Sunday Commentary: District Should Appoint Replacement Who Promises Not to Seek Reelection

UC Davis Law Professor Madhavi Sundar is one of three known applicants for appointment
UC Davis Law Professor Madhavi Sundar is one of three known applicants for appointment

Archaic rules of timing as well as projected costs may have made it a no-brainer for the school district to set up an appointment process, however, as the Vanguard wrote earlier this week, the district has to find a way to restore community trust.

While the Vanguard continues to assign primary responsibility for this crisis to Nancy Peterson , the district bears a huge responsibility in this and that starts to fall under the purview of the school board.  We have already criticized the district for failing to put a stop to this crisis before it led to the resignation of Nancy Peterson.

Given that the school district is unlikely to incur what they are projecting as an added $200,000 to $300,000 cost, one way the district can abide by rules that require them to fill the vacancy by May 10 or face the prospect of the county calling an election, and yet restore the sanctity of the process, is to appoint a candidate who promises not to seek reelection.

So far, we only know of three applicants – though there may be a number more that have simply not alerted the press.

Of the known candidates so far, only former School Board Member B.J. Kline has seemed to indicate his intentions not to seek election, telling the Vanguard, “My plan is to go for the appointment, I have no interest in a campaign.”

Two of the applicants lost in their most recent attempt to win election.  In 2005, there were three seats at stake and four candidates, B.J. Kline at that time, an incumbent, nevertheless finished fourth to Tim Taylor Gina Daleiden, and Sheila Allen.

To make matters worse, while the top three vote getters finished within 635 votes of each other, there was a 1750 vote gap between Sheila Allen who finished third and B.J. Kline.

One reader noted, “B.J. Kline ran and lost his re-election bid and now you think he should be appointed to the school board even though he was rejected by the voters in an election where you only had to finish in the top three to win.”  He would add, noting “the failures that occurred on his watch.”

The reference there was to Tahir Ahad, a former Chief Business Officer for the District who would create his own consultant firm out of district personnel while on the clock for DJUSD, and who mismanaged facility money.

However, the electoral loss was a decade ago.  Another candidate, Alan Fernandes, ran more recently.  In November 2012, he would run and finished third, about 2000 votes behind second place winner Nancy Peterson.  Incumbent Susan Lovenburg would finish first.

Should Alan Fernandes’ third place finish in 2012 to the board member who ultimately would resign preclude the board from appointing him this time?

Mr. Fernandes, who has been active in the school district, has also taken some controversial community stands.  He was one of the founding members of the Friends of the Davis Firefighters and a stalwart opponent to city-led reform efforts of the fire service.

“Davis firefighters work around the clock to ensure our safety yet they are under attack by a vocal minority in our community,” said group member Alan Fernandes in a news release announcing the groups’ formation.  “As a resident of a neighborhood which is outside the desired 911 response time, it is important that this group educate city officials and other citizens about the value of the firefighters and the level of service they provide to our community.”

In a co-authored op-ed last May, Mr. Fernandes opposed the reduction from 12 to 11, writing, “What the debate at City Hall comes down to is this: Our city’s fire stations are each staffed by four firefighters and now they will have only have three. Davis has three fire stations. There’s one downtown, one in South Davis, and one in West Davis. Each is staffed by four firefighters working 24-hour shifts. With that staffing level, our Fire Department covers an area of 133 square miles that experienced nearly 4,400 emergency calls last year.”

And last fall, he was one of five authors on the second letter opposing shared management services.

The letter read, “We are writing to convey our strong opposition to the action taken at the October 15, 2013 Council meeting, in which you – the City Council – voted 3-1 in favor of proceeding with the creation of a joint powers agreement that would effectively cede control of the City of Davis Fire Department to the University of California, Davis (U.C. Davis) Fire Department.”

They added, “We believe this decision was made in haste and without a full examination of the proposal’s implications.”

Mr. Fernandes has a number of strengths and has been heavily involved in the schools, but his actions last year may make for a more controversial selection than perhaps the district might like.

The same goes for UC Davis law professor, Madhavi Sunder, who has years of volunteer work in the school districts and an intriguing background, however, her work on behalf of Davis Excel has already been a point of conflict on the Vanguard.

