Schools chief looking to future

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By CLAIRE ST. JOHN

An Opera Hall lunch and speech, visits to two elementary schools and a public forum at Sonora High School highlighted yesterday's Tuolumne County visit by California's top educator.

During his busy day, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell also took time to answer questions about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget plan and President Bush's No Child Left Behind program.

Although some questions were pointed, no more than 30 people attended an afternoon forum at Sonora High to hear the answers. O'Connell's Opera Hall lunch and speech, however, drew more than 100 invited educators and community leaders.

He also visited the Jamestown and Columbia elementary school campuses.

O'Connell, who served as a Democratic state legislator from the Santa Barbara area for 20 years before being elected superintendent last November, is a former high school teacher. He speaks rapidly, peppering a stream of information with jokes and thumbs-up signs.

One thing was clear from his impromptu speeches yesterday: O'Connell is serious about education and remains optimistic, even with an uncertain budget situation in Sacramento and with California schools having trouble putting the No Child Left Behind program into action.

"No Child Left Behind has been a challenge for us," O'Connell said. "The frustration has been the lack of flexibility we have."

Without flexibility, O'Connell said, "we need to make sure (the program) is fully and adequately funded for us."

For some, the specter of inadequate funding looms large as Schwarzenegger puts the finishing touches on his 2004-05 budget proposal.

Schwarzenegger proposed a spending cap that could cut school funding by as much as $2 billion per year. While limiting spending is a good idea, O'Connell said, "we need to make sure it doesn't affect public education."

Schwarzenegger has also proposed moving Proposition 55 a planned $12.3 billion statewide school bond issue from March's ballot to November's, perhaps delaying a reliable stream of construction and modernization funds for state schools.

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