Orinda’s Public Schools Face Challenges; Can Education Stay Excellent?

Orinda’s Public Schools Face Challenges; Can Education Stay Excellent?

Orinda’s public schools continue to maintain a tradition of excellence, but serious challenges exist to keeping quality high.

Inadequate financial support from the State of California is hampering progress, Orinda school officials said recently.

According to Dr. Carolyn Seaton, superintendent of the Orinda Union School District (OUSD) and Mr. Jason Kaune, president of OUSD’s Board of Trustees, 87 percent of the district’s pupils met or exceeded 2016 state test scores in the area of English/language arts.  In mathematics, the figure was 85 percent.

State test-score standards refer to all public school districts in California that have more than 1,000 pupils.

According to Seaton and Kaune, Orinda’s public schools, in 2016, were in the top one percent in California in the areas of English/language arts and mathematics.

Seaton and Kaune presented their findings to the Rotary Club of Orinda on May 3, 2017.  The Icon interviewed both individuals together on May 24, 2017.

OUSD has five schools.  Four schools are elementary schools; the fifth school is a middle school.  The elementary schools cover kindergarten to fifth grade.  The middle school covers grades six to eight.  After completing eighth grade, pupils move on to high school.

The four elementary schools are:  Del Rey; Glorietta; Sleepy Hollow; and Wagner Ranch.  The middle school is known as the Orinda Intermediate School.

According to the interview with Seaton and Kaune, the “key challenge” is maintaining adequate funds to support OUSD.  “Funding is not adequate,” Seaton said.

In their Rotary presentation, Seaton and Kaune showed slides stating that OUSD received $30.5 million in revenue for the 2016-2017 school year.  Sixty-six percent of the revenue came from the State of California, 15 percent from the Educational Foundation of Orinda and from parents’ clubs, and 13 percent from local parcel taxes.  Four percent of the revenue came from “other local revenue” and two percent from the federal government.

In their interview, Seaton and Kaune said that the number of OUSD pupils has, in recent years, tended to remain fairly constant.  Enrollment for the 2016-2017 school year was 2,552 pupils, nine more pupils than in the 2015-2016 school year.

During the interview, Seaton said that OUSD receives limited dollars from the state government.  She noted that pupils in Oakland, California, receive extra money because of a “students of need” program.  Extra money, she said, also goes to the Mount Diablo Unified School District, which includes such California cities as Concord, Pleasant Hill, and Clayton.

To supplement funds for Orinda’s schools, the Education Foundation of Orinda (EFO) was established 37 years ago.

According to EFO’s 2015-2016 annual report, “Orinda remains one of the lowest publicly funded districts in the state with per-student funding of $6,857.”  The report states that other states provide much more money.  The report lists Vermont at $27,962, New York State at $22,106, and Massachusetts at $17,510.

In the future, will OUSD will able to continue its pattern of success?

From the state of California and from regional governmental agencies, there are mandates for Orinda, a city which is basically full, to add more housing.  Additional housing may mean more pupils for OUSD.

The State of California is requiring cities to adhere to what are called Housing Elements.  If a given city fails to follow a Housing Element, the city may be sued and face cut-offs in funds for such matters as road repair.

To date, Orinda has gone through five cycles (versions) of the Housing Element.  The Fourth Cycle, which covered the years 2007 to 2014, required, according to the East Bay Times (formerly the Contra Costa Times), Orinda “ . . . to show how it can provide land for — but not build — 218 housing units . . .”  The Times’ article appeared on September 19, 2013.

The Fifth Cycle, which covers the years 2015 to 2023, is, according to the Times (March 7, 2014), able to provide space for 227 units for Orinda.

More Housing Element cycles are expected to appear in the future.

In 2008, Orinda approved the Orinda Grove development, which has 73 homes on Altarinda Road.  The homes, built by the PulteGroup of Georgia, is sold out, according to a Pulte website dated April 12, 2017.

On July 18-19, 2013, the boards of directors of two regional governmental agencies MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) and ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) met jointly in Oakland to approve Plan Bay Area, a scheme to encourage Bay Area cities to provide high-rise, high-density housing for Orinda and other cities.

The directors of MTC and ABAG are not directly elected by voters.  The directors come from a pool of locally elected officials.

In the western part of Orinda near the Caldecott Tunnel, there is the Wilder Project, which, when complete, will have 245 new homes.  To date, about 30 Wilder homes are occupied.

In April and May of 2017, after the Orinda City Council approved a $15,000 contract for the Urban Land Institute (ULI).  ULI has recommended rezoning downtown Orinda for 240 units (or more) of new housing.  The city council has not decided to approve or reject ULI’s recommendation.  Mr. David Cropper, who works for ULI, told The Icon on April 11, 2017, that if ULI’s proposal for Orinda is approved, money from Orinda’s taxpayers will be needed.

Chris Kniel, a 40-year resident of Orinda and the former chairman of Orinda Watch, a group dedicated to preserving Orinda’s semi-rural environment, said on May 26, 2017, that, “Orinda is building too many housing units.  This construction will lead to school overcrowding [and] lower the quality of education.”

How will all this new housing affect OUSD?  No one is quite sure.  OUSD superintendent Seaton said the Wilder Project may contain enough land for a school to accommodate additional pupils.

Many Orinda residents choose to live in the city (population 19,500) because the reputation of the schools is so high.

Good schools increase the demand for housing in Orinda, and a decent house in the city can cost anywhere from $1.2 to $2.0 million (or more).

Destroy the reputation of Orinda’s schools, and guess what will happen to property values?

Meanwhile, Kaune head of the OUSD board of trustees, said during the interview that, currently, “The jewel of Orinda is the schools.”

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