“His explanations explanatory of explanations explained was interminable,” Abraham Lincoln once said of his political rival Stephen Douglas. He could have been talking about Santa Clara Unified School District’s recent round of marathon meetings.
Between Dec. 13 and Dec. 18, the board held about 12 hours of public meetings – including one running to 1:00 a.m. Yet almost no action was taken and little routine business conducted.
Responsibility for this rests squarely with the new, controlling majority. They opened a Pandora’s box of discord at the Dec. 14 meeting by packing the agenda with a series of tendentious, ill conceived and poorly informed agenda items that unleashed a serial tongue-lashing from teachers and parents. This, ironically, achieved one agenda item: broad participation.
The day after the Dec. 13 marathon, Friday, Superintendent Bobbie Plough announced her retirement in June 2013 due to family reasons.
Over the following weekend, Board President Christine Koltermann called a special meeting to “adopt a process for initiating” a superintendent search and to “take action to initiate a process through which SCUSD will ensure equal access to all individuals who wish to attend our Board meetings…and to proactively avoid an atmosphere that would tend to suppress expression of minority views.” Trustee Ina Bendis wrote both agenda items.
But the demons of disorder weren’t going to be so easily corralled.
Tuesday’s meeting turned into what can only be described as a meeting to call a meeting that wasted more than an hour establishing whether or not the meeting had been properly announced – evidently it hadn’t – under the California Open Meetings Law (the Brown Act) before adjourning to the next day.
Wednesday’s meeting opened – yet another standing-room-only audience – with Trustee Andy Ratermann stating that he planned to make a protest by voting ‘no’ on everything, starting with the agenda.
“The impression I get is the new majority on the board wants to minimize input where it is critical of their agenda…[and] to move board activity into a subcommittee, which can legally limit access and restrict information they feel is unfavorable…To me, this very meeting is an affront to transparency. To call a meeting…when parents, staff and teachers will be minimally involved is unacceptable.
“I…move that we table today’s action items until the next regular board meeting. That we have the administrative staff prepare the background information and present it at the next regular meeting where we can have full public input. A meeting where all board members can attend and will have the time needed to fully consider these important issues.”
As the meeting unfolded, it seemed that Ratermann’s remarks made an impression.
Koltermann began asserting herself in the presidential role of a CEO and referee. Trustee Chris Stampolis extended peace feelers to Ratermann – ultimately joining the rest of the board, except Bendis, in voting to support Ratermann’s motion to launch the superintendent search by working through District staff.
The board agreed to establish a calendar that would keep meetings manageable. They discussed rotating meetings to different school sites. Koltermann spoke briefly about investigating TV and online meeting access – something that would be very welcome to already-stressed parents.
This didn’t keep the meeting brief, though, or exorcize the demons of motions to make motions about making motions. Nor did it prevent an encore of Dec.13’s disorderliness. And it didn’t keep certain board members from being lambasted for a third time by parents and teachers.
I’ve attended the past two meetings…which…were not beneficial to our Hispanic community,” said parent Hector Sandoval, adding that a focus on math and English education would be more useful to Hispanic students.
“I think you need to define ‘access to board meetings’ for yourselves,” said Tracy Pope, Santa Clara teachers union president. “You set the tone for this district. And thus far, it’s not a very auspicious beginning…we [have to] sit for hours and hours on end listening to the pontificating of several board members.”
Parent Leslie Close added some welcome humor with an algebra problem for the Board. “A meeting room contains x seats, but x+y people are expected. Do you a) Let people stand in the hallway? b) Call two additional meetings to discuss why there aren’t enough seats in the building? Or c) Hold the meeting in another place. Ninety-five percent of my respondents chose ‘c.'”
But at the end of the evening, several voiced cautious optimism that things had taken a turn for the better. And we should remember that it’s only in fiction that Christmas miracles happen overnight. Even Jesus took nine months to be born.
Bendis Won’t Bend
Bendis, however, remained immune to the embryonic collegiality on the SCUSD board. “I’m sad to know that Mr. Ratermann has already decided before hearing the board, he’s already decided he’s going to vote no! I’ve been told ‘just be quiet and cast your vote.’ Well, I’m not doing this.
“The most education-related business…[is]… making sure [the District] has the best superintendent,” she said. If there are people here who think that’s not important, I guess I disagree.
She also made moves to appropriate a central role for herself in the search for a new Superintendent. Her agenda item proposed forming a board sub-committee to recommend qualified recruitment firms.
“I did over 30 hours of work,” Bendis said of the previous Superintendent search. “I have a knack for getting information,” something that was very useful to the board, she added. “This may sound self-aggrandizing. It’s not, but you can take it that way…. I don’t see what’s wrong with having a small group preparing the information for the Board and for you… Board members who are willing to work over the holiday can do work and start checking references.”
Ratermann didn’t buy it. “I think we have a problem of paradigms. Paradigms filter the information…My concern with a committee is that they’re going to filter it through their paradigms…I feel strongly…preparatory work should not be done by board members or a subset of board members, but by our staff.
“There’s a sense of urgency, but who is going to do this work?” he added. “Some of our board members are scheduled for international travel the end of this week. When are they going to do this research? During their travel?” Ratermann was referring to a Dec. 21-29 trip sponsored by an arm of the Chinese Ministry of Education, the Hanban Institute.
When she wasn’t highlighting her talents Tuesday evening, Bendis was scolding the audience (for “sarcasm” and “snickering”) and her colleagues on the Board.
“With respect to… reserved seating,” she said, “certainly we have to reserve seating for our assistant superintendent and our translator…and if there are members of staff who need to make a presentation…But we can’t have reserved seating for anyone…who’s a member of this organization or that organization…I and many others were offended at the notion that there so many people who weren’t part of an exalted class.”
Setting her sights on Tracy Pope, who talked past the two-minute limit for public comment, Bendis said – in conclusion to her own 10 minutes of remarks – “We try to inculcate in our students respect for the rules…if the rule is talk for two minutes and then after two minutes you stop.” Bendis added that public comment can be limited to 20 minutes total per topic by California law.
Of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Bendis spoke for around 45 minutes, according to the Weekly’s rough calculations.
Quote of the Week: “I have a knack for getting information.” – SCUSD Trustee Ina Bendis.