Dan Jeffries is shy by nature, he says. But he was so inspired by the exceptional effort he witnessed from his children’s teachers that he found himself knocking on strangers’ doors in almost every LCF block during his 2013 campaign for a seat on the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board.
“Even those families who no longer have kids in the schools know a lot and care a lot about the schools,” said Jeffries, a prosecutor for the city of Los Angeles and the board’s current president. “They’d ask, ‘What do you want to do about this issue? About that issue?’ I was really impressed.”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Jeffries directed proceedings for the first time as the leader of the governing body, which last year tackled issues that included a contentious negotiation over teacher pay. This year, he and his colleagues have a fresh set of challenges on their docket.
Among other items, there is the forthcoming facilities master plan to discuss with the community; the expected decision regarding the proposed Sagebrush territory transfer; and the recently filed lawsuit by former La Cañada Elementary School teacher Christine Castillo, who is alleging pregnancy discrimination.
The lawsuit was filed Dec. 28, after Jeffries sat down with the Outlook’s Mirjam Swanson at Zeli’s Coffee Bar to discuss district-related affairs. But in a subsequent email, Jeffries addressed the suit, reaffirming the board’s total support for Superintendent Wendy Sinnette.
The rest of the conversation came over coffee; highlights are below.
Outlook: What can you say about the board’s position on the recent lawsuit and allegations within it?
Jeffries: While we are precluded from discussing any of the specifics of the lawsuit as it pertains to a personnel matter, I can say that the board is unanimous in our strong support for our outstanding district Superintendent Wendy Sinnette, and we know that all decisions and actions taken by Ms. Sinnette are in the best interests of the students, teachers and staff of the La Cañada Unified School District.
Q: There’s always a lot going on — what are you most excited about in the coming year?
A: One of the most interesting things we have going forward is the facilities master plan. We’re finally taking the opportunity to [look at] everything from connecting the sewers [at Palm Crest Elementary] to replacing air conditioning, even the bigger-picture kind of things: What are we going to do about the nature of classrooms?
Rows of desks don’t really work anymore. The way teaching is currently done, it’s with pods and groups and workspaces — ‘maker spaces’ where students have a space that has equipment to do many different projects, where it can be a history class or a science class or even a math class.
But we’re also being very mindful that the first thing we’ll have to do is figure out what do we really need to get done and how much does it cost?
The architecture firm that’s working with us has met with the staff at all the sites. They’ve interviewed the teachers about what they like and what needs to be fixed. They’ve worked closely with all the maintenance people and they’ve conducted a series of public meetings where members of the public give their input.
On Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at La Cañada High School’s auditorium, we are going to have a town hall meeting to unveil their preliminary plans developed from all the input they’ve gotten.
Q: So when you go to the community and present them with the opportunity to vote on a bond, you can say, ‘Here, this is what it’s for’?
A: So we go back and say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve heard. What do you think we should do about financing it?’ We’re trying to get as much community involvement in different projects as we can.
Q: We saw that last year with the math textbook adoption, right? There was a special meeting about it.
A: I think we could’ve done a better job of getting the community involved earlier. People felt they would’ve liked to know about it earlier on, so now we’re trying very hard, every time we’re looking at adopting a textbook, to give lots of advance notice.
Q: So you have your teachers, your experts, on the ground with the kids, and they know what works. And you have your administrative staff, who are also experts. And then you have a very smart community, which is very engaged. When you’re looking at something like textbooks and there are conflicting ideas, how do you guys, as a board, weigh that?
A: I think it’s really helpful to get everyone there to talk about it. We have some great perspective from our community, we have [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] engineers who know so much about so many subjects. It’s really important that everyone’s view be heard and considered, but the other thing that’s important: We have phenomenal teachers. Our teachers can teach anything. So whatever textbook they have, if it’s not meeting their needs, they will find supplemental materials. They will find a way to teach it.
Q: Speaking of teachers, what was it like sitting on the dais during some of those more passionate school board meetings [during the negotiation process over teacher contracts]?
A: We really felt for them. Our district and our community would like to see us attract and retain the best teachers. Everyone in our community agrees teachers should get paid more — the problem is we don’t get funded that way. Our district is one of the lowest-funded in the state, and it’s very hard to have the top teachers with the bottom-level funding. Fortunately, our community is very generous … so we do a lot more with a lot less.
And one of the things that’s happened in the teaching profession is they’re having to pay a greater percentage of their income into their retirement accounts, and that takes money out of their pockets. But the district also has to pay more of their retirements. So that cost is going up and they’re not benefitting [directly] from it and the district isn’t benefitting from it.
So it was challenging, but fortunately, we have some very good administrative people who did a great job of coming up with every possible savings … as our [former] president David [Sagal] referred to it, finding every coin in the couch.
Q: So, Sagebrush. I can’t let the school board president go without asking about it — what do you hope to see when the [County Committee on School District Organization] has its say?
A: I’m cautiously optimistic [the territory transfer will be approved]. I see it as a coach; I’ve coached kids who live in the Sagebrush community and realized that they don’t feel the same connection to the city as other people because they don’t go to the same schools.
From the school district’s perspective, we’re not a part of [the petition]. It’s between Sagebrush and Glendale [Unified]. It will affect us if the students come over, but we’ve been allowing more Sagebrush residents in. Our latest number is something like 150. We’ve been supportive because it’s the right thing to do.
Q: What else is coming up that people should know about?
A: The ‘Every 15 Minutes’ program [is scheduled for April 13]. For most of my career, I’ve prosecuted DUIs. People who commit DUIs would never do it if they were sober. It’s just a question of their making a decision while they’re under the influence.
You would never think about buying a house while you were under the influence, but people will make a decision to drive after they’ve had a lot to drink. They’re not criminals, they’re not bad people. Almost all of them, once they realize they have made a mistake, feel terrible about it and will never do it again. But you just wish that people would not do it the first time.
So I think that the ‘Every 15 Minutes’ program starts bringing it to kids at an important time in their lives, when they start realizing that they can make decisions about that, and know that when they get into that situation, there are alternatives [to drinking and driving].
Q: When you were at Estancia High School [in Costa Mesa], would you have seen yourself as a Governing Board President?
A: No, not at all. Someone asked me when I was running, ‘Are you getting into politics?’ And it’s like, ‘Politics? What do you mean?’ This is about the schools, this is because I have kids in the schools, so I want to do whatever my part is.
And I love this stuff. It’s fascinating. It’s such an important thing. If you think about the number of hours a day teachers are with your kids, they’re such an influence on the kids in such a positive way. What they’re doing is so critical. These kids who are going through schools now are our future and you want them to be guided the right way.