Friday, September 27, 2013

Interview With Dr. George Mannon, Superintendent of Torrance Unified

Dr. George Mannon of Torrance Unified School District shared an hour of his time with me regarding the state and fate of public education at Torrance Unified School District.

Dr. Mannon has served as teacher, principal, and now superintendent in a number of school districts, locally and nationally.

From the outset, I asked him why Torrance schools were so successful, in spite of major budget cuts. Mannon cited the culture of the district, especially the parents of the students who attend Torrance Schools.

"Our parents expect their students to go to school," Mannon told me. The attendance rate and the graduation rate bear out these statistics.

I then asked a number of questions related to the new Local Control Funding Formula enacted by Governor Brown and the Democratic legislature.

The goal of the new funding formula, according to the superintendent, would diminish the number of categorical grants while at the same time granting more local control over funding to the school boards.

Mannon acknowledged that Governor Brown retreated from the increased local control aspect of his plan between January and May, when the final LCFF was drawn up.

Then Mannon commended State Senator Ted Lieu and Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi for their efforts to ensure the best deal for local South Bay schools, even though larger, more urban districts with greater numbers of impoverished students, or English Language Learners, will still receive more than higher performing schools.

Following from previous interviews with Torrance School Board candidates, I learned that Torrance Unified, joined with two other school districts to lobby for a fair disbursement of school funding. Larger districts like Clovis Unified have strong test scores and a good parent-student culture, as well, and leaders in these districts did not want to see their students suffer just because there were fewer English Language Learners and fewer students living beneath the poverty level.

Dr. Mannon and his school board team instituted drastic cuts from the 2007-2008 school year for fear that the continued plunge of state funding would continue unabated. While many school districts were not arranging for any emergencies, Torrance Unified officials made the tough decisions early, cutting 20% of their staff, including janitors and counselors. With the passage of Prop 30, plus the extensive reserve, school board leaders have shared with certificated and classified staff that they will not be laid off this year and next year. Many districts have been unable to guarantee teacher employment.

With the rising funds, Torrance Unified is now spending down the reserves, hiring back teachers and classified staff, and even provided a long-overdue raise to teachers.

About current school funding, city residents may be surprised to learn that Governor Brown's promises did not pan out as expected.

Regarding categorical funds, Mannon reminded me that the LCFF has removed a number of regulatiosn which restricted the way the tax payer dollars could be spent, but the metrics for evaluating the proper use of the monies have not been established yet.

I moved on to other questions following an extensive discussion about funding.

When I asked Dr. Mannon about the new Common Core curriculum, and the potentials for data mining associated with it, Dr. Mannon asserted twice that he did not know what I was talking about.

As an aside, I contend that any individual who differs on the basis or the implementation of Common Core should speak with their school board and their leaders on the matter.

I asked Dr. Mannon about Riviera Elementary parents in South Torrance, who wanted to turn their children's school into a dependent charter.

Mannon identified the frustration which the parents in that region felt because of the budget cuts which their kids were enduring in those classrooms. Still, according to the superintendent, only a minority of parents sought to transform Riviera into a charter. From other sources, I learned that most of the teachers were on board for the transfer, but the parents who initiated the proposal failed to plan for long-time considerations, like the pensions and benefits of the Riviera teachers. Would they be allowed to form a union, for example?

Regarding school choice, Dr. Mannon pointed out that Torrance Unified issues many permits to students in other districts. Torrance Unified would not suffer should the entire state enact school choice. As for vouchers, Mannon opposes the initiative (as do some of the school board members), nd the superintendent later pointed out that the majority of California voters also oppose the measure.

I asked Dr. Mannon about AB 1266, the legislation which would permit students of a decided geneder to choose the public school bathroom which they could use. In the past, transgendered students would use the nurse's office or a staff bathroom. To avoid lawsuits and other liability issues, schools would prohibit transgenders students from entering any public bathroom on campus used by the students. I also asked the superintendent's opinion about the state legislature's move to limit the number of suspensions which teachers could use.

Mannon's response to the latter question was telling. "Most legislation from Sacramento responds to problems in Los Angeles Unified."

Los Angeles Unified is too big to run, in my opinion, and our children's future should be too big to fail.

Leaving the interview, I had some concerns which remained unanswered. Dr. Mannon's responses about Common Core, for example, suggested that he and his staff had not learned enough about the program. He did acknowledge that the ongoing budget issues and funding questions had taken a great deal of time away from his staff and the school board to focus on other education matters.

Like me, many school officials have more questions than answers about the status of public education in the South Bay. While Mannon spoke highly of Assemblyman Muratsuchi and State Senator Ted Lieu's efforts, the fact remains that suburban schools with high test scores and reduced populations of English Language Learners and students living below the  poverty level will receive fewer funds than other, more troubled school districts.

More parents, more students, should not only be aware of the financial problems still looming over their schools, but should start holding their leaders, their representatives, and their local schools accountable for their choices, their priorities, and their outreach to the community.

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