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Superintendent Dr. Stephen Hanke on Managing Growth in the Dublin Unified School District

February 24, 2014
Superintendent Dr. Hanke

DUSD Superintendent Dr. Hanke sat down with Dublin Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Stephen Hanke late last week for an in depth discussion of the opportunities and challenges facing Dublin’s rapidly growing public school system and what it takes to build new schools, the upcoming parcel tax renewal vote, what inspired him to devote his career to education, the role of parents in education and what’s in store for Dublin with the opening of Dublin High School’s Center for Performing Arts and Education. Before we talk about the opportunities and challenges facing Dublin schools, what inspired you to enter the field of education and ultimately pursue leadership roles?

Dr. Stephen Hanke: “From the very beginning I’ve always really liked kids. That’s what got me into teaching. I taught for seven years, teaching a variety of subjects, history and social science as well as P.E and coaching. As a lifelong learner, it was important for me to go back to school, and it made sense to pursue a master’s degree and then an administrative credential. It was a natural progression moving from teaching to administration – I had served in leadership roles as a teacher. I was an assistant principal, then a principal and held positions in a couple of school districts before ultimately arriving in Dublin.

“Dublin has been an amazing capstone on my career, and my career spans more than four decades now. I’ve loved every position that I’ve had, because I’ve always had the opportunity to work with people who are working directly with kids. My heart’s desire has always been to work with kids, and to work with people who work with kids.” Some districts in California have struggled with declining enrollment and school closures in recent years; in Dublin we’re going through a period of rapid growth. Talk about the opportunities and challenges of managing a district experiencing rapid growth.

Dr. Hanke at Valley High School Commencement

Dr. Hanke at Valley High Commencement

Hanke: “We’re fortunate to be in a community that is growing and that values education. This community: parents, the city, local businesses, and our professional educators really value education. That is a big deal to us and helps us promote and realize our mission as a school district. We’ve been fortunate over the past five years to be a growing district because growth helped us weather the economic downturn and was one of the factors that helped us avoid the challenges faced by many other districts. We didn’t have any furlough days, we didn’t have any layoffs. We were able to maintain and continue the mission of the school district.

“In addition to growth we’ve been very efficient, consolidating schools in one instance, building and managing large schools as we’ve grown, achieving operational savings through energy management initiatives, as well as generating additional revenue through the wonderful support of foundations, the city and the community. Collectively we were able to maintain the momentum of the district despite a severe economic downturn. Growth not only provides financial benefits but also enables expanding programs and providing more opportunities for kids. Providing more opportunities not only benefits kids but the whole system and the community.

“Growth does come with challenges. There comes a point where big schools become a challenge to manage. A perfect example is Kolb Elementary School, which has 1,000 students; managing that many students during the day, with multiple lunch periods and recesses, is difficult. The start and end of school present unique logistics challenges and we’ve taken a number of steps to mitigate the challenges. We’ve added campus supervisors, we’ve had good collaboration with the PFC, we’ve implemented a walking bus to school program right out of the Sports Park, among some of the strategies. Most important, parents have been very cooperative and supportive.

“As we look at the significant shift resulting from the implementation of Common Core Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments, we want to focus on leading that change. Managing growth also means that the logistics inherent in running a large school can become distractions to implementing changes like Common Core. Rapid growth can also result in running out of space, creating a need to add portables and take away prep period space to free up more classrooms. Music teachers can’t have their own classrooms. P.E. teachers lose the space used during inclement weather. The limited space has accelerated moving away from dedicated computer labs, and transitioning to portable computer labs in carts, something we were already planning to implement, in order to free up more classrooms. Big schools make more diverse programming possible but also come with logistics challenges.

“The 2014-15 school year will be a challenge at the elementary level until Amador Elementary opens for the 2015-16 school year. Because of Amador we will be bringing a boundary change to the School Board for consideration later this year, although we believe this change will be well received as it naturally aligns communities with local elementary schools.

