What can $500 buy a school district?

Madera USD superintendent says it pays for pride along with PD
By: | Issue: December, 2015
November 20, 2015

Edward Gonzalez says teachersÑand classified employeesÑcan make wise decisions about the classroom and technical training they receive.

Madera USD sits in the center of California in the San Joaquin Valley, which grows much of the nation’s nuts, vegetables and fruit. Gonzalez, its superintendent, gave each of his roughly 1,100 teachers $500 to spend as they choose on PD in 2014-15.

This year he extended that to classified employees, including bus drivers who wanted safety training on how to deal with active shooters and assaults.

The grandchild of immigrants, Gonzalez learned the power of hard work. His father and mother grew up picking grapes, lettuce and cotton in California. His father eventually became a certified public accountant and his mother went back to school at age 50 to earn an associate degree in arts.

“They taught me that education was the great leveler,” Gonzalez recalls.

Gonzalez started his career as a classroom teacher in Madera in 1982. He taught for 15 years and worked in administration at various districts before becoming Madera’s superintendent in August 2013.

Possibly one of his most unique moves at Madera was giving his 1,100 teachersÑand now 1,000 other employeesÑ$500 each to do as they saw fit for professional development purposes.

As a member of the District Administration Leadership Institute, Gonzalez recently spoke with Managing Editor Angela Pascopella about his leadership style, his unique take on PD and overall district challenges.

Describe your leadership style.

I’m a people person. I believe in the power of positive relationships. I think my strength is that I’m a very creative personÑI’m an artist, pianist and poet, having in part written short stories and 60 pieces of music.

And I believe in a Renaissance education that used to be much sought after, but now we’ve become more specialized. I marvel at how quickly my executive cabinet members understand and take in information and give insightful feedback.

I don’t have that ability, so that’s valuable. Another member is great at empowering others. And I’m learning how to be better at that.

What was your greatest challenge when you became Madera USD’s superintendent?

A strike was looming. Teachers were picketingÑthey hadn’t had a raise in years. Many teachers knew me and the community knew me. We put together a package and settled the issue.

We offered them a 2 percent raise (which the union had not even asked for) and increased the district’s contribution to health benefits, eliminating most out-of-pocket costs for most employees. In return, the teachers agreed to pay the first 3 percent of any increase in health care, but the district would pay everything beyond 3 percent.

I publicly stated that the teachers are the most important employees of the district, and everyone else exists to support them. Teachers are working with the most important people in the system, which are the students. And the union agreed.

How did the $500-per-teacher PD initiative come about?

We believed that with today’s use of technology and the Common Core being adopted in California and other states, the role of our teachers has changed fundamentally. Students have information at their fingertips and teaching itself has changed. And students are growing up with technology. They know no other way.

We offered every teacher in the district $500 and gave them the choice to attend a conference or a workshop, or put together local workshops.

We had an all-day Saturday event last March, run, organized and taught by teachers in how to implement the Common Core and use the latest technology. And we had a four-day SummerTech 2015, where teachers took part in sessions featuring iMovie, iPhoto, Photoshop, Excel and various internet portals. Some district coaches and the director of curriculum instruction signed up to lead some of the sessions.

Different teachers have different needs, so that’s why we left it up to them. For instance, the physical education specialist in almost every elementary school in the district used their $500 to bring in a national expert on PE to conduct all-day training.

The teachers were so excited to know the district was listening to them. They were excited to have their own choice.

And it wasn’t very difficult at all to get buy-in from the school board. The board understands that teaching is critical to success.

And is anyone overseeing the process?

The training still has to be approved by an administrator. They still have to be held accountable. And typically, they keep it local. Last year, 80 percent of those PD funds were used. And I think the number will increase this year.

Our first teacher-led PD day of this school year was October 17 at Madera South High School. We had about 160 teachers in attendance. The next one will be in March 2016. Teachers can use their $500 to pay themselves for the time they spend attending these classes.

You mentioned that classified employees also will get $500 this year, yes?

All employees this year will receive $500 for professional development. The training requested by the bus drivers was for emergency response, which included attempted hijacking of a bus, active shooter, assault on driver. The drivers received the training and the feedback was very positive. They believe they are better prepared for an emergency situation.

Our landscaper recently returned from a PD that focused on lawn and garden care during drought conditions. About 100 employees from around the San Joaquin Valley were in attendanceÑMadera Unified accounted for 20 of them. They were so excited to learn new techniques and very appreciative of the opportunity to do so.

What is your biggest challenge now?

The overwhelming rate of poverty we have in this valley. By nature of an agribusiness economy, you have to have a lot of workers. Historically, they have mostly been immigrants willing to come in and work when it’s 108 and 110 degrees, and work all day. It’s really grueling work and they are minimally paid. But they have to live somewhere.

The population brings great challenges because parents are gone before school starts and work until it’s dark. To have parent conferences is difficult and most teachers do not speak Spanish.

And the kids are helping in the fields during school breaks or weekends. Or they are staying home with younger siblings to care for them and that contributes to truancy rates.