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La Cañada Unified hires diversity and inclusion officer, ponders future of tech

Christina Hale-Elliott
LCUSD Supt. Wendy Sinnette, left, with Christina Hale-Elliott, who on Tuesday entered into a $95,000 one-year consultant agreement to provide technical assistance and professional development in support of diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the district.
(Sara Cardine/La Cañada Valley Sun)

La Cañada Unified Governing Board members considered the needs of a changing district Tuesday, approving a one-year contract for a diversity, equity and inclusion officer and discussing a totally revamped technology plan, both of which will provide road maps toward future development.

Officials also shared with residents in attendance at the regular meeting of the school board the need for a renewal of a parcel tax, currently set to expire in 2021, to help fund programs, instruction and innovation in the years ahead.

Diversity, equity and inclusion a goal

Board members announced in June their plan to create an independent services contract for a districtwide equity and inclusion officer to assess and develop diversity and inclusion programs across all schools after several families requested more be done to ensure all students feel supported and integrated into the LCUSD culture.

On Tuesday they welcomed Christina Hale-Elliott to the contract position, for which $95,000 has been budgeted. In her time with the district, Hale-Elliott said she plans to determine the district’s strengths and areas for improvement in five key areas — parent and community ties, professional capacity, student-centered climates, instructional approach and school leadership — and implement an action plan across all school campuses.

Her work will begin with informal visits to LCUSD schools, where the longtime educator will seek input on what’s working and what isn’t. She said several programs already exist that can be used to foster diversity and equity, such as the district’s Family Learning Series and the La Cañada High School Wellness Center.

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Hale-Elliott identified disproportionate suspension rates for African American students and declining graduation rates and chronic absenteeism among students with disabilities as areas where more work is needed.

“It’s vitally important there’s a longer view of what will happen when I’m gone from this position and thinking of how you frame the work so it’s not just temporary,” she said.

Tech evolution

La Cañada Unified’s use of technology in the classroom has grown so rapidly in the last five years that a new technology plan is needed to guide the next phase of development, Chief Technology Officer Jamie Lewsadder told board members Tuesday.

Lewsadder explained that prior to 2014, technology was used at the discretion of teachers mainly to manage students, not instruct them. A concerted effort to put devices in the hands of every LCUSD student predominated from 2014 to 2018, and the focus was placed on skills acquisition.

Post-2018, most student are fluent and an “ecosystem” approach that aims to foster a culture of experimentation and promotes a balanced use of technology is required. Lewsadder introduced a plan comprising six pillars: teaching, learning, infrastructure, assessment, leadership and community.

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“Everything we do now is from a cohesive environment, where things work together,” she said. “We’ve switched from the idea of engagement to empowerment.”

Lewsadder will bring her plan back to board members for a second reading in the near future and is meanwhile seeking feedback from a Student Technology Council.

Parcel tax appeal

After recently learning 73% of La Cañada Unified School District voters would support an indefinite extension of the current $450-per-parcel tax in support of district programs and instruction, board members heard a presentation on the renewal effort.

Supt. Wendy Sinnette explained the measure could be placed before voters as soon as March 2020. Seniors over age 65 would have the option of exempting themselves from the tax, and the taxable amount would remain the same, with annual consumer-price-index increases added.

Unlike the $149-million school bond passed in 2017, which can be applied only to capital projects, parcel tax funds can be used to hire teachers, maintain and reduce class sizes and support STEM and technology programs.

The current tax, which sunsets in 2021, keeps transitional kindergarten student-to-teacher ratios at 22:1, while fourth- through sixth-grade classes remain at or below 33:1. Ninth-grade English and math classes hold a 26:1 ratio, thanks to the parcel tax and La Cañada Educational Foundation dollars. Without a renewal, those staffing commitments might not be feasible.

“The board is going to engage … in outreach and consensus building and listening to you as to what your priorities are, how you think the dollars should be spent and how we can get you to support and advocate for the measure,” Sinnette said.

Should the board decide to go for a March 2020 election, it will have to approve the language of the measure by Dec. 6, Sinnette said.

Also Tuesday, board members:

• Approved an addendum to Supt. Wendy Sinnette’s contract, extending her employment through July 31, 2023 and raising her annual salary from $260,916 to $274,793. She will also receive a one-time, off-schedule payment of $10,598 as compensation for July 1, 2018 through Sept. 30, 2019. The new contract is effective Oct. 1.

• “It is really critical to a district to keep the same superintendent,” said Board Member Dan Jeffries. “Wendy is such a stabilizing force in our community — her agreeing to another [extension] with us is truly phenomenal.”

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• Heard an update on the status of the county’s Devil’s Gate Dam sediment removal project, temporarily halted last Thursday due to issues with fugitive dust and dirt tracking. Sinnette said the district has invested in real-time air quality monitoring and is working with County Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office to possibly be compensated for expenditures.

• Scheduled for Sept. 24 a town hall forum and progress report on the county project and a new tailpipe emissions study at the La Cañada Unified Governing Board Room, 4491 Cornishon Ave. Two sessions will be held, one at 8:45 a.m. and another at 7 p.m.

• Unanimously passed a resolution in support of a possible transfer of students living in La Cañada’s westernmost “Sagebrush” territory from Glendale Unified to LCUSD, in advance of a public hearing before the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization scheduled for Oct. 2.

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