“The challenge will then shift to the middle school level and ultimately the high school. When the rapid growth at the elementary level reaches the middle school level Fallon in particular will be impacted and the mitigation strategies we’ve taken at the elementary school level will be needed at the middle school level. Fallon was built for 1,200 students and we currently anticipate as many as 1,500 students. Whether it is adding portables, a boundary change or creating a special magnet program addressing a subset of students, all of these are part of the conversation around managing the growth in our district.

“When rapid growth ultimately reaches the high school, there will be challenges with classroom space and the logistics of getting in and out of the school at the start and end of the school day. One possible approach to managing high school growth is the creation of a specialized magnet program. We are considering a medical magnet program, starting next year with Project Lead the Way electives as the first step to a standalone academic program. And when you have a standalone magnet program do you build a new facility on campus or potentially partner with a local hospital to create a program off campus, or all of the above?

“Growth at the elementary, middle and high school levels needs to be managed and is one of the top priorities for the district in the years ahead. Despite the challenges inherent with rapid growth, we think we’re doing a good job, and we will adapt to, and meet the challenge of, the rapid growth expected in the coming years.” Talk about what is involved in building a new school and why we aren’t seeing new schools coming on line faster to help address the rapid growth we’re experiencing in Dublin.

Dr. Hanke

Dr. Hanke

Hanke: “Public schools, other than hospitals, have the most regulations to meet vs. any other type of building in the state. The Division of the State Architect (DSA) has significant requirements for earthquake safety and all the standards that need to be met to make sure that our kids are safe, and we agree with those requirements. But there is a bureaucratic element that means design to construction can take 18 to 24 months, with a lot of that time spent in the DSA approval process.

“A second challenge, the most important and least understood, is that schools are built primarily from two funding sources: developer fees and state dollars. Developer fees are supposed to be around 50% and 50% is supposed to come from the state. State dollars come through state bond measures, and the current state bond measure is completely out of dollars. That means you can be a growing district, like we are in Dublin, and have a growing balance of developer fees, but not have any matching dollars from the state. We are very concerned that the state is not considering a new bond measure on the ballot in 2014 and that the state may wait until 2016. This creates an issue for communities like ours that are growing rapidly. Amador Elementary will not be the last elementary school in Dublin, there are two more planned, in Jordan Ranch and in Dublin Crossings.

“The key question is where does the other half of the funding come from if the state isn’t providing the dollars? Land costs are approximately $2 million an acre, so on a 12 acre site it’s $24 million just for the land, and then construction is running $40 – $50 million, so a total expense of $64 – $74 million per elementary school. That’s a huge investment. If the state is lagging with funding, how does a district fill the gap?

“We were very fortunate that we could borrow against one of the previously approved bond measures. We borrowed $25 million using a bond anticipation note, to complete Amador. That’s the last time we can use that approach. Amador Elementary will finish, on time, the move will happen, and growth at the elementary school level will be managed for a time. The next two elementary schools have to happen as the new communities planned in Camp Parks and north on Tassajara are built out in the coming years. Where the money comes from for these new schools is a big question. We are looking at other funding sources include borrowing from the city or taking on debt through a certificate of participation, but the problem with that approach is the payments come out of the general fund and as a result impact programming.

“The good news is we’re growing; the challenging news is we’re growing so fast that we have to be very focused on planning for the future and looking for creative solutions.” Voters will be hearing about a renewal / extension of the parcel tax that was approved five years ago. How did the original parcel tax benefit the district and what benefits will come from renewing the tax?

Hanke: “The parcel tax put in place five years ago is another reason, in addition to growth, that we were able to manage through the downturn. The community has been tremendous in supporting the schools. The parcel tax is $96 per parcel per year, with a limit of five years and exemptions for seniors. That enabled us to maintain relatively low class sizes. Our class sizes, K-8, are among the lowest in the county. Many school districts, because of the economic downturn, pushed class sizes way up.

“We were also able to add science specialists across the district that tied into our STEM initiatives. We also added counseling at the elementary level to help students that are struggling.

