Vanguard Commentary: School Board Needs to Restore Community Trust

Nancy Peterson speaks against new hire at board meeting on Friday March 21, 2014
Nancy Peterson speaks against new hire at board meeting on Friday March 21, 2014

Last night, not surprisingly, the school board took what they deemed to be the path of least resistance by setting up an appointment process which will allow them to appoint someone until November and hold special elections that run concurrent with the general election.

Candidates who run in November will then have to choose if they want to run for the two-year term or the four-year term.

This was the obvious move for the school district, given the costs that would be associated with the alternative, but it is a huge mistake on a number of levels.

Mistakes made by the current members of the school board have cost the district fiscally and have undermined the confidence of the community in the ability of the school board to make the right decisions.

The Vanguard learned yesterday that on top of the $22,000 that the investigation into Julie Crawford cost the school district, Leigh Choate’s complaint in 2010 cost the district 48.55 hours and a total of $10,679.

This is a conflict that began in 2010 when Leigh Whitmire Choate was still the head volleyball coach, Nancy Peterson was her assistant, and Julie Crawford coached the JV volleyball team.  A dispute erupted over whether to bring the frosh coach back the following year, Nancy Peterson did not want the coach back and Ms. Choate wanted to bring the frosh coach back.

As we reported in March, according to Ms. Choate, “The following year I retired from coaching after a very long coaching career and Julie took over the varsity team and the other coach took the JV and a new frosh coach was hired. Nancy had asked Julie to do the same thing she had asked me, don’t hire the now JV coach back and Julie also said no.”

“This just continued to escalate from there as both I and Julie stood up for what we believed to be best for the vb program at DHS and Nancy didn’t agree. Nancy was only an assistant coach with me for one year. Nancy didn’t want to coach, she just wanted to have a say in who did,” she wrote.  “IMO it was not Nancy’s goal to coach, I think it was an effort to get close to the program so that she could try and control how things were done within the program.”

It was this conflict that ultimately led school board member Nancy Peterson to pull Coach Crawford’s Variable Service Agreement in February 2013, it led to Ms. Peterson improperly admonishing the coach during a public meeting in July, it led to Ms. Petersons’ own retaliation complaint, and ultimately it led to her resignation in early March.

The Vanguard continues to assign primary responsibility for this crisis to Nancy Peterson.  It was she who pulled the VSA and made the improper comments last summer which escalated the crisis, it was she who, after admonishing the coach, sent her daughter back to the team, it was her family who filed the complaint and leaked the results to the press, and it was she who published the letter that ultimately led to her resignation.

However, 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.

In our view, the school board president erred last summer when she failed to either prevent or admonish Nancy Peterson when Ms. Peterson publicly criticized a district employee at a school board meeting.

The school district itself poorly handled the complaint process, allowing costs to spiral out of control and then waiting until the last moment before informing Julie Crawford that they were pulling her VSA.

We also believe that the school board took a hardline stance by upholding the administrative findings, despite the investigator’s qualification that there was no “willful mal-intent” on the part of Ms. Crawford.

A few weeks ago, Athletic Director Dennis Foster resigned from his position effective at the end of the year.

One of his biggest concerns in this whole thing is the chain of command.  Dennis Foster told the Vanguard that after his first year he created a chain of command that is in the athletic handbook, board approved and in place now for three years.

“It is not respected,” he said.  “(And) it creates the biggest problem.”

The bottom line from our perspective is that 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 $100,000 – 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.

There are several unfortunate factors at play here.  First, while it is understandable that the school district wanted to deal with the appeal of the complaint against Julie Crawford first, by waiting to determine how to fill the vacancy, they ran one month off the clock.

However, even last night, the district had a clear choice – they have to act to fill the vacancy by May 9 – sixty days from the time of the effective vacancy – but if they do not do that, then Yolo County would conduct a special election.

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 school board as a whole handled this matter exceedingly poorly from the point at which Ms. Peterson pulled the VSA until the point at which they rehired Julie Crawford, days after they voted to uphold her punishment.

Even now the Vanguard is receiving word of additional concerns from district employees.  District employees are worried that within the district there will be a wave of retaliations and forced resignations.  This is a crisis that apparently goes far deeper than just the athletic department and one school board member.

We have heard and received numerous complaints about district bullying, but no one is willing to speak out publicly.  As one person put it to the Vanguard confidentially, there is a known level of fear instilled over losing a livelihood if they should speak out.

It is clear that a Grand Jury must look into not only the Peterson matter but the entirety of HR in the district.  Unfortunately, no one is willing to speak out publicly until a Grand Jury can get involved and protect the employees from whistle-blowing retaliation.

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 qualified people to serve on the board in this community, the school board is likely to pick someone they are familiar with and someone they believe that 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.

We prefer that the board allows the county to call for a special election and let the voters decide who should fill out the remaining two and half years of Nancy Peterson’s term.  But if they insist on an appointment, let it be a temporary one that will serve until November and only serve until November.

