Last week’s 7-hour standing-room-only Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD) board meeting brought to mind many clichés, foremost among them, “cruel and unusual punishment,” making clear that anyone attending future school board meetings should come prepared with a picnic basket and change of underwear.
Nothing on the agenda was resolved in the muddle of parliamentary process and acrimonious debate, but the marathon meeting did make some things crystal clear.
One is the value of institutional process that mandates a formal sequence of proposal and fact-finding before discussion -and the chaos (i.e. seven-hour meetings accomplishing nothing) that ensues when such processes aren’t followed. Second, a lack of respect is contagious; manifesting itself Thursday night in a degree of raucousness more common in the British House of Commons than SCUSD board meetings.
The meeting also made clear the board’s new, controlling majority of Ina Bendis, Christine Koltermann, Michele Ryan and Chris Stampolis stands ready – another cliché – “to break some eggs to make an omelet.”
In this case the omelet is their particular educational philosophy – with Bracher Elementary School as the laboratory – and “eggs” include namely board precedence, district policy, and state education law. It’s an approach similar in style, if not substance, to the ultimately recalled Dover, PA school board that dictated creationism be taught instead of biology.
New Officers Not Quite a Clean Sweep
A new broom sweeps clean, and controlling majority intended to do just that by breaking with board precedent and electing a new president, Christine Koltermann, who was not the sitting vice president (Albert Gonzalez, who is the board’s sole Latino, a group that Trustee Stampolis has repeatedly claimed is under-represented in Santa Clara elected offices).
However, when it came to electing the vice president, Trustee Ryan broke with Stampolis, Bendis and Koltermann; casting the decisive vote for Gonzalez and against Bendis.
It’s All About Bracher
More than half the meeting – 4+ hours – was dedicated to a discussion of two proposals specific to Bracher Elementary School, where Stampolis’ children are students.
The first was adding a 6th grade – the original proposal was to add 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, but the state education code (Title 5 of the California Code*) proved to be too high a bar to be cleared this early in the new majority’s tenure.
The only discernable facts are that the Bracher School Site Council had some discussions with Superintendent Bobbie Plough about concerns they had about Cabrillo Middle School. The outcome was a visit to Cabrillo, and Plough received no requests to move further on the question. (Trustee Bendis has crossed swords in the past with Cabrillo Principal Stan Garber, demanding access to classrooms and teachers that she considered inappropriate, according to sources close to the district who have asked to be anonymous because of fears of retaliation.)
The second was to directly authorize a new phonics education program, also at Bracher – Zoophonics – that has never been evaluated by the district’s curriculum committee, or placed on the district’s list of teaching materials through the standard and state-mandated procedure.
Like politburos in communist countries, this majority claimed its authority to bypass the district’s study and evaluation processes by virtue of being the vanguard of Bracher parent interests.
“This was addressed to me by the teachers and the principal at Bracher,” said Stampolis, concerning Zoophonics. “This is an item that was presented to me by instructional leaders at the highest-performing school south of Kern County.”
“We’re talking 75 pieces of paper with 65 to 70 that marked ‘yea,'” apparently referring to an opinion poll that he claimed the Bracher School Site Council had conducted among parents, although this event and its results had not hitherto been shared with the school board.
“I know parents who’ve moved their children to Discovery because it is a K-8,” offered Trustee Koltermann.
“I’ve had considerable input…that we do not have a strong-enough phonics supplemental material in our curriculum,” said Trustee Bendis, addressing the district’s curriculum committee dismissively, saying, “Now that we have some new leadership, [SCUSD should consider] whether we should bolstering the phonics component we do have.”
“For many years the district has honored the dedication and professionalism of our teachers,” said SCUSD curriculum and instruction director Mary Kay Going disputed both Bendis’ statement as well as the trustee’s implication that the curriculum committee was inbred.
“For some reason there’s an implication that we don’t teach phonics,” Going said. “Our district is looked upon as a leader in early literacy because of our balanced instruction in early literacy.
