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Napa Valley Unified School District optimistic despite challenges

Despite the threat of budget cuts tied to the district’s continued declining enrollment and increasing pension costs, Napa Valley Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Sweeney was optimistic during the 2018 State of the Schools event at Napa Elks Lodge on Friday morning.

In the last 12 years, the percentage of NVUSD students qualified to attend the University of California’s top schools has increased from 23 percent to 45 percent, said Sweeney, who is retiring in June. When it comes to graduation rates, the district is 10 points above the state average, he said. Ninety-two percent of NVUSD students graduate from high school.

But there are still challenges ahead.

“Our test scores have been going up over (20 years), but at the same time our demographics have become more challenging,” said Thomas Kensok, vice president of the NVUSD Board of Education. The district has more students facing poverty and more English language learners than it did two decades ago, Kensok said.

There are achievement gaps between white students and Hispanic/Latino students and white students and English learner students, according to the district’s annual report for the 2016-2017 academic year.

About half the students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunch and some families may not be able to stay in the district due to increasing housing costs, contributing to dropping enrollment. The district’s budget is based on enrollment – more students mean more money, the report said.

The district offered a retirement incentive to qualified employees, 117 of whom accepted the offer, for an estimated one-year savings of more than $3 million, according to the annual report. Staff received a 1.25 percent raise.

“We have four goals in the district,” Sweeney said. Those goals are to prepare students for college, careers and life, provide equitable access to all students, instill in students “21st century skills,” and make sure students are healthy.

This year’s challenges will be to increase student proficiency in language arts and math, especially for English language learners and special education students.

“Math is an area we need to work on,” Sweeney said. “We don’t have the best math scores.”

The NVUSD serves approximately 18,000 students in schools in Napa, American Canyon and Yountville.

Sweeney highlighted the success of specific NVUSD programs that aim to close the achievement gap between students including Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), Legacy Youth Project, Napa High School’s Layla program, ALPS, La Promesa, and the dual language immersion program.

This past year, the district spent nearly $5 million on upgrading technology infrastructure, according to the annual report. That included upgrading its wireless network and voice over Internet protocol for telecommunications.

Every middle school student in the district has a laptop to use in the classroom – the district wants the same for high school students, Sweeney said.

The district made strides in supporting student health after adding wellness centers to Silverado and Redwood middle schools and changing the school lunch program so that students have healthier options, according to Mike Mansuy, director of student services.

“This week we served kids fish tacos,” Mansuy said. Students now have vegetarian options, more produce and, he said, many of the meals are made from scratch. “The days of cheese zombies are gone.”

This was the district’s second year presenting the “State of the Schools” information. Elizabeth Emmett, director of communications and community engagement, said that she hopes to repeat the event every February.

“Our goal is to be transparent with our community about our goals, successes and challenges, and to highlight success stories and to engage with our fellow public agencies, like cities and county,” Emmett said. Elected officials, school principals, the district’s partner organizations as well as district staff and parents were invited to the event sponsored by ATI Architects & Engineers and the Napa Valley Education Foundation.

Napa fans react to NFL player protests on eve of Super Bowl
Associated Press 

San Francisco 49ers Eli Harold (57), Eric Reid (35) and Marquise Goodwin (11) kneel during the national anthem before a Dec. 10 game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium in Houston.

During the past two years, perhaps the most memorable sight on the gridirons of the National Football League was not a pass or run or tackle, but the bending of a knee.

Inspired by the example of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a growing number of players began to kneel during the pregame playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest racial inequality and police brutality.

But as the circle of protesting players widened, so, too, did the stay-in-your-lane backlash from some fans demanding that NFL stars keep their politics out of the stadium. Then, in September 2017, President Trump fueled the furor in an Alabama speech calling any kneeling player a “son of a bitch” disrespecting his flag and country, and called on team owners to fire those refusing to stand for the national anthem.

The reaction among some Napa County football followers was nearly as fervent.

“I am a former 49er season holder that has ZERO respect for the disrespect that the NFL has shown our country and our veterans, of which I am one,” Dave Morse wrote in one of more than two dozen emails sent to the Napa Valley Register on the topic last month.

“I have not watched one minute, spent one dollar to support the NFL – nor will I until the so-called ‘protests’ are moved off the field and apologies are forthcoming,” Morse continued. “Needless to say, I am perfectly willing to keep that position for as long as it takes.”