In June 2013, she wrote a letter arguing, “Racially charged terms have been used to attack the Davis GATE (now AIM) program, from ‘segregation’ to ‘eugenics.’ These charges are far removed from reality. In fact, the Davis AIM program is one of the most diverse of all of the district’s magnet programs, with demographics that closely resemble our district as a whole.

She would add, “These programs have successfully served students and families in the district for decades. All of them have wait lists. They are stellar parts of a stellar district. At the same time, the numbers challenge us to do better.

That prompted one reader to argue, “I do not support Madhavi’s appointment. I question her motivation to get on the Board. What we do not need is another Trustee with a personal agenda – in Madhavi’s case, saving the GATE program. It would be better for her to wait until her own children are no longer enrolled as I do not think she can look beyond her personal experience or situation. Regardless of what she says, she will always be biased toward programs involving her own children.”

Already the district has a dilemma – three otherwise qualified individuals, but all with their own baggage and controversies.

Add to that the fact that the district is reeling from the Nancy Person controversy.  From our perspective, the district has badly mismanaged this crisis.  They have turned a simple dispute over who should be volleyball coach and the subsequent cutting of a player into a community-wide crisis that led to the resignation of a board member.

Under normal conditions, the opportunity to save $200,000 – or whatever the costs of a special all-mail ballot have been – should have taken precedence.  However, given how much the district has already spent on investigation charges, there is a more fundamental principle at stake here – the sanctity of our democracy and the public’s confidence in the school district.

The advantage of having a special election is that it takes the choice of replacement out of the hands of a school district, whose judgment in this entire matter we continue to question.

The clear and overwhelming disadvantage is its costliness.

So now the public is to trust that the school district is going to make a wise choice?

By letting the voters decide, the school district may have to spend a little more money, but they can help restore some of the confidence lost by the voters, and the cost of that lost confidence is enormous.

While there are many, many people qualified to serve on the board in this community, the school board is likely to pick someone they are familiar with and someone they believe who can step in immediately.  Again, under normal conditions that may seem reasonable and logical, but this is a crisis of faith for our community and any perception of nepotism or favoritism would serve to further undermine confidence.

The district does have one way around that, which does not involve an election.  The district may choose to go through the appointment process and only appoint someone who makes it clear that they will not run for election in November for the two-year seat.

At least at that point, they wouldn’t be appointing someone who becomes an instant incumbent with a huge advantage over all other candidates.

With a six-month term, we no longer have to worry about the motivations of the candidates or even that a candidate was defeated electorally.  Their job is to help the district survive for the six months and step aside to allow a permanent replacement to be selected by the voters.

It’s not ideal from anyone’s standpoint, but the district risks a lot of dangers by appointing someone who would have an immediate electoral advantage for November and beyond.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    “So now the public is to trust that the school district is going to make a wise choice?”

    So what this argues for is the matter of public perception, not a matter of reality of who may be best equipped to make “a wise choice”. I think it is worth noting that all of the recent members of the school board, that are currently being excoriated by the community and media for imprudent action ( or lack of action ) were chosen by the voters.

    So it would seem by this logic that the voters themselves were not so adept in making “wise choices”.

    1. Davis Progressive

      seems to me that the voters weren’t paying as much attention as they should have and davis seems to operate on the clique mentality. i think the voters are more likely to elect someone who will shake things up than the school board. so i think a six month appointment to someone who promises not to seek reelection is a reasonable compromise.

  2. Tia Will

    ” i think the voters are more likely to elect someone who will shake things up than the school board”

    I agree that this is probably true. What I do not agree with is that “shaking things up” would necessarily be associated with better outcomes. I see the promotion of choosing an individual who states they will not stand for future election much the same way as I see term limits. Who is really being limited is the voter. What if the appointee turns out to do a great job, and there is community consensus that this individual deserves an ongoing spot on the school board. If the individual were asked by many members of the community from diverse groups to run for election, should they then be held to their prior “promise” not to run lest they be judged as lying, manipulative, or hypocritical ? Surely wise decision making that benefits our students should trump an arbitrary promise not to run for a position.

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