the bottom half."

Two observations emerge from the unnecessarily divisive charter battle: (1) Organizers were not trying to harm other schools but trying to improve their own; (2) Problems that detract from academic excellence at Clayton Valley do not exist at Clayton Valley alone.

"I do not see this charter in any way as a threat," Hansen said. "I see it as an opportunity to try something different. Money can't buy the determination, dedication and enthusiasm these folks have. That's what every district strives for."

If Mt. Diablo officials had looked up from their ledger sheets, they might have seen that, too.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.