For years, it seemed, the school board was about one thing – holding off the economic collapse just long enough, through community charity and fundraising drives from the Davis Schools Foundation, along with securing the big and more permanent chunks of money coming from parcel taxes.
And while one candidate, Jose Granda, has called this abuse of the taxpayers, even as he proposes elaborate and extravagant programs that would cost the district millions, the voters overwhelming approved all of these measures, with the support coming at a low of 67% and peaking at 75%.
But if a recovering economy, the passage of Prop 30, and a more stable state budget position have reduced the need to focus on the fiscal issues, the volleyball scandal and the stunning Nancy Peterson resignation shook this community to its foundation – no longer could the community be content to simply view the school board at a distance.
A funny thing happened on Wednesday night, when the Vanguard hosted, along with Davis Media Access, a candidates forum, and the community came out to see it. There was an unfortunate occurrence that we did not know at the time we set the date – we were running in conflict with the Davis High back-to-school night. But, no matter, over 100 people came out to attend and the interesting thing was, while there were parents with young children in attendance, it could have been a Vanguard city council event.
The questions that came from the audience were also transforming. While we still got questions about the achievement gap, we had questions about the failure of the school system in the Daniel Marsh murder trial, bullying, LGBT issues, accountability of teachers to parents, school district chain of command, special interests, and conflicts.
The change is not just about the Nancy Peterson scandal – the community has been stunned in recent months with a series of brutal assaults, hate crimes and murders that had been foreign to the community – which had gone nearly seven years between murders prior to 2011.
In the spring of 2013, Gloria Partida’s son, Mikey, was brutally attacked in a high profile and horrifying hate crime. While the legal system sought to deal with his attacker through a local prison sentence, Gloria Partida joined with others in the community in the spirit of “Not in Our Town,” to fight back through community education and activism. Born from those efforts is The Phoenix Coalition, a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
“I think people realize the district is at a critical juncture and reputation is on the line,” Ms. Partida told the Vanguard. The Phoenix Coalition provided drinks and refreshments to the forum attenders.
“The Coalition’s concern is, of course, with promoting a pro-social community,” said Ms. Partida. “That community cannot thrive in a place where all students are not an important consideration and, while the community involvement and concern for our schools is a positive thing, it inadvertently and ironically increases the achievement gap and creates an environment ripe for the Marshes and Garzons of our community.”
She would add, “The new and obviously inevitable focus on technology will guillotine the population of students already trying to bridge the gap and floundering to find the resources to just get on the internet. The stress of achievement and lack of tools given to students to manage their emotional development is an explosive combination. The questions asked last night are telling of what the community prioritizes and while it is important to maintain our standards and unique school community we will be blindsided and taken down by issues we consider and treat as secondary.”
While the brutal attack by Garzon and murders by Marsh would stun this community, in one aspect the Nancy Peterson fiasco stunned it with its banality.
For candidate Madhavi Sunder, she noted, “I definitely think that the problem with the volleyball episode last year went far beyond the fact that we didn’t have a conflict of interest policy. We spent $22,000 and countless personnel hours investigating a complaint involving a board member’s child. This really could have been handled and should have been handled differently.”
Candidate Mike Nolan told the Vanguard that, while school board members often tell the public, “It’s all about our kids,” in reality, “the Volleyball fiasco changed the inflection of that statement. It began to sound that what was really meant was: ‘It is all about MY kids.’ “
“Nancy Peterson at least had the courage to resign,” Mr. Nolan stated. “The savvy political types were dumbfounded because, as one explained, Nancy would have many chances throughout her term to exact revenge from the coach as well as those on the board whom she thought let her down.”
“All of which indicates a political board at odds with the disinterested public service one would expect from well functioning school board,” he continued. “Of course how the remaining members of the board handled the matter shows an effort to sustain the firing of the coach, with her re-hiring for the girls team 5 days later.”
“What did that show?” Mr. Nolan would ask. “That a firing instigated by an individual board member will be sustained by the entire board, but in the face of popular support for the coach, the board decided that she was well qualified to be re-hired for the next season. And, in the face of this cognitive dissonance, two members, apparently with the approval of the others, demanded that the public ‘get over it’ and stop discussing the matter.”
He added, “Of course, the board members will tell you that they listen to the public. But when they did not like what they heard, their rebuttal was to ‘shut-up.’ And these are the very voters that the board will have to approach, hat in hand, and ask for a renewal of the parcel tax.”
Alan Fernandes on Wednesday noted that rebuilding trust is critical because, without trust, the community is not going to continue to support parcel tax expenditures that enable the school district to fiscally stay afloat.
He would later tell the Vanguard, “The recent situation surrounding Nancy Peterson’s resignation brought to focus the issue of trust and conflicts of interest for school board trustees. Specifically, the Peterson situation highlighted the fact that a school board member must represent the community at-large. Further, it brought to the community’s attention that district policies must be drafted for the community at-large and implemented in a consistent manner so as to not favor a school board member or active volunteer anymore than a hard working guardian.”
“Last night’s forum reiterated that the misuse of the public’s trust is still on the conscience of the community,” he stated. “There were questions about trust and conflicts of interest. One member of the community asked each candidate to explain what special interests each candidate represents. Although I do not represent any one particular special interest and stated that at the forum, I do have children in our schools and want them to succeed, but not at the expense of other children in our district.”
“My top priority as a board member is to restore the public’s trust,” Mr. Fernandes reiterated. “The school board needs the confidence of the community to effectively develop and implement policy and procedure for the schools.”
He added, “The Nancy Peterson situation reminded us that just because someone is an avid volunteer within our schools does not by itself mean that this volunteer service comes with more direct access or special advantage within the school system. It also does not mean that the particular person may understand the role of a Trustee of the District better than others.”
Barbara Archer agreed that rebuilding trust is important. She noted, “Our community is engaged in our educational system probably more so than many other communities.”
“PTAs/PTOs actively raise money for salary for positions (this started in 2010), such as school counselors at elementary level, computer specialists, and reading aides,” she stated. “In positions alone, I have heard a figure of $350,000 donated for salaries alone. These groups are also donating toward site technology budgets. Our community also donates generously to charities like the Davis Schools Foundation, Blue & White Foundation and Davis School Arts Foundation. And then there is the parcel tax that accounts for about $9 million in salaries and program. Parents and community members also donate large sums to a wide variety of music and athletic booster organizations.”
“Our community has stepped up to the plate time and time again for education. I believe we have to rebuild trust in the community so that they know their money is being used wisely,” she stated. “We need to be transparent with our spending and look into a better system of checks and balances. My commitment for this new board is that we work together with staff to define new methods of budget transparency that are equal to the level of commitment shown by our community. We must be donor and customer service oriented.”
On Wednesday night, the community did not speak these words. Most were worried about the future rather than the past, but for the first time in a long time it seems that the public is tuning in and they are not asking the board members about their service on site councils and the district’s strategic planning committee, they want to know if the candidates, who will represent 80 percent of the new board, heard the message on openness, transparency, and not putting their kids’ needs above those of the rest of the district.
The new candidates should be judged on what they will do to ensure that never again will we have to spent $22,000 to determine if a board member’s child was properly cut from a volleyball team.
—David M. Greenwald reporting