“Our son has been a Marine for 20 years,” Don and Kathie McConnell said in another letter to the Register. “Our flag and the national anthem are sacred to all those who have served in our military.

“They should be to everyone who is fortunate enough to live in this country. They represent all those who have sacrificed and died in order to preserve and protect our country. We realize there is prejudice and injustice in our country, but NFL players should find some other way to register their protest. We will not be watching as long as this very disrespectful protest continues and the powers that be continue to condone it.”

While some spectators loudly wash their hands of pro football, Super Bowl LII is still expected to draw the year’s largest television audience by far, as it has for decades – more than 100 million viewers at a time, according to Nielsen Co. figures.

But even for some Napa Valley-based fans who plan to tune into the NFL’s championship game on Sunday, the echoes of a bitter political struggle are never far away. Nor are internal debates over whether to support protesting athletes, the causes they support, or both.

The disappointment in players who knelt during the national anthem was especially acute for Mike Ervin, a Calistoga-raised Army veteran whose older brother David suffered lung damage from the herbicide Agent Orange during his Air Force service in Vietnam.

When Kaepernick announced in 2016 that he would not stand for the playing of the anthem as a statement against racism, “I was very disappointed in him as a person, mainly because I was in a family where everyone had served,” recalled Ervin, who now lives in Santa Rosa. “During Vietnam I would see people coming back and what it had done to them, and to have someone disrespect them was terrible.

“A lot of people have died for that flag. I think there’s another way to make that point; I don’t see what the American flag has to do that. I see his points, I really do, but there are other ways to make that point without disrespecting the flag that other people have died for.”

Another local fan, while supporting Kaepernick’s calls for social justice, called his symbol an example of poor tactics spoiling a worthy cause.

“I was sympathetic to it and understood it but I thought, ‘Boy, you have not thought this out well enough,’” said Glen Schaefer of Napa, a self-described 49ers fan from as far back as the 1950s. “If he‘d just said, ‘I want to bring awareness to it,’ that’s one thing, but now people listen to you and hold you to it – especially when they don’t like you. He had the right intention but he didn’t express it well.”

While some military veterans have objected to protests they call attacks on the flag, another former serviceman in Napa found himself gradually won over – despite his strong initial unease.

“It bothered me; it hurt me to see our flag disrespected,” remembered Will Foreman, a psychologist in the California prison system who served in the Navy from 1969 to 1974. “… But at the same time, I know that black and Hispanic males in particular are viewed as dangerous by society at large. I came to the conclusion that (Kaepernick) raised concerns that need to be discussed by the community and not ignored.”

Foreman, whose ancestors fought on the Union side in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, ultimately decided that even a flag or anthem could not come before the principles he said they represent – including the right of football players to protest injustice before tens of thousands of ticket holders, and millions of TV watchers.

“My loyalty is to the Constitution and its principles, so I have to value free speech,” said Foreman, who called the backlash from President Trump – on Twitter and in public speeches – as the true danger.

“I really saw that as outrageous,” he said of Trump’s call on team owners to cast off players who kneel or sit for the anthem. “It’s the federal government trying to interfere with speech and peaceful protests.”

How much the distaste of some fans for on-field political statements has turned them away from the NFL has become a matter of debate – especially as the league has seen its network ratings fall for two consecutive seasons.

Nielsen reported an overall drop in viewers of 9.7 percent compared to the 2016 season, when ratings fell 8 percent from the year before. In addition to the protest controversies, media executives have pointed to declining overall TV viewership and a possible glut of broadcasts, especially as Thursday-night NFL contests have been expanded to cover most of the 17-week regular season.

While Foreman, Schaefer and others have wrestled with the ethics of NFL players’ protests, Deloris Barclay has been supportive from the start.

“I’m a former Catholic, and when you enter the church you genuflect to show respect for the host – Jesus – at the altar,” said Barclay, a Napan who remains enough of a fan to take part in online fantasy football leagues at age 89. “Genuflecting, even a bow, is a show of respect, not disrespect.

“I thought it was fantastic that (Kaepernick) took the initiative,” she added. “Maybe Trump had to make a point of making it sound so horrible, but I don’t think it’s horrible at all. I was angry that Trump wanted (players) fired – that was ridiculous. It made me angry; of course, a lot of things he says make me angry.”

