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Santa Clara Education Desk: June 5, 2013

New Principals Announced

Three new principals were appointed at the May 30 special meeting of the Santa Clara Unified School Board: Michael Fong (Sutter), Susan Jezyk (Briarwood) and Lorrie Wernick (Montague).

Although principal appointments don’t typically call for special meetings, it was important, said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Brad Syth, not to leave families and staff at those schools in limbo about next year.

Wernick currently teaches at SCUSD’s Wilson alternative high school and was an elementary school principal in Cupertino. Jezyk currently serves as an assistant middle school principal in Cupertino and has taught in elementary and middle schools. Fong is currently a Title 1 specialist in San Jose, taught elementary school, and was an assistant and interim principal.

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Canova Protests Improper Board Involvement in Hiring

Trustee Jim Canova abstained from the principal appointment vote, but not because he questions the candidates’ capabilities. It was because he believes the board interfered improperly when Board President Christine Koltermann and Trustee Ina Bendis attended candidate interviews at the request of incoming Superintendent Stan Rose.

“Board Members are elected public figures and should have no presence in the [employee interview] process,” Canova said in a text message. “I will support staff recommendations that have no board member involvement.”

Board participation in hiring interviews was “not unusual” in his previous position at San Benito High School District, Rose explained at the May 23 meeting, without indicating whether he wants to make it usual at SCUSD.

Although SCUSD by-laws don’t prohibit it, previous boards have understood direct participation in district operations to be out-of-bounds for board members. In the City of Santa Clara, elected official involvement in city hiring, contracts and daily operations – “councilmanic interference” – is a misdemeanor and grounds for immediate removal.

Student Brings SCUSD’s “Toxic Culture” to Local TV Notice

“A toxic culture and many school leaders are walking out,” is how NBC Bay Area news opened its coverage of a story about Santa Clara Unified’s exodus of 15 Santa Clara Unified administrators since the Nov. 2012 election.

But what brings this story to life isn’t just what’s being said, as who’s saying it: students. One of them is Santa Clara High School junior and student body president, Sami Elamad. The other is an SCHS graduate and former student representative to the board, Andre Duarte.

Elamad, an aspiring lawyer, demonstrated his rhetorical “chops” and appetite for confrontation in a stinging critique at the May 23 board meeting, and again on NBC11’s evening news on May 30. After his remarks on May 23, Elamad sent a statement to all of the area news outlets.

“I consider the staff members that are leaving are doing so, as a direct result of the board’s behavior this year,” he wrote. “Numerous parents repeatedly gave their testimony at the board meeting when discussing how tragic it is for so many staff members to leave us…students of the district are anxious and uncomfortable with so many…leaving.

“I myself am…uncomfortable with my Principal David Grissom leaving. Mr. Grissom is one of the amazing people I have gotten to know this year, and his work as a principal is outstanding.”

Calling the board “severely fractured,” he took aim at Board President Christine Koltermann and Trustee Ina Bendis, calling them ‘juvenile’ and ‘Neanderthal.’ “This kind of behavior leads me to believe that it is not possible to entrust misfits with PhDs to work for my school district.” He further noted that board discussions “allow [other] people… to know they [trustees in question] have no understanding of public school classroom styles.”

Elamad also enumerated what he saw as efforts by board members to intimidate critics.

“In an attempt to discourage a previous board member for standing up…members Ina Bendis and Koltermann…filed a baseless police complaint against [former Board President] Patricia Flot. The Santa Clara Police Department…investigated the incident [and] after doing so, they deemed it…baseless and unnecessary.”

The complaint accused Flot of making threats, overheard by Michele Ryan, at a January meeting, to shoot Bendis and Koltermann. Ryan’s sworn statement is included in the Aug.13, 2012 police report. It was made days before the November election candidates filing deadline.

Elamad also took aim at Trustee Chris Stampolis’ recent litigious activity. “Board member Christopher Stampolis filed, in small claims court, a lawsuit against Miles Barber the owner of the Santa Clara Weekly newspaper,” Elamad continued. “I believe Stampolis did so because of the …analysis of him in the Weekly.” In that small claims suit, there was no hearing, judgment or settlement.

There is also talk that Stampolis threatened to sue individuals who opposed him in Bracher parent organizations; although none will speak on the record because they’re afraid of retaliation against themselves or their children.

Noting that there have been two superintendents in the last three years (Stan Rose is the third in four years) Elamad remarked, “I never realized that…superintendent…was a one or two year term job. If anything, it shows the instability the board is causing.” Elamad finished his analysis by suggesting that either Rose would be the board’s ventriloquist dummy or its “chew-toy.”

Ryan told NBC’s Stephanie Chuang that it was “a small group of parents and staff who have created a controversy that has distracted from district business.” Reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s 1970 “silent majority” remark that ended up accelerating public opposition to the Vietnam War, Ryan’s remark was the catalyst for a “No Confidence” petition by Students for Stability at Change.Org that that’s received 1,223 signatures as of press time – including retired SCUSD Superintendent Paul Perotti’s.

“Clearly there’s widespread dissention, and it should not be that way,” said Perotti in a phone conversation. In the past, “people in the district always wanted to work together. I find it appalling that a school district that has always had such a great culture and working environment could come to be such a place of unhappiness.”

Ryan was critical of Elamad at the May 23 meeting, because he called the district boardroom a “gas chamber.” Most who’ve spent time at board meetings probably understood Elamad’s use of the “gas” in the colloquial sense of “meaningless empty talk.” Elamad apologized in his written statement for any misunderstanding.

The SCUSD turnover also got the attention of Duarte, who joined the conversation over the weekend from college in Southern Calif.

“After attending many meetings, discussing many issues, some controversial and some not, one member stood out time after time,” Duarte wrote on Vickie Fairchild’s Santa Clara School District Board Meeting Facebook event page (there are now two identically-titled event pages).

“Ina Bendis’…lack of professionalism time after time shocked me…. It seemed as if the only opinion that mattered was her own. She would constantly interrupt not only guest speakers [and] parent and community members speaking their thoughts [but] also the School Board president Pat Flot…The more controversial the issue the more out of hand meetings would get.

“When I look down that list and see some of the most talented principals and district officials I have had the pleasure of working with, leaving to escape the mess the school district has become it deeply saddens me,” Duarte continued. “It also seems that the list keeps getting longer… looking back at what our school district once was, I too would no longer choose to work for a group of people who…created a culture in our community that does not cultivate education and growth.”

Duarte’s comments drew this response from former Superintendent Rod Adams, who retired in 2008 after serving three years: “Well said Andre, [you] nailed it!”

Larry Sacks contributed reporting for this story.

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