Or is it?

Of all the wishes, desires, or goals taxpayers may have for their school district, there are two basics:

1. Spend taxpayer dollars VERY carefully

2. Improve performance

Right now, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District is operating in the red. There is a good chance that this deficit spending will continue into fiscal year 2015-16 and no plan to balance the budget has been publicly announced.

As for performance, keeping the Newport Beach schools performing at a high level is much easier than trying to improve the performance of Costa Mesa’s Westside elementary schools, which I have noted for years have been underperforming to the point where four of them qualified last year for takeover under California’s Parent Empowerment (Trigger) Act.

When ex-Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard was fired after his conviction on two felony counts (his convictions were overturned in Jan., 2014), the district started searching for a new super. I believed then, and still believe that past academic administrative performance success is an excellent indicator of future behavior. This concept is used in many parts of our society, including athletics. I used to know someone close to legendary college basketball coach John Wooden. I was told by this mutual friend that when Wooden sent his recruiting team out each year, he told them to first focus not on height or shooting percentage or the number of rebounds, he told them to look for winners. If a good-playing kid was on a winning team, he had an advantage over a superstar on a losing team. Wooden won more NCAA championships than any coach in history because he recruited players with a track record of success. It’s not rocket surgery.

During the superintendent recruitment process, I used my Daily Pilot column to recommend that the school board hire someone who has expertise in turning around failing schools, arguing that the Newport Beach schools were doing just fine and should not be tinkered with – that it was time to devote more resources to Costa Mesa’s Westside elementary schools. I even recommended someone. In my Daily Pilot Column of January 31, 2012, I recommended, “…Angel Barrett, the principal of Plummer Elementary School in North Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles. Barrett has helped create a culture of learning at Plummer despite the usual excuses of cultural differences and economic hardships.

“Here is what the Los Angeles Daily News wrote about Barrett on July 2, 2009: ‘When Angel Barrett arrived at Plummer Elementary School, the North Hills campus was failing, test scores were sagging and student achievement was low.

“‘A decade later, thanks to Barrett’s hard work, Plummer has turned around. Test scores are soaring above the state and district average, and the school is no longer marked as a program improvement school under No Child Left Behind guidelines.'”

After Hubbard was fired, “Newport-Mesa held an extensive search process and received over 50 applications. After initial screening and background checks, the Board interviewed 6 candidates. The finalists were forwarded for interviews by the 26 member Community Interview Committee. After considerable discussion, the Board selected Dr. Fred Navarro as its top candidate.” (District press release 6/22/12) To the best of my knowledge, Barrett was not contacted, nor has anyone in the district traveled the 60 miles since to see what she is doing right and what we can use here at home.

At the time, Navarro was the super at the Lennox School District. What the board either overlooked or discounted were test results that John Wooden may have used to choose someone else. Here’s how it works…

There are five categories of STAR results: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic.  For any parent, Proficient should be the lowest level they would want their child to achieve because Basic is nothing to write (or e-mail) home about. The official definition of Basic is:

“Basic: This level represents a limited performance. Students demonstrate a partial and rudimentary understanding of the knowledge and skills measured by this assessment, at this grade, in this content area.”

“Limited performance.” Yikes. So here is the Reader’s Digest version of the 2012 California Standards Test results for English-Language Arts (ELA) in the Lennox School District – around the time Navarro was being scrutinized. Shown is the grade followed by the percentage of students in that grade who scored Basic or worse. EX: 2/41 = Second grade/41% of the students scored Basic or worse. All data is from the Ca. Dept. of Ed.

Buford:  2/55   3/72   4/37
Felton:     2/59     3/63     4/44
Huerta:     2/54     3/65     4/49     5/51
Jefferson:     2/55     3/63     4/45     5/51
Moffett:     2/61     3/74     4/43     5/55
Lennox M.S.:    6/47     7/52     8/59

These are not winning ELA scores, but Navarro was hired anyway.

Now we have a superintendent who during his brief tenure:

  • has a budget that is in the red with no announced plan to balance it
  • is being accused by an ex-member of his cabinet of “improper governmental activities”
  • is being accused by the same person of creating a “hostile and abusive working environment”
  • has not announced the district’s cyber security policy to inform taxpayers how another grade-hacking incident is not likely at CdM or any other school
  • is either unable or unwilling to provide sufficient teacher support to turnaround Costa Mesa’s Westside elementary schools
  • has failed to properly mediate the use of Costa Mesa’s school fields for youth sports, choosing instead to send a letter to the city’s Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee urging them to find a solution. (That’s code for “create fields at Fairview Park.”)
  • is overseeing the transition to Common Core, which will be tested against a new test, not the old one, so taxpayers, parents and educators will have no way of knowing whether it is working

Since he was hired, Navarro has been given multiple salary increases.

I’m thinking John Wooden may have looked around a little more.