This week, voters in the St. Helena Unified School District will receive ballots asking them if they want to recall four out of five members of their school board.
When voting closes Feb. 23, they will have decided whether Trustees Ines DeLuna, Cynthia Lane, Carolyn Martini and Cindy Warren still have their jobs.
How did one of the richest school districts in California end up at the brink of political apocalypse?
The saga started at a school board meeting on April 9, 2009, when Superintendent Allan Gordon announced he was retiring after five years with the district.
Trustees immediately hinted that they were leaning toward replacing him with Robert Haley, the district’s assistant superintendent, who was widely viewed as Gordon’s protégé.
Trustees said an executive search would cost the district at least $30,000, with no guarantee that it would find anybody more qualified than Haley.
Plus, with the district emphasizing the International Baccalaureate academic program, a teaching model that encourages students to become “lifelong learners,” board members said they wanted continuity at the top.
“I think we need someone who is heavily invested in what we’re doing,” Trustee Jim Haslip said at the time.
But many parents who had been frustrated with some district decisions during Gordon’s tenure urged an executive search. Kevin Alfaro, a father of three children in St. Helena schools, urged the board to exercise “full due diligence” to find the best replacement for Gordon.
“It doesn’t appear that you have spent much time considering this,” Alfaro told the board. “I think you need to listen to the parents.”
Trustees entered a closed session meeting and, hours later, announced they were offering the job to Haley.
After hearing from outraged parents at a May 6 meeting, trustees met again on May 14 and awarded Haley a two-year contract, with a clause that an additional year will be tacked on every year, provided his performance evaluations are positive.
But on May 11, days before the board approved Haley’s contract, Haslip dropped a bombshell.
He announced he had come around to the parents’ side and was resigning from the board in protest of Haley’s imminent hiring.
Calling the May 6 meeting “contrived” and “a charade,” Haslip said “the deal (on Haley’s contract) has been pre-cooked.”
Incensed parents, now backed by Haslip, began circulating petitions to get a recall on the ballot.
They needed 1,515 signatures, equaling 25 percent of the registered voters in the district’s boundaries, which includes St. Helena and rural areas to the south and east. In September they turned in more than 2,000 signatures, and the all-mail election — costing the district between $30,000 and $33,000 — was set for Feb. 23.
The petition-gathering was fueled by new allegations from four parents, including Alfaro, involving the retirement packages awarded to Gordon and former St. Helena High School Principal Jim Zoll, who left the district at the same time.
In a June letter, the parents accused Gordon of acting inappropriately in January of 2009 when he made administrators eligible for a lucrative retirement incentive the district was offering to its teachers. He later accepted that package upon his retirement.
The parents demanded the removal of Gordon and Haley — who they claimed had been complicit in Gordon’s misconduct — and the resignation en masse of the four remaining boardmembers.
Trustees and administrators strongly deny any wrongdoing. They defend the retirement package as an overall cost savings for the district, and Gordon remains a consultant. They say continuity with existing academic programs is critical to the success of the district, and say their accusers are misleading residents.
Further, several trustees accused the four parents of extortion for allegedly threatening to “go public” with the allegations unless the board members resigned. Both the members of the board and their critics sought a criminal investigation of their opponents’ activities.
In late September, Napa County District Attorney Gary Lieberstein cleared administrators and boardmembers of wrongdoing.
“There is no credible evidence to support the conclusion that any members of the Board of Trustees, including their management team, took any action that would constitute a violation of any civil or criminal laws within our jurisdiction,” Lieberstein said in a statement.
Lieberstein also concluded there was insufficient evidence of extortion on behalf of the pro-recall parents.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission dismissed similar conflict-of-interest allegations leveled against Gordon by Haslip.
Meanwhile, trustees chose to hold an all-mail election to replace Haslip after his sudden resignation, at the cost of roughly $30,000. The election for Haslip’s old seat concluded in November, with pro-recall parent Kevin Alfaro facing Roger Adams, a retired St. Helena resident with a background in school administration.
Alfaro won the election by a 2-1 margin, and joined the board in November.
Two-part recall vote
The Feb. 23 ballot recall will have two parts. First, voters will be asked whether each trustee should be recalled. Then they will choose a candidate to replace the trustee if the recall succeeds.
Jeanne DeVincenzi — one of the four signers of the scathing June letter — plus Jeff Conwell, Jeannie Kerr and Sean Maher are running for the seats held by Martini, Warren, Lane and DeLuna, respectively. They are the only replacement candidates on the ballot.
Aside from the issues of Haley’s hiring and the retirement packages the recall challengers and board members have clashed over communication, including the effort or lack thereof to reach out to parents; litigation, including the school district’s decision to sue the Napa County Office of Education to gain more funds for rural students; and policies governing programs for developmentally disabled students.
This week, more than ninths months after the meeting that sparked the contentious debate, mail-in ballots will arrive at the homes of voters in the St. Helena Unified School District.
Voting in the election closes Feb. 23.