Associated Press 

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before the 2016 season opener against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.

Barclay’s view was not universally popular with her circle of friends, as she readily admitted. “There are some Republican friends with whom I wouldn’t bring this up!” she said, laughing.

When the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots kick off in Minnesota around 3:30 p.m. (PST) Sunday, Barclay expects to be in front of her TV with a daughter and son-in-law.

Schaefer, meanwhile, also planned to have his eyes on the game – but not the full TV time slot, for reasons he said go beyond politics and into what he described as an increasingly lengthy, tiring and commercial-packed experience.

“I’ve watched every stupid Super Bowl since it started,” said Schaefer, who was 14 at the time of Super Bowl I in January 1967. “But (this year) I’ll record it, DVR it and start watching around 5 or 5:30 and fast-forward through all the stuff I couldn’t care less about. A friend of mine who’s gone to Super Bowls tells me it’s almost a chore to see it in person. It was a more enjoyable experience in the ‘70s and ‘80s because TV hadn’t completely gotten its hooks into the game.”

Not for him, either, were any of the watching parties that have turned the NFL’s championship into a de facto national holiday, roping in millions with little football interest beyond the one day in February.

“When I go to a Super Bowl party where people are drinking, I can’t watch the game,” he said. “I’ll just watch with my wife if she’s home, and with one other person who’s a sports fan and doesn’t get drunk and talk about Trump.”

Ervin, too, had no plans to turn away from the Super Bowl, volunteering a rooting interest in the NFC champion Eagles – the team once coached by Dick Vermeil, whose family he grew up with in Calistoga. His brother David also would be watching from his home in Minneapolis just a few miles from U.S. Bank Stadium.

“David was all fired up two weeks ago; he can’t go physically (for health reasons) but at same time he was excited,” said Ervin. “But he’ll still be in front of the TV on Sunday.”

Foreman, too, expects to be among the tens of millions watching the Super Bowl from afar – mainly because team owners did not act on the president’s call to sack players for taking part in protests, although Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones warned players in October he would bench those not standing for the anthem. “If the NFL had not supported the players and had gone along with Trump, I might not have watched another game the rest of the year,” he said.

For one ardent local fan – and sportswriter – a firm belief in respecting the national anthem and an unshaken love of football can coexist as well as ever.

“I’ve continued to watch football through and through. I don’t watch the game because of what they do during the national anthem, or because (Trump) is telling me what to do,” said Vince D’Adamo, a former sports reporter for the Register. “I want to see if Tom Brady completes the 15-yard out route; I want to see if Jimmy Garoppolo is for real. I’m not watching the game for those other things.”

Those “other things,” he added, make a battleground of a flag ceremony D’Adamo holds dear as a symbol of the nation to which his relatives committed themselves shortly after World War II.

“Both of my parents, both sets of grandparents, came here from Italy and I know they took a big risk to come to this country,” said D’Adamo, whose parents emigrated from Italy starting in 1948. “If I didn’t stand I would feel like I was kicking dirt on them.”

None of that ferment, in the end, would keep him from his weekend plans. “I’ll be at home in my Archie Bunker chair for four quarters,” he said.

Advocate of 'gonzo Judaism' leads Napa's Congregation Beth Shalom

When Rabbi Niles Goldstein arrived in Napa last summer to assume leadership of Congregation Beth Shalom, one of the first things he did was to give each member of his congregation a copy of his book “Gonzo Judaism.”

Inspired by the “rebellious, risk-taking attitude, associated with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson,” Goldstein wrote the book, one of 10 he has published, to challenge contemporary Jews to revitalize their faith with creative and innovative steps.

“I’ve had a pretty unconventional path as a rabbi,” Goldstein said, over lunch in the hall of Congregation Beth Shalom. This journey has included stops in places as varied as Mongolia, Greenwich Village, Virginia, and the Arctic, before arriving in Napa Valley.

Dogsledding in Alaska, sky diving in New Zealand and practicing martial arts have all been part of his own spiritual quest, but so has standing at Ground Zero in New York, days after the 9/11 terrorist attack wondering, “how am I going to help these people?”

It is all part of what he calls “searching for the divine in uncomfortable and unexpected places,” which is also the subtitle of another of his books, a memoir titled “God at the Edge.”

