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A conversation with ... Jo Lucey 

Josephine Lucey, CSBA's 2014 president, brings an engineer's analytical expertise to school governance

Winter 2013

Whenever experts gather, shop talk can range from down-in-the-weeds detail to the 30,000-foot level of big-picture abstraction. Jo Lucey (everyone calls her Jo) can take an even loftier perspective—22,236 miles above the Earth, say, the altitude of a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. That’s because the incoming president of the California School Boards Association is a mechanical engineer whose first job was in satellite design.

“My father was an engineer. My grandfather, a civil engineer, built bridges in New York City,” Lucey says now. “The dinner table conversation was about engineering skills and math problems. … When you grow up in an engineering family and when you practice engineering, you see the world in a certain way.”

It’s a perspective she shares with her husband, yet another engineer. (Their two college-going children are studying accounting—not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Lucey leveraged her bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and master’s from Stanford into a career in the aerospace industry. Now retired, she devotes her considerable energies to Silicon Valley’s Cupertino Union School District, a high-achieving K-8 system with an enrollment of 19,000 where she’s served as a member of the board of education since 2001.

Lucey’s passion for local public schools extends to the state and federal level, where she’s a reliable participant in CSBA’s advocacy efforts. Given all that, it’s no surprise that a conversation with CSBA’s incoming president begins at a very high level.

“The United States is a nation of immigrants, it’s a nation of people that came to build a better life for themselves and for their families. I have ancestors that came from Ireland, I have ancestors that came from Yugoslavia, for specifically that reason,” Lucey says.

“That’s what the United States has historically held out as a promise; that it’s a place where you have the opportunity to work hard and to build a better life for yourself and for your family. Our nation rewards invention, innovation, and hard work. It’s how we build capacity, it’s how we build the economic engine that keeps our country strong and keeps our democracy vibrant. The current waves of immigrants come for the same reasons we all came. And that’s for the economic opportunities that offer a better way of life for them and for their families.”

And education is the bedrock for that.

It is—public education, especially in our country, is the stepping stone to a better life. In our country we try to educate every child. There are many countries that do better than we do on some of the worldwide testing, but I don’t really think those countries educate each and every child. Many will carve out a select few and educate them well, and the rest not so much. I think our promise, our potential, our great strength is that we have a public school system that’s accessible to everyone and anyone regardless of who you are or where you came from. And our challenge is to make sure that each and every public school is strong and meets the needs of the children it serves.

Of course, there are some folks who might disagree or have a different interpretation of how public education fits into that. They want to provide vouchers to send their kids to private schools; they want to set up charter schools.

You know, I’ve gone back and forth in my thinking on charter schools. I used to think that the charter movement was OK—that a charter school was a matter of choice and we’re a country that believes in opportunities and options for people. But as time has gone on, I am beginning to believe that charter schools are not really about choice; they’re about dismantling a public school system. I think we need to be cautious. If we’re not careful we will end up with parallel systems of public schools, which in some ways has the ability to take us back in time, segregate us economically and ethnically. I know that some charter schools do really, really well in terms of academic performance, but there are some that do very, very poorly. And on average, I don’t think that charter schools do any better or any worse than public schools. Many will say that charter schools are public schools and my answer is, no, they’re not really. They don’t have a governing board that’s elected by their community and accountable to the whole community; they don’t follow open-meeting rules, and they don’t follow conflict-of-interest rules. I think as a nation we would be better served if we focused on what we need to do to make our public schools stronger and better for our students. There’s just so much potential with the system that we have that I think tearing it apart and breaking it down isn’t the right way to strengthen it.

So there is enough flexibility in the existing structure of public schools—

I think there is, I really do. People talk an awful lot about the failing schools in public education; I think we really ought to talk about what we do right, the successes that we have, the students that we offer opportunities to—that we educate well. And the schools where our students aren’t doing well, I think we need to look at how we fund those schools, the personal life circumstances of those students, and what kind of wraparound services they need. All children don’t walk in the door at kindergarten on equal footing. Some walk in with a great vocabulary, with parents that have read to them, taken them to the library, given them a huge variety of social experiences; and some walk in the door with very little of that. And as a public school system, you have to look at the life experiences of all children and do the best you can to offer opportunities to students that they don’t necessarily get at home. I don’t think you can always do that just within a school day. It takes community services and help beyond the school day to make that possible. I think as a nation we’re really going to have to look at what services we provide to our students and how we educate them. Poverty matters.

