After 35 years as an elementary teacher, Rosie Switzer went from the classroom to the boardroom.
“The last year I taught, people would ask what I planned to do when I retired and I jokingly said to a couple of them that I might run for school board,” she says.
She became serious about running as she saw changes in the district.
“I’d given 35 years of my life to this district and I was not pleased with the direction the district was taking,” she says. So she campaigned and won a seat on the school board in 2005, a year after retiring from Henderson Elementary. She currently is the school board president.
Benicia schools currently are completing the conversion to Common Core curriculum, adapting to state financing under the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, and preparing for use of $50 million in Measure S bond money approved by voters in June. While about 375 district employees do the day-to-day work for the district and its 4,919 students, board members establish the district’s overall goals, review and adopt the $38 million annual budget, approve all policies and curriculum, make final decisions on hiring and firing, participate in employee negotiations, and are accountable to the public for virtually any issue related to Benicia’s seven public schools.
As she talks about Benicia schools, Rosie mentions many teachers, classified workers and district office employees by name. She warmly credits them with the district’s success. “I’m becoming pretty proud of the district.”
Rosie, 68, taught at Mills and Semple in addition to her years at Henderson. She is married to Alan Switzer, a retired Benicia High School teacher. They moved to Benicia when they were hired by the district in 1969. They raised their son and daughter here and have three grandchildren.
What changes will people see in Benicia schools as Measure S bond funds are put to use? They’re going to see improvements at each site eventually, but they won’t see them all at once. The funds will be spent over five to eight years and we will access the money in three to four portions. As projects get completed, the planning will be done on the next step. You’ll start seeing it on your tax bills next year.
The big stuff is roofs, alarm systems, repainting, carpeting and flooring, sidewalks, security upgrades, some bathroom renovations, technology and science lab upgrades, and paving. A lot of it is health and safety matters.
Every school will get new roofs, except Liberty. Liberty and the district office got a new roof with Valero money.
Even though we’ve gotten rid of a lot of portables, half the classrooms at Farmer are portables. Also, at Semple and Benicia Middle School, we have a group of portables getting close to their 20- to 25-year limit. We hope to replace them with modular buildings like we have at Henderson. They have their own slab foundation. The portables that we have now don’t necessarily have their own slab.
One thing that will happen fairly soon is that we’ll get a new fire alarm system at Benicia High. That will cost about $1.5 million and will include a paging and bell system. The alarm system at Benicia Middle School will cost about $750,000. The fire alarm systems at other schools are operational. Some need service and repair but shouldn’t need replacement.
There will be asphalt work done across the district. There’s a lot of HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) work. There are some security costs at each school. There’s painting outside for all schools, there’s painting inside for all schools.
How much money would the district need to maintain our schools without a special bond measure? We identified $49.6 million in needs. If we relied on the district’s deferred maintenance fund, which is about $250,000 a year, and the state gave us back our match, we’d have $500,000 a year. It would take us 100 years to get to $50 million to address our current needs. And the state hasn’t been matching the deferred maintenance fund for several years.
How is Common Core affecting what is happening in classrooms? There is a nationwide standard that will be expected of all students as far as what they learn. There’s a huge disparity now with every state having its own standards. By having the same standards, California students can be more competitive with students from other states.
There’s been a lot of work on the part of the curriculum director, the teachers and the principals to help mold a new curriculum that will be more actively engaging. Our teachers have to work with their colleagues to design curriculum and design lesson plans so all students cover the same material. At each grade level in elementary, they had to come up with curriculum that they all could embrace. At the secondary level, each department at the middle school and high school had to work together to come up with goals and expectations of what they would do and the curriculum for each course. It’s still a sore spot for some who want to work on their own rather than with a group.
Common Core also means we are changing our standardized tests so we test on the new standards.
How are standardized tests changing in response to Common Core? As part of Common Core, states will dump their individual state tests that tested their own state requirements and instead test on the national norms. We’re going to use the Smarter Balance testing program in our district. It has national norms and instead of just asking students to repeat back information, it will see how students come to a solution with the information they are given. So on the test, they won’t be asked, “Six minus three equals what?” Instead, they’re going to give you a problem and ask you to do something like, “If you found six apples on the ground and three had bruises, how many could you take to your mom without bruises?”
The test is taken on computers, and this year was the first year Benicia students took it. It was a practice year with no individual scores. There will be scores in 2014-15.
How are Benicia schools being affected by state funding changes that give districts more control over how they spend money from the state? There used to be all this restricted money called categoricals, which were state funds that could only be used in specific ways. When the state got in financial trouble, they put all the Tier 3 (categorical) money into one pot that districts could use for their general fund.
So categorical funds have now morphed into the Local Control Funding Formula. We still have categoricals for special ed, for free and reduced lunches, but a bunch of old categoricals are gone. More money now goes into the general fund, so we have more of a say in what we do with the money and how we spend it. We have to show we are being responsible, so we had to approve our LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan) at the same meeting where we approved the budget.
But keep in mind that about 85 percent of our general fund goes to salary, benefits and retirement, so there’s not a lot left for other uses. And the state is already talking about taking some of the control back, but that won’t happen this year.
How does the district fund seven public schools when it is so reliant on the changing fortunes and funding formulas of the state? Tim (Rahill, chief business official for the district) is just really good with the money and really good with budgeting. We’re pretty much bare-bones and we make it work. We have some reserve funds that we’ve been using since the state got into financial trouble.
This year we’re getting $6,800 per student from the state. That’s better than we’ve done in the last few years. Five or six years ago, we had one year when were supposed to get only $4,800, but we ended up getting about $5,300 because we got extra money along the way.
What are some key changes have you seen in your years in education? The expectations are much higher. I have a grandson who just finished kindergarten and he can read. It used to be that kindergarten was a place to play, take a nap, hear a story, have a snack and go home. All the reading was teachers reading to you.
What have you learned since being elected to the school board? That I don’t know all the answers, and sometimes things aren’t what they appear.