During interviews with the Star editorial board earlier this month, each of the four trustees targeted for recall — and each of their proposed replacements — were asked about governance.
Generally speaking, the incumbents tended to pledge more allegiance to the school district administration, while the challengers tended to side more directly with the district’s parents.
Ironically, just six years ago a group of parents were banging down the walls of the previous administration. They tore down those walls, were elected to office and are today targets of a recall movement by parents who want to tear down new walls.
The irony was lost on the incumbents. With few exceptions, the incumbents’ view is that supporting the administration of Allan Gordon and Rob Haley provided many good things for the district, including a new curriculum.
In the process of supporting the administration, however, the board may have lost its connection with parents who also provided many good things for the district, including funding and public support.
The voters of St. Helena Unified have a choice to make in this election. They can keep the status quo and retain trustees who lean to the bureaucracy. Or they can elect new trustees who will lean more toward the parents.
While the four St. Helena school trustees have committed no “high crimes or misdemeanors,” they are facing a jury of their peers for, in essence, ignoring the speed limit.
In May 2009, when the school board announced it would promote Rob Haley as district superintendent without first conducting a candidate search, many of the district’s leading parents and supporters asked the board to slow down the process. Trustees heard the parents, but didn’t listen. Instead, they kept speeding along.
For some parents who were just starting to keep tabs on the board, the decision came as quite a shock. For many more community members the decision was seen as poor governance. That’s why a third of all eligible district voters petitioned to get a recall on the ballot.
Their concerns fell into three basic categories.
• Leadership: The administration, rather than the board, was running the district. Instead, trustees should set policies and the administration should carry them out.
• Communication: The district failed to fully communicate with parents before major projects were approved, before long-term strategic plans were formulated, before special education classes were closed or moved, and before major curriculum changes were adopted.
• Spending: The board was spending too much public money. The district budget has more than doubled in 10 years, while enrollment has dropped 20 percent. Spending money on public relations and retirement incentives did not make sense to parents struggling to raise funds for student programs.
Even after the recall qualified for the ballot, the incumbents still had a chance to embrace the parents. Anyone who has ever been pulled over for speeding knows that a respectful attitude will often convince the traffic cop to let you go with a warning.
But the parents, instead of being validated, were accused of being out of touch and too new to the school district to give advice. Their opinions were deemed irrelevant, even though many of these parents made up the very core of the district’s support network.
The board should have realized that 2,000-plus signatures in favor of a recall election represented more than a few disgruntled parents. Rather, it represented a political movement on a scale similar to the one that replaced the previous administration in 2004.
Instead, the board acted as if they had never been guilty of speeding in the first place. By refusing to slow down, the board was telling the parents they had no right to set the speed limit.
“We listened to them, but we did not comply,” Trustee Cynthia Lane told the Star editorial board. Trustees Ines DeLuna and Carolyn Martini struggled to recall any mistakes made by the board.
To be fair, the incumbents are now sharing more information with the public as a result of the recall election. But it’s too little, too late.
The four challengers — Sean Maher, Jeannie Kerr, Jeanne DeVincenzi, and Jeff Conwell — offer impressive credentials and long records of public service. They each seem eager to listen, communicate and act. They make the point that, now that the school district is threatened with the loss of up to half of its revenue due to state funding cuts, the administration should already be meeting with parents, teachers, staff and trustees to figure out the community’s top priorities.
The challengers make the point that there’s no time to waste — that waiting for the November election to replace trustees will only delay the process of involving the community. They reason that it’s better to get the new trustees up to speed as soon as possible.
If elected, new board members should embrace all ideas when considering how to deal with funding cuts. They should ask tough questions of the administration. They should invest in mediation, not litigation. They should act quickly to mend fences with other school districts.
Although the Star supports the recall in general, there is one fly in this ointment. The new board will need help getting up to speed over the next few months. It might be wise for voters to retain one of the current trustees as a bridge to the future, to make sure all segments of the community are represented.
That holdover trustee should be Cindy Warren, whose term is up in 2012. Of the four incumbents, she is most qualified to act as a community liaison for the new board.
“We absolutely made mistakes in (the) process — we assumed a lot when we saw empty board meetings, (we assumed) they didn’t care,” Warren told the editorial board.
Voters can send a strong message in favor of better governance by recalling incumbent trustees DeLuna, Lane and Martini. They can begin the process of healing the community by retaining Trustee Warren.
(Editorial board members Bill Savidge and Shannon Kuleto did not participate in writing this editorial, although Kuleto did participate in the board interviews. Former editorial board member Tom Giugni, a former school superintendent and currently a consultant for school districts throughout the state, did participate in the interviews and the editorial.)