School boards should not be composed of Santa Claus wannabees.
Nor should they labor under the pretense that they have to keep up with the Joneses to assure quality education.
Manteca Unified may not have a boatload of California Distinguished Schools. It may not operate like Modesto City Schools, Ripon Unified or Lincoln School District.
But what it is doing is working effectively to raise the tide across the spectrum in what is arguably one of the most diverse San Joaquin Valley communities in terms of not just ethnic backgrounds but as far as economic situations go. Manteca and Lathrop are at the eye of the storm where the growing influence of the Bay Area economy works its magic through those that are part of the exodus looking for the promised land of affordable housing and employers shell-shocked about the cost of doing business in Googeland. It is also were agriculture flexes its muscle given San Joaquin County is the seventh largest farm producing county in California.
Manteca is home to truck drivers, Livermore Lab scientists, cutting edge farmers, tech workers, warehousemen, migrant farm workers, welfare recipients, families living on $150,000, homeless families, immigrants illegal and otherwise those with doctorate degrees and those without benefit of a high school diploma. You could say a lot of cities have such a mix but Manteca is a place where not just a few dominate with a splattering of everything but where the demographic fragments clash for domination.
It is against that backdrop that some 3,000 people — teachers, custodians, aides, nutritional service works, office staff, administrators, bus drivers and others — labor to educate 23,000 students.
State test scores aren’t off the chart but they are decent. Those with limited English skills register major gains. Graduation rates are among the highest in the valley. College pathways and vocational pathways are offered.
Manteca isn’t Hillsborough nor is it Delano.
It doesn’t have a ton of wealth nor is it dirt poor.
How Manteca Unified has managed to serve such a diverse community that includes Lathrop, French Camp and Stockton’s Weston Ranch neighborhood is made possible by one crucial element: Solid financial stewardship.
Because the district has a budget with reserves and historically has practiced financial constraint it has been able to undertake long-term initiatives to enhance education as well as offer salary packages that attract the best possible teaching candidates given that the compensation tops the county and much of the region.
That doesn’t happen by making spending decisions rooted in instant gratification. Nothing is more destructive than overshooting the runway and having to cut back on staffing and programs in future years because the board caved into the argument “it’s what’s best for the students.”
What’s best for their education is a stable learning environment in a school system that has the ability to undertake and maintain new educational initiatives.
A few years back, the board embraced a trade-off between the rapid restoring of class-size reduction back to 24 students at the kindergarten through third grade levels in exchange for more robust teacher pay raises.
It was a sound move coming out of the Great Recession given the years teachers went without pay raises outside of salary steps based on longevity and units.
Now the Manteca Educators Association wants their cake and part of the pie too. They are requesting that class size reduction for kindergarten be done in one year instead of over five. They have excluded first through third grade from that request.
There is a temptation with the state restoring funding and the economy improving to go whole hog.
But schools — for want of a better description — have to play by the voodoo funding rules set by the state including having a balanced three-year spending program. To fail to do so invites disaster.
Manteca Unified has a lot of things in play that nearby districts that opted not to negotiate a slower return with their teachers to class size reduction as the state allowed don’t. Among those “other things” is the Going Digital Initiative.
It is clear the board’s first obligation is to keep the district viable financially which includes making sure there is sustainable funding for initiatives they undertake including the addition of personnel.
By doing so, that keeps things on an even keel in classrooms.
The board must not fall under the spell of catchy emotional words such as “this is the most critical grade level for students.”
Nobody can argue that a lower student-teacher ratio isn’t better. But a lower ratio is worse if it starts the district on a path toward the financial abyss.
Required reading for board members is the bond rating reports on Manteca Unified. The experts not only gave Manteca Unified high marks that led to lower interest rates saving taxpayers millions in interest, but they also made another observation: They have not seen districts in the valley that mirror the strong financial positions of wealthier districts in the Bay Area and are able to take on new sustainable education initiatives
That doesn’t mean Manteca is matching the Bay Area districts dollar for dollar. But what it does mean is past boards — and the current one — have aced being financially prudent.
Any decision to monkey with existing staffing plans must past be fiscally prudent. A lower ratio in kindergarten won’t benefit students much if by the time they reach high school the wheels have come off the bus.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.