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Audit Sees ‘Chaos’ in Sausalito Schools

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A crucial audit of this town’s wealthy but racially polarized school district found a “system in crisis,” plagued with high turnover in the administration, a curriculum that verges on “chaos” and teachers who fail in the classroom.

“The sense of helplessness among Sausalito Elementary School District teachers is so pervasive and dominant that teachers literally cannot establish curriculum as a priority,” said the scathing report, conducted by a national team of educators and consultants and delivered to the school board Wednesday night.

“The teachers have lost their sense of professional efficacy; they do not believe that they, or their curriculum, can make a difference,” said the report.

The audit also criticized what amounts to a toxic relationship between school administrators and the community and suggested if education is to improve, those who run the schools and those it serves must start talking.

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The tiny district is a conundrum of race and class whose troubles have gained national attention, as a group of residents pushed unsuccessfully all summer for a complete recall of the five-member school board.

“The report is so unbelievable, it’s almost numbing,” said George Stratigos, Sausalito’s vice mayor and a longtime school board critic.

Nestled in California’s wealthiest county, the two-school district has an enviable average class size of 16 and spends more than $12,000 per pupil--more than twice the statewide average. Overall, however, performance lags way behind state standards.

The nearly 300-page audit--commissioned in March by the district and composed of separate studies of financial health and curriculum--does not solve one mystery of education so perplexing here: Why don’t money and tiny class size necessarily help?

What the audit does do is point out serious impediments to learning. Chief among them are hostility and the lack of communication.

“The learning environment is held hostage by the inability of the adults to communicate,” said the report, which is believed to be the first combined fiscal and curriculum audit ever done in a California school system.

In an interview Thursday, Supt. Bill Redman said that when the school board voted to commission the audit, “we were very clear that this was a commitment to hearing the very worst and that there would be no punches pulled.”

While he promises to begin implementing a long and detailed list of recommendations, Redman took exception to some of the harsher criticisms. A new principal hired to lead the district’s largest school, he said, has improved classroom behavior so that teachers can now focus on teaching.

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And he disagrees with the audit’s assessment that teachers are “frustrated, distressed and exhausted” and that they “describe their primary job as maintaining a safe and controlled environment among many disruptive and disrespectful young people.”

But Mary Cannie, the lead auditor on the curriculum study, said Thursday that behavior problems among the students have hogtied teachers to the extent that curriculum--the basics of what is taught in the classroom--is not a priority.

While interviewing teachers during the audit, Cannie said, “as we talked about curriculum, people always came back to what they perceived to be the social issues.”

The social issues are hard to ignore here. The school district serves both largely white Sausalito, where the median family income is $107,000 and unemployment is 3.8%, and largely African American Marin City, where adult unemployment is 38% and more than two-thirds of the residents live in public housing.

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As nearby military bases have closed and parents who could afford it have pulled their children out of public schools, the district has come to serve the neediest children in the area.

In an effort to solve the students’ social and learning problems through the years, the district has thrown a mishmash of programs at them. While some segments of the curriculum are strong, there is very little coordination and consistency.

“With such an overwhelming amount of required resources and no priorities other than personal choice, chaos prevails,” the audit said. In addition, “more than one administrator admitted little or no knowledge of whether or not a particular program was ‘working.’ ”

This is one area where having lots of money doesn’t help a school district. In fact, some education experts point to such a knee-jerk approach to dealing with poor and urban children as one of the biggest problems facing education today.

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“What we’ve found is that [excessive] programs become like barnacles on a ship. They weigh it down. Then we wonder: We’ve spent all this money. Why doesn’t performance go up?” said Phyllis Hart, executive director of the Achievement Council in Los Angeles, who has studied the achievement of minority children.

The audit recommended that the school district hire one person whose sole duties would be coordinating and monitoring curriculum throughout the district and focusing on staff development for teachers.

Another major recommendation is for the district to develop policies that will improve communication with the people of Sausalito and Marin City--which could be difficult in the face of local political turmoil.

Earlier this year, a group of residents calling themselves Project Homecoming launched a petition drive to unseat the entire school board and replace the superintendent. Although that effort failed, the group filed two weeks ago to launch another similar petition drive.

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In response, school supporters launched an effort to unseat Stratigos, the vice mayor and a major proponent of the school board recall effort. As the school board prepares for a community forum Saturday to discuss the audits and begin implementing recommendations for change, both recall drives are ongoing.

Stratigos calls the audit results a vindication of his group’s concerns and promises to push for a new board.

“This board is not in touch with the community’s pulse,” he said. “They’re dealing with self-esteem issues in the schools, not standards and excellence.”

While Cannie, a New York school superintendent, believes that all parties want to improve the schools, she warns that “the change is not going to be overnight [and] it’s not so much related to a person or a group of people.

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“It’s a need for looking at the system and fixing the system and having some plans and ground rules and policies that are well written and implemented,” Cannie said.


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