“As a rabbi and a writer, I hope to reach the seekers, dreamers, questioners and strugglers among us who are tired of the status quo and who crave a bolder, more authentic approach to life, particularly in the spiritual arena,” he has written. “Through my books, articles and teaching, I always strive to face the challenges of the human journey.”

A native of Chicago, Goldstein studied philosophy in college in Philadelphia. “I thought about academia,” he said, “but the questions I was interested in — the big questions — does God exist, what happens, does anything happen after we die? I felt that religion was the best equipped to answer them. So I became a rabbi.”

He went on to study in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, but it was love — a girl he met in Jerusalem — that led him to make his next move to New York City.

“She dumped me as soon as I got there,” he said, “but it was the best thing that could have happened. I had a pretty robust, exciting career living in New York in my 20s and 30s.”

Among his many, varied projects, which included working at a Jewish think tank, serving as a reserve US Army chaplain, and working with federal law enforcement, he became the founder of a start-up congregation, in Greenwich Village. The New Shul included artists, writers, therapists and theater people.

This experience led him to write “Gonzo Judaism.”

He led the New Shul for a decade, and married, but, “like a lot of things it came to an end,” he said. New York is “an exciting place especially when you’re young and single. But I got tired of it, the cost of living, the quality of life, the noise. I went through a divorce, and there wasn’t anything keeping me in New York, so I decided to move back to Chicago to be closer to my parents. I didn’t really have a plan. I knew I wanted to take a break from the full-time rabbinate.”

He spent the next seven years in Chicago, where he taught at Loyola University and worked at an interfaith organization called the Parliament of the Worlds’ Religions. Next, he said, “I put my dog in my car and we drove down to the Shenandoah Valley,” where he spent a semester at the Center for Interfaith Engagement at the Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia.

“I did part-time rabbinic work and then I said, ‘You know what, I’m ready to get back into the full-time rabbinate but only for the right place.’ I looked at the different opportunities and the two that were most appealing was one in San Francisco and one here in Napa. This was the one that felt like a much better fit. They felt the same, so here I am.”

Trial by fire

He had been in Napa for three months when the October wildfires broke out.

“It was literally and figuratively a trial by fire,” he said. “It brought back a lot of memories of what it was like to be in New York after 9/11. When I was at Ground Zero with a real mentor of mine, a Catholic priest. This is two days after it happened; there was smoke coming out of the ground. We had masks. I didn’t know what to do — it’s this apocalyptic scene, almost a scene from a movie, and I said to this priest, ‘What the hell are we supposed to do? How am I going to help these people? They don’t want to hear about God or spirituality or anything like that.’ And he said, look, our job is simply to offer what he called ‘the ministry of presence.’ He said, ‘Just be there for people.’ I’ve remembered that to this day.

“There were interesting parallels to the wildfires, and some differences. It was intense,” he said. “I volunteered over at CrossWalk. Speaking as someone who was first-responder in New York, there’s not always a lot you can do. Firefighters have a clear mission; with clergy it’s a little less clear what your role is, other than to comfort people and help people feel safe. I just tried to track people down let them know I was thinking about them.”

Meeting people where they are

Now settled into a home in Browns Valley with his fiancee from Chicago, Goldstein is planning for a spring where he’ll try out some of his new ideas, creating activities that will create a bridge to the greater Napa community, as well as grow and invigorate his own congregation.

“I feel that this is a hidden gem, but a lot of people don’t even know we exist, and I want to change that,” he said of Congregation Beth Shalom. “We’re doing a lot of good things. I want us to raise our profile and the profile of the Jewish community in Napa.”

Congregation Beth Shalom “is a community of about 200 households. That’s the largest we’ve ever been. But there are hundreds — I think even a few thousand — Jews who live in Napa County who are not connected to the synagogue, so I think the potential for growth is huge here.”

Coming up, on Monday, Congregation Beth Shalom will be hosting a free screening of a film, “The Return,” a documentary made by a friend about the efforts of four young women to rebuild a Jewish community in Poland. The screening is free, and the public is invited.

On Feb. 13, at the Napa Distillery, Goldstein is trying out an idea that was a success in New York called “Spirits and Spirituality.” It combines a tasting of spirits with a discussion of Jewish mysticism. It, too, is free for the first 50 people who sign up for it.