“The parcel tax expires this June. Through the Board we did a survey of the community and the results indicate that the community supports a renewal at the current level of $96 per parcel per year, and investing in STEM education initiatives. Measure B will be introduced at the current level for another five year term, providing exemptions for seniors. The original parcel tax approved through Measure L provided about $1 million per year. Because of growth we see the annual revenue through Measure B approaching $2 million per year. Just imagine what we can do in support of our kids and the mission of the school district with $2 million per year. We believe initiatives like Measure B support our mission of making sure every one of our students is college and career ready.” Let’s switch gears to a major infrastructure project currently underway at the high school, the new Center for Performing Arts and Education. What impact do you think the facility will have both on Dublin High School and the community?

Center for Performing Arts and Education

Center for Performing Arts and Education

Hanke: “First, I want to emphasize that the focus is on performing arts and education. The Board made sure, when looking at investment options, that this would be a regional quality facility. When we designed the theatre we ensured it would have all the elements of a high quality regional theatre, and it does. It is a magnificent facility. Not only will the school district benefit from the programs we have, but we will also see benefits extend into the Dublin community and regionally. We are in the final stages of hiring a person to drive the business plan for the theatre, and that plan will be put into action through a policy approved by the School Board, spelling out who uses the theatre and how, and what is the expense necessary to maximize the opportunity provided by the facility for students across the district. The theatre is 90%+ finished at this point with the outside mostly complete and the remaining work taking place inside.

“We are very fortunate to have a strong performing arts program. The program across the district has grown to a point where Just last week we had to limit the elementary school students at the District Music Concert at Fallon to 5th graders because we ran out of space. Where other school districts have been forced to cut performing arts programming we’ve grown. The jazz bands, choir and other students involved in music are now performing separately because our program across the district has such a high rate of participation. Not only has the program grown, but the quality is improving every single year. The new theatre at the high school is arriving at the perfect time.

“The drama productions we have are outstanding and the theatre program has done a great job in a theatre, The Little Theatre, which has been largely unchanged since Dublin High School opened. The kids do terrific work in that theatre but as the program grows they deserve a new facility. We’re really excited to see our kids perform on a new stage starting next school year. We can’t wait to see music, drama, improv and all of the performing arts benefit from the theatre.

“But we also believe the theatre can be used very effectively as an educational venue. I want you to imagine a professor in biology from Stanford University giving a talk to the entire senior class about college and career readiness. We see the theatre serving the performing arts and a broader education purpose by providing a venue that can bring our students together; or, as was the case at the Common Core workshops last week, bringing the community together. Beyond the school district, we’ve already been approached by regional theatre companies that want to take advantage of the new theatre. We know the facility will be a very popular venue.

“We also believe the production side of theatre, the lighting, sound, video and all of the backstage skills provide another pathway opportunity for students. Just imagine learning the craft of theatre production in a facility that has the capabilities of a professional theatre.

“A ribbon-cutting is planned for this spring, likely in May; we can’t wait for the community to see this magnificent new facility.” One more question, how should parents think about their role in the support of education?

Hanke: “It’s a cliché but very real that we want parents to be partners with us. We want parents to understand what we are trying to do, and we also want parents to be directly involved. The Common Core Standards and Smarter Balanced Assessments workshops was a great example. We had over 400 parents on the first night alone attend the workshops in support of understanding the changes coming in public education, and how parents can support their students.

“Parents play a key role in ensuring their children are college and career ready, in partnership with the school district. Providing a quiet environment to study, enrichment opportunities outside of school, extra help when needed, and working directly with teachers and the district to understand how to best support their child.

“We have a wonderful parent community in Dublin. As a whole Dublin parents have always supported education, to a degree unparalleled in my career. Dublin parents are wonderful partners for the district, our staff and our teachers, supporting not only events and activities but also the vision and mission of the district.

“When we do something that needs correcting, we hear about it, and we get it fixed; but when we do something right we also hear about it. We sense that parents are joining hands and pushing us forward and the benefactors are first and foremost the kids, because that’s what we’re all about.”