As you say, the public school structure is set up to allow the flexibility to meet different needs and approach education in different ways. Charters do enjoy a freedom from many regulations that regular public schools do not have.

Right, and it’s somewhat ironic, I think, in many ways. Charter schools are supposed to do better because they don’t have to follow the rules, and there’s part of me that says, Well, if the rules don’t matter then why are we following them?

You’ll be president of CSBA as the state implements the new Local Control Funding Formula. This formula promises extra money to help meet particular students’ needs. It doesn’t actually have extra money overall.

I know. It’s really unfortunate that we’re putting this system in place at the bottom of our funding level. It would be so much more effective if we were better funded. I think the premise is good. Some children need more resources—you just can’t adequately support them academically without extra funding. So I believe in the theory behind the Local Control Funding Formula. I do have some disappointments with it. I think in many ways it’s turned out to be more funding formula and less local control. I think there’s the potential to have an awful lot of strings attached to the revenue. If we’re not careful, the base will be the new “general fund,” and the supplemental grants will be the new “categorical.” I think for many districts, that makes it very, very difficult. I continue to believe the base is too low. It’s higher than what was originally proposed, but I really think it needs to be even higher so that every district at least has a base amount that enables them to do the job well. Let’s not forget that there is no new money. It’s just been shifted around and allocated differently. And even when LCFF is fully implemented, many districts are just back to where they were five or six years ago. But I agree with the premise and the logic behind the formula; the approach is still just woefully underfunded.

And the devil may be in the details. The details are not going to be known until the State Board of Education establishes a template for the Local Control and Accountability Plans required under LCFF next March.

Right, right. We actually had a budget review last night in our district and were looking at the fact that we are getting slightly more total money this year than last year, but we’re nowhere near the level of even five years ago. And the new money comes with strings. We are getting less general fund money than last year and a little more supplemental—“categorical”—money, so we’re replacing some of the money we lost but not in the same way. In our district, as in many districts, we have to think carefully about how to allocate our funding. I think you’re going to find some districts potentially laying off and eliminating general fund programs because the money can’t go that way, and that’s an issue. So I’m hoping as the regulations get laid out that there’s a little more recognition that not all districts are the same, that flexibility is needed, and that what really ought to be emphasized is student outcomes.

As we’re sitting here today, we don’t know what those regulations are going to be. But boards do have to be preparing now, they have to be looking into how they will implement LCFF.

As our CBO was explaining our budget and where the money was going, our board president said, basically, “Well, wait a minute. We have to spend the money this year, and we have to spend it a certain way, but you’re not going to tell me whether I did it right or wrong until after I’ve spent it?” And the answer is, “Yes! So choose wisely.” Many districts need to realize you can’t just roll it all into salaries and benefits and make up for cuts you’ve had to make, because you’re going to end up finding that that money has to be spent in a different way. So it’s complicated.

Certainly teachers and other employees have suffered under those spending cuts over the past few years—as the programs have, as the kids have.

Yes. I think many employee groups took pay cuts, took furlough days, offered give-backs to get us through the budget crisis of the past few years. In many places employee groups are looking to recover some of what they’ve given back. It’s a legitimate request. It just has to be balanced against the needs of the students and the funding formulas.

So how is your board preparing for the accountability measures?

Well, we’ve laid out what new dollars we have. We’ve laid out how much of those new dollars are general fund dollars, and how much are not. We’re looking at our language learner population, our free and reduced-lunch population, and we’re looking at the programs we have that serve those children, as well as programs that we can put in place. We’re looking at Common Core State Standards and if there’s a way to tie those together with LCFF. We’re trying very hard to make sure that our spending is targeted, and hoping that when we get the rules and regulations, we guessed right.

Now, you do have a very diverse population [in Cupertino], and you need to include them in your decisions on how to apportion those funds and on what programs you put in place.

Yes, I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of difficulty there because we have a very active and very engaged parent population. Our school site councils, our PTAs, are fabulous. And we already have a communication structure in place. Our superintendent meets with our parent population several times a year, with the leaders of the PTAs, the school site councils and the foundations. Our district has passed a bond and two parcel tax measures during the last six years. Our parents were active members of the campaign committees. They support our schools. I think we have a good rapport and we have good communication. We have a structure that we can work with to ensure the parent involvement piece required under LCFF works effectively.

Do you have any advice for districts that don’t enjoy that robust relationship?