The operations of the school district have reached a crisis point and an internal appointment process will only continue to exacerbate the crisis.  It appears that the Nancy Peterson saga was just one  very notable example of a much bigger problem.

—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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16 Comments

  1. Mr. Toad

    Depends on who they pick. Spending $100,000 more on this would be more wasted money on top of the $32,000 already wasted. They can actually do a lot of good if they pick the right person using the person’s qualifications symbolically. By choosing a parent who has actual experience in teaching and evaluating student performance they can start to restore the trust between parents and teachers that best serves the kids and was so badly damaged by Nancy Peterson when she tried to exploit mistrust between community groups to her advantage. Hopefully someone with those qualifications will step forward and try to help clean up the mess. We will need to wait and see who comes forward and if the school board can start to right the ship.

    1. wdf1

      Mr. T: Spending $100,000 more on this would be more wasted money on top of the $32,000 already wasted.

      The Davis Enterprise (Jeff Hudson) reports a higher price tag for a special election — between $200,000 and $300,000. source

        1. wdf1

          Board agenda documents on this issue reports a price range of $100K to $300K. I figure $100K is for mail-only election, the high end of $300K for a traditional poll election. Past mail-only school parcel tax elections came in a little under $100K.

    2. Davis Progressive

      “Hopefully someone with those qualifications will step forward and try to help clean up the mess.”

      they are going to select someone from their clique. this isn’t the change you want.

      1. Mr. Toad

        Why not let this play out a little more before criticizing them. We don’t even know who will apply yet. David Put up what he thinks they need to do. I disagree and put up what I think they need to do. Michael put up what he thinks they need to do. Wouldn’t it be more productive for everyone to put up their ideas and then watch what they do to see if they are going to stop digging.

        1. Davis Progressive

          while you’re waiting, the ship leaves dock and cannot return. i don’t see what’s to be gained by letting a flawed process play out.

          1. Mr. Toad

            The sub has been stranded on the bottom for far too long. Its doubtful they could go any direction but up. In fairness they have made some moves to try to right the ship. They told Peterson to get her personal issues off their field and gave Crawford a coaching contract for the fall, albeit, after throwing her under the bus. Obviously there is much more to do but condemning them before they make a choice on who to appoint isn’t helpful. Its one thing to predict they won’t get it right or attack their choice after you know who it is but being so dubious about their ability to even fill the vacancy is a little too nihilistic even for this jaded observer. There are plenty of reasons to be critical regarding the DJUSD Board of Trustees and district administration but the process to date of filling the vacancy created by the demise of Nancy Peterson is not one of them.

  2. DT Businessman

    From an outsiders perspective, the problems at the school board are not dissimilar to those at the city council. All too often the pronouncements start off with “Because 2+2=5, I believe….” That leaves the community wondering what the heck is going on. Is it that our community leaders have poor reasoning skills or is there a “1” happening behind the scenes so that the reasoning actually driving the decision is 2+2+1=5?

    Regardless, the needed remedy on both the school board and CC is better governance, greater transparency, clear communication of guiding decision-making principals, critical/analytical thinking, priority setting, matching resources to priorities, and leadership. The individual that I’m describing is someone akin to a governance/leadership technocrat. I’m skeptical that either a special election or an appointment get’s us there. In either case, the selection criteria is likely to be far different from those that I propose. Despite my skepticism, hopefully the school board will step outside their comfort zone in making the appointment. The Davis Downtown board, for example, has 5 or 6 members past or present who have the necessary attributes. I’m sure there are many individuals in our community with strong board experience and governance skills.

    I have a different take than David on the 6 months and out. The school board needs a member that will help restore confidence in DJUSD governance. That’s not going to happen in 6 months. Two and a half years seems more reasonable to get the job done.

    -Michael Bisch

    1. South of Davis

      Michael wrote:

      > All too often the pronouncements start off with “Because 2+2=5, I believe…

      It sounds like Michael just read the recent post on teacher pay where they got a 2% raise + another 2%, but didn’t get a “raise”…

      > Regardless, the needed remedy on both the school board and CC is better
      > governance, greater transparency, clear communication

      It is sad that we don’t have “clear communication” and every day get a “half cent tax” that is really a “0.5% tax” and a “stop-loss” that is really a “raise”…

      The POU is even worse when the city says we will “save 20%” but can’t tell us what it will cost to buy the utility and/or run it…

      1. Barack Palin

        “The POU is even worse when the city says we will “save 20%” but can’t tell us what it will cost to buy the utility and/or run it…”

        Good point SOD, and I’ll add they can’t tell us how much converting to green energy is actually going to cost.

    2. Davis Progressive

      “I have a different take than David on the 6 months and out. The school board needs a member that will help restore confidence in DJUSD governance. That’s not going to happen in 6 months. Two and a half years seems more reasonable to get the job done.”

      i think what david is saying is he doesn’t trust the board to select that member. he thinks we will get another person from the same club as the current school board. I tend to fear that as well, as yes while they would be up for election in six months, they get to be an incumbent and most of the better candidates will go for a four year seat with no incumbent in the race.

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