By Barbara Grady-Ayer
Charlie Blanchard brings his bicycle to a stop along the BART trail to respond to a hello from a passer-by. Twenty minutes later, Blanchard – in his final days as Albany Board of Education President – is still politely answering questions about Albany schools and listening to the greeter’s ideas.
The scene is quintessential Charlie Blanchard, repeated numerous times a week around Albany in recent years as people seek him out to ask about Board of Education decisions and speak their thoughts about issues concerning the schools.
On Dec. 16, Blanchard retired from the Board after serving four and a half years, including two terms as president. At that evening’s board meeting, a slew of teachers, administrators, parents and fellow board praised Charlie for his thoughtful service. One after the other, they described him as someone who listens and who can bring people of different views together to make decisions benefiting Albany students. He is known as the communicator, the one who sends out email dispatches to the community explaining board decisions and agendas and who is available to listen.
“Charlie you ably served two terms as president, building consensus in a very diverse community,” said Marla Stephenson, Superintendent of the Albany Unified School District.
Fellow board of education member Jamie Calloway, who now is board president, said Charlie was uniquely “thoughtful in his deliberations,” and “had a finger on the pulse of the community” because he makes an effort to listen to people around town and communicate.
Teacher Loring Barker who is president of the Albany Teachers Association and teaches science at the high school said that the teachers and the board have “a really good working relationship,” and that “I attribute that to your leadership”
And parent Teresa Barnet, who has been an active volunteer at all school levels and currently heads up the SchoolCARE fundraising organization, said of Charlie “You’ve instilled trust between the board and the community.”
In an interview two days later, Charlie recalled that his reasons for joining the board were, in fact, to build that trust and help smooth discord in a school community beset with budget problems at the time. In 2002-2003 academic year, the Albany school district was grappling with deep cuts in state funding and the school community was divided about how to address its financial woes. Not only did teachers differ with administrators and parents differ with each other, but the board was divided among itself.
“It’s so important for a board to work together,” Charlie said. “When the board is divided and working at cross purposes, it is confusing to the community and to the staff.” At the time, Charlie recalled, the board had “very dedicated members that brought a lot of skills” to the job but they often could not agree. “Budget issues are challenging.”
As a parent, he hoped to steer Albany out of its budget woes without taking too much away from students.
“I watched seventh-grade electives get cut. I watched eighth-grade electives get cut. And the high school was losing teaching positions while its enrollment was increasing. Athletic programs were cut, music was cut,” he recalled.
The board eventually decided to invite inter-district transfers to Albany schools from other towns as a way to bring in more revenue and shore up its budget woes. The state pays school districts based on enrollment and student attendance. So, then Superintendent William Wong and the board decided to add to enrollment figures.
The AUSD opened the doors to hundreds of new students between 2003 and 2005 or 2006. Several of the schools became very crowded.
Charlie hoped to help the district figure out a way to still improve curriculum and student achievement at a time people were preoccupied with the budget.
“The budget is the foundation of the school system – I absolutely get that. But the school district is not a bank. It’s in the business of serving students and you need to find ways to make it serve students,” he said. And that was part of his mission.
The school district recovered from its financial problems and was able to restore a few programs. However, its new problem became over-crowded schools. Principals had to be creative in finding classrooms.
Still, in 2008 and the dawn of 2009, Albany schools “are in good shape,” Charlie said, even in a recession and will remain so for the remainder of the academic year because it had built up a financial reserve.
The school district’s challenges, he said, are to solve the achievement gap in academic performance and bring innovation to its curriculum.
With its good teachers, strong administrative staff and board and very-involved parent community, Albany can make strides on these and other fronts.
Albany families will miss Charlie as he moves on to other pursuits. His youngest child graduated from Albany High School in 2008. But the man-about-town and ready listener promises that “I won’t disappear” and will stay involved in the community in one way or another.
*The article is written by Barbara Grady-Ayer, a former staff reporter at Oakland Tribune. Barbara has produced excellent news stories for several well-known news companies for decades. She is also a devoted Albany resident. She has two children in the schools, and has been an active school volunteer for years. Barbara will write stories for Albany Today, her hometown news publication, regularly from now on.
Photos by Linda (Linjun) Fan