We have largely defended the district in their handling of the Peterson-quagmire, and as we did in the piece two weeks ago, “You Make the Call,” we believe that the overwhelmingly responsible party here is Nancy Peterson and her family. That said, there were a number of things that the district – particularly in hindsight – could have done differently to head this off.
Conflict of Interest
One of the interesting things we learned last week, but did not get a chance to report, was that Nancy Peterson was actually warned by her own supporters and campaign team to stay away from volleyball if and when she got elected.
The conflict started rather innocuously last February when Nancy Peterson pulled the consent item on Julie Crawford’s VSA (variable service agreement).
That triggered an April 9, 2013, letter from former football coach Dave Whitmire who stated, “Some members of the Board of Education in Davis are using their power to micro-manage the athletic program at Davis High. Coaches and other district employees are afraid to say anything in support of a coach for fear of losing their jobs. This is a blatant abuse of power.”
This should have been a red flag to the school board and administration, but they did little to deal with the issue of conflict of interest and abuse of power.
This issue finally blew up in the summer when the district declined to renew the VSA, and the school board overruled them.
Two weeks after the district decision, the board met in closed session and voted in open session to reverse the earlier administrative decision made by Dennis Foster and Matt Best, and to rehire Crawford as the DHS Girls volleyball coach for the upcoming fall season.
Nancy Peterson would be the lone dissenting vote in a 3-1 vote, with Tim Taylor not on the phone line when the vote occurred. She then threw fuel on the fire when she stated, “My vote reflects nothing more than my continued pursuit of ideals centered on children. I cannot in good conscience vote to approve Ms. Crawford as a coach for young adults.”
This statement clearly threw gasoline on the fire. At the time, we suspect that the school board and administration thought this might end the conflict, but that was a clear misread by each. Instead of handling the dispute at a level before it became a crisis, the school board and district did nothing.
What could they have done? Given the letter from Mr. Whitmire and the statement from Ms. Peterson, they needed to figure out better the nature of the dispute and how to deal with it. Would mediation at that time have been more fruitful? Would a conflict of interest policy have made any difference at that time?
There are a lot of people who question the decision for the district to hire an outside investigator – at a larger cost than an internal one – but, given the nature of the dispute, we do not disagree.
The Enterprise in their column writes, “There’s another lesson to be learned, this time by the administrators who sat on Crawford’s paperwork and ultimately passed the buck to an outside law firm that charges by the hour.”
They continue, “We trust that in the future we can find a more efficient, less costly way to handle complaints in-house. The on-site administrators have the best perspective to deal with personnel issues, and should be able to handle problems without making a $20,000 mountain out of a molehill.”
While we agree this was mishandled, we don’t agree that the outside investigation was the problem. After all, how can you ask an administrator to investigate a complaint essentially filed by their boss, Nancy Peterson? I am rather appalled that the Enterprise would write that and wonder if they just saw the dollar tag and failed to think through the mechanics.
As Gina Daleiden put it to the Vanguard on February 19, “Generally speaking, you might imagine that when an investigation involves a Board Member or a top administrator , it really needs to be done by someone outside the (District Office) rather than internally. The nature of the complaint might also necessitate an outside person or an attorney/professional investigator. It does very much depend on the individual case.”
We agree with Ms. Daleiden here.
However, the decision to use Alexander Sperry is questionable for several reasons. First, Mr. Sperry is in the same law firm as the district’s attorney, Eva Fichtner. But, more importantly, the Vanguard learned that Leigh Whitmire Choate filed a complaint against Nancy Peterson, interestingly enough, for retaliation, and the investigator in that case was Alexander Sperry.
There are all sorts of problems from the district’s perspective here, but the bottom line is that, while the district was probably justified in an outside investigation considering who the complainant was, the choice of outside investigators is in question.
The fourth questionable move is that the investigation was complete in November, and Ms. Crawford was led to believe that, despite the results of the investigation, she would be the boys volleyball coach and somehow and for reasons that have not been explained, the decision to terminate her VSA was made right before the start of the volleyball season.
Had the decision been made in November, at least this process could have played out in ways that might have been more quiet – without the public’s attention or the leaks – and they would have had two months to sort things out.
Chain of Command and Authority
Gina Daleiden noted that the district administrative staff handled the process of the complaint and the investigation. The board did not approve the investigation nor the extent and amount.
The board was not briefed on this complaint until it came to them in an appeal and they did not read the report until after they voted to hear the appeal.
Had the board found out about this in September when the complaint was filed or November when the report was completed, could the board have stopped this?
Abiding Question: Why Didn’t the Board Speak Out Sooner?
The Davis School Board is the only portion of the district directly responsible to the voters and taxpayers. The biggest complaint that we have against them is that, while they were hamstrung by insufficient conflict policies and appeals processes, there were plenty of times when the board should have done more, should have spoken out sooner.
By the time the issue exploded for the first time last summer, the school board should have had enough information to understand that there was an ongoing conflict between one of their board members and a coach. They needed to do more to stop the escalation.
Nancy Peterson pulled the VSA in February – and they said nothing. Nancy Peterson made publicly derogatory remarks about a district employee (remember, Julie Crawford is not just a volleyball coach, she is a certificated employee), they did nothing – why didn’t they demand mediation? Why didn’t they admonish Nancy Peterson? They did not speak out in any way, manner or form.
They overruled their district staff and yet made no public policy changes. They were in a position to stop every bit of this, but by staying silent they allowed the conflict to fester and grow until one of their own was forced to resign.
Yes – she was forced to resign, and rightly so by her own actions. The question that the rest of the community needs to ask is why someone did not say something sooner.
So, while we urge patience and believe that much of this was out of control, there were times when the district and board did not act when they needed to do so, in a clear and precise manner.
—David M. Greenwald reporting