One of the things that we have in place in our district is a budget advisory committee that meets every other month or so. It’s composed of parents from every school and they get the same budget briefing that the board gets. We have a member of every one of our union groups on the budget advisory committee also, and it ends up being sort of a two-way communication vehicle: We roll out our budget information to them, they go back to their schools and talk about it; they bring information back to us. When we had to do our cuts, we put everything on the table and asked them for ideas. That’s one way to begin to develop a relationship with your parent community.

You mentioned the Common Core, that other train that’s rolling down the tracks.

We’re looking at not so much what you teach when, but how; and so, I think it gives us all an opportunity to step back and say, “Is what I’m doing on a daily basis the best way for students to learn?” The Common Core gives us the ability to look at not just how children memorize facts, but how they process information. I know a lot of people get upset about, “Well, it’s a national standard.” It’s not really. The genesis of Common Core was a group of state governors. From a positive perspective, it gives us a way of getting beyond bubble tests to deeper thinking. It’s going to shift what teachers do in the classroom, which means they have to talk to each other. So, every district is going to have to sit down and look at how they deliver instruction, how they work as a team, how students learn, and that’s probably not a bad conversation for us to have. But there will be challenges. The testing portion of it is going to be difficult. We’re already struggling with how to manage the hardware component. We don’t have enough [computer] hardware in our district for every student to take the test at the same time. We’re trying to figure out how to pay for that.

With your engineering background, you certainly have a good perspective on the kinds of skills—and the education and preparation to develop those skills—that are called for today and increasingly in the future. How can we prepare students for the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math?

I earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and then a master’s degree at Stanford, also in mechanical engineering. The type of engineering that is probably more prevalent now is more in software design … but all fields of engineering teach you a process, a way of thinking, and a way of imagining the world. I think we have to make sure that the students we have in our schools today are able to think that way. It’s more than getting the right answer; it’s thinking about what works, and what doesn’t work, and why does it work, and why doesn’t it work, and testing [hypotheses]. Whenever you do something in engineering, you lay out the theory, and then you build a prototype and you try it. If it works, great, and if it doesn’t, you don’t look at that as a failure; you look at that as something that you’ve learned. We prepared for every space shuttle flight by running simulations where something would fail and you’d have to react to the failure. I think we need our kids to be able to do that, and not be afraid of getting the wrong answer. I’m hoping that as we move away from some of the bubble tests and into Common Core, that what we really teach our kids is the joy of exploring, the joy of learning, the joy of making mistakes and what you learn from those mistakes. I’m really hoping that this Common Core actually allows kids to take a deep breath, and relax a little bit, and get away from some of this high-pressure testing, and really explore what they want to be, and how they can grow, and learn and actually help our society as we move into the next generation.

Let’s talk a little bit about CSBA’s Policy Platform. There’s been a substantial revamp of the platform [in the past year]. What’s your sense of how that’s gone?

I am really pleased with the way the whole process has gone—with the work that [the Policy Platform Review Committee] has done and especially with the trust that the Delegate Assembly gave them to try something different. I think the new platform is critical to the future of CSBA. I think what we’ve done is take the Policy Platform from a series of statements about specific issues and made it more high level, so it’s more about what we believe, what we want a public school system to look like, what we value. The focus is on what our children need to grow, be well educated, and become contributing members of our society.

I also think that CSBA now has a document that makes it possible to be at the front end of issues as opposed to the back end. The Policy Platform is now strong enough and broad enough that CSBA can be nimble and be a leader on hot policy issues, which makes it possible to shape legislation. The Local Control Funding Formula is a good example of that. [We] pushed really hard for a higher base, which I think made good sense for every district in this state. I think the move in our Policy Platform to allow that type of advocacy is really good.

So you’ve got LCFF; you’ve got Common Core; you’ve got a new Policy Platform for CSBA. What are your plans for the next year as president of CSBA?

My goal is to make sure that CSBA is the strongest organization it can be for the members of CSBA, which means we need to really make sure member services are strong. I think we need to make sure that CSBA itself is strong. It’s probably time to sit down and just look at our organization and make sure we are where we want to be; that we provide the services that our members need and that we’re really an effective organization for shaping what happens in terms of public education. So I’m not walking in with, “This is the year of … ” I’m walking in with, “CSBA needs to be one of the premier leaders of public education in California, and we need to do what we need to do within our organization to make that happen.” So, my goal is to make CSBA internally strong. 

Brian Taylor ( is the managing editor of California Schools.