As beautiful as the new Congregation Beth Shalom building is, he said, “there are a lot of Jews who live in Napa, who, for whatever their reasons, they’re never going to set foot in a synagogue. But if we go out and meet them where they are — whether it’s in a vineyard, or an art gallery or at a distillery or a wine bar, I can really touch peoples’ lives in ways that I couldn’t standing behind a lectern in a house of worship.”

He’ll also be at Napa Bookmine on Feb. 20 to read from his books,”God at the Edge” and “Gonzo Judaism.”

Interfaith relationships have always been very important to him, he said, “and so I’ve tapped in pretty quickly, because it’s a small town, to the interfaith clergy council here. We put together a peace vigil after the Charlottesville (confrontations), and a Martin Luther King day of action and compassion. I look forward to doing more in the years ahead with other faith leaders.”

“I don’t believe in being political from the pulpit,” he said, “but in my personal life, I feel like I can do what I want within reason.” It was why he marched in the Women’s Marches in Chicago in 2017 and in Napa this year.

“Since I’m doing this on my own time and not speaking from the pulpit, it’s not about the Democrats and the Republicans. For me, it’s about having someone in office whose policies and words have led to a lack of respect, to unsafe situations for people; we just have an administration that doesn’t treat people with dignity and as a member of the clergy, I have to speak out against this.”


Raspberries, blueberries and blackberries are a component of food forests. 

Napa County readying to pioneer new state election approach

Napa County is one of only five counties rolling out California 2016 Voter’s Choice Act for the June 5 election, meaning all voters will receive their ballots by mail.

Under the pilot program, voters can return the ballots by mail, at drop boxes or at voter centers that replace the traditional polling place.

This won’t be a dramatic change for many voters, given Napa County has promoted vote-by-mail for more than a decade. The county has 75,000 registered voters and only about 10,000 used polling places in recent elections.

Registrar of Voters John Tuteur is finalizing such issues as the location of drop boxes in local cities and towns. He is working with various community members involved with nonprofits and other groups on the new, local election regime.

“We see this as a valuable opportunity to start a new level of civic engagement in our community, that is one of very diverse members,” said Elba Gonzalez-Mares, executive director of Community Health Initiative.

Tuteur and community members helping with the Voter’s Choice Act effort gave an update on Tuesday to the county Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Belia Ramos heard the planned locations of voter centers and the hoped-for locations for drop boxes. She thought the county could do still more by having temporary centers make appearances in such places as American Canyon mobile home parks – to create what these days are called pop-up shops.

“That’s a cool term, Mr. Tuteur, right now,” Ramos said. “You could be a pop-up shop … I don’t see the extra mile here. I think we’ve still got work to do. I’d like to see you be cool and be a pop-up shop and take your show on the road.”

Tuteur said election officials have discussed the idea. But outfitting a motor home to be a pop-up shop might cost $60,000 to $70,000, given security and technology issues. He prefers taking baby steps by seeing if the need exists during the June election.

“There’s a cost to striding out there,” Tuteur said. “And, secondly, we don’t know how this is going to go …. My preference as a fiscal conservative is to see how June goes.”

Ramos said she’d consider having the county spend more money for the June election to encourage higher voter turnout.

“I can appreciate your fiscal (conservatism) in this and to say there’s a cost to all of this,” Ramos said. “But there’s a cost to disenfranchisement. There’s a cost to disengagement. And there’s a cost to voter apathy.”

Some voter centers will be open for 10 days through Election Day and some will be open four days. People will be able to go there to drop off ballots, receive replacement ballots, register to vote or update their registration, ask questions and use a voting machine.

Several community members want voter centers open into evening hours prior to Election Day. They think the planned daytime hours won’t suit working people.

“American Canyon is largely a commuter town,” Pastor Fel Cao told supervisors.

Tuteur said the Election Division isn’t necessarily opposed to the idea. But workers would have to work extended hours. He noted all of the centers will be open the weekend before the election and some will also be open the Memorial Day weekend.

Drop-off boxes will be available 24 hours a day. Tuteur is looking to have them at locations frequented by people during daily life, such as near stores and at bus hubs.

Tuteur told supervisors the planned locations of the voter centers.

City of Napa locations will be the downtown county Election Division office and CrossWalk Community Church; the American Canyon locations will be Holiday Inn Express and library; the Yountville location will be the Veterans Home of California at Yountville; the St. Helena location will be the Napa Valley College Upper Valley Campus; the Calistoga and Angwin locations will be the fire departments.

Register file photo