“All teachers and all staff have an opportunity to step forward and be on the team,” Going said, referring to the curriculum committee. “To circumvent the rights of the teachers is not OK. They decide what goes in the classroom. We have a process. We are also obligated to follow the [state education] code. That clearly identifies that selecting curriculum should be in the hands of teachers.”
None of these parents or “instructional leaders” lobbying for these changes spoke at last week’s board meeting despite their reported enthusiasm. (Bracher Principal Wayne Leach said they were “intimidated,” but he declined the Weekly’s request for further comment on the subject.)
The only endorsement for either proposal – outside the board – was a tepid endorsement for a 6th grade at Bracher from Leach, said by some to be a Stampolis favorite to replace Superintendent Bobbie Plough who announced her retirement in June 2013 on Friday.
“I can’t remember the exact results,” Leach said of the parent survey. “I have had two parents share with the board that [they] were interested in going toward K-8… If the Superintendent comes to me and wants me to develop a plan…I would do that…all we’ve asked is, tell us the direction you’d like us to go…We will make whatever is to happen, happen, and it will be terrific.”
However, the district’s teachers were out in force to voice their dissatisfaction with what they perceived as the board majority’s favoritism.
“I campaigned for measure A in hopes of providing resources for all our students,” said teacher Kate Grimes. “Maybe K-8 schools could be benefit all of our students. Instead I see on our agenda one item to reconfigure one school next year. Is this the best use of our money?”
“We lost our 20:1 [teacher-student ration],” said substitute teacher and volunteer district science fair director Jody Muirhead. “I see that every time I go in. I spent my fall fundraising for the science fair. In Silicon Valley the science fair should not be run by a volunteer. We had to get rid of elementary music…but you want to change one school to K-8. What about K-2? K-3? You can’t decide tonight to start next month accepting kids into a program you haven’t even defined,” she concluded.
District parents made similar objections.
“There appears to be no needs assessment done for this request,” said district parent April Spurgess. “All there is a request from the community and a year-old agenda item…I have to say, where is the data?”
“While in a general way I can see support for 6th grade,” said parent and active PTA and Bracher School Site Council member Teresa Debbage, “I have a concern about analysis and prioritizing how money is utilized…We’ve just stepped out of a dire financial situation…In anything like this…it should have a more inclusive element.”
“I strongly support the concept of K-8 schools,” said Trustee Jim Canova. “But I think where we differ…is that such a school has to be built that way from the ground up…like Don Callejon. I would want to see this come back as a planning item.”
But planning items are exactly what the majority wasn’t interested in. Board members, said Bendis, “can request…anything that they want to request….[and] have a right to agendize it as the type of item they think it should be.”
Stampolis Tries for an End Run, Bendis Takes Aim At District’s Lawyer
As evening turning into morning, and not even half of the 20-item agenda had been covered, Stampolis made a motion that all the remaining agenda items be referred to board president Koltermann to enact – including two added by Bendis concerning the district’s legal counsel.
The first was an item-by-item audit of district legal expenses and the second was to fire the district’s current attorney and replace him with an “ad hoc” legal committee appointed by the board – ostensibly as a cost-savings measure. Bendis was the subject of at least two formal harassment complaints made by district employees during her 6 years on the board.
“If we have good counsel it saves us a lot…down the road,” observed Trustee Canova at midnight. “I don’t want to see this as a way for board members as a smokescreen to get legal counsel in here that agrees with them most of the time…Dr. Bendis has had major disagreements with Dick Nowack.”
The best summary of what went down that night came from community activist and 2010 candidate for SCUSD board Anna Strauss. “A number of new board members ran on a platform of transparency. At the first meeting we have a blatant disregard of transparency…You have action items that you haven’t got any community or staff input on…How long do you think it would take to get through 20 action items?” The marathon meeting is evidence, Strauss concluded, “You don’t want to be transparent.”
Find board meeting agendas and recordings at www.santaclarausd.org/overview.cfm?subpage=145153.