School Board Candidate Question #5: Nancy Peterson Aftermath

Nancy Peterson resigned back in March
Nancy Peterson resigned back in March

This is the final of five questions to the school board candidates. Question #5: What is the biggest lesson we should take away from the Peterson scandal from last winter and what steps would you take as a school board member to prevent its recurrence in the future?

Barbara Archer: The biggest lesson that we should take away from the Peterson issue is that a board member must always do what is best for the district even if his or her own child is involved in a situation. The board is revamping its conflict of interest and district complaint policies. These policies will include specific language on when a board member will need to recuse himself/herself from a vote and what to do if a board member’s relative is involved in a district-level matter.

In addition, this situation brought to light how much we need to be as transparent as possible with our finances. The legal bills for this case shocked many especially because so many community members are intimately involved in raising funds for district programs and positions, and to them, $20,000 is what their fundraising goal was, so it is significant to them. I believe that explaining district processes and expenditures to community members would help in understanding the liabilities the district must weigh.

Bob Poppenga: Over the last 6 months I have talked to many members of our community who have expressed disappointment and frustration with the way that the District handled the Nancy Peterson situation. One priority of the new School Board should be to find ways to regain community trust; this will take time and effort.

In my view there are several “take home” lessons from the Peterson controversy: 1) smart people don’t always know right from wrong or act ethically, 2) clear code-of-ethics and conflict-of-interest statements need to be prominently displayed on the District website and regularly reviewed by the Board, 3) policies and procedures for handling complaints against District personnel need to be in-place, publically accessible, followed, and regularly reviewed for effectiveness, and 4) people need to speak up, privately at first and publically if necessary, as soon as possible when individuals violate established code-of-ethics, conflicts-of-interest, or District policies and procedures.

As a School Board Trustee, I would advocate for the following in order to minimize the chances of a future incident occurring:

  • adopting a clear code-of-ethics and conflict-of-interest statement for the Board. With regard to ethical behavior of board members, there are several templates that can be used. A quick Internet search identified Texas, New Jersey, and Connecticut as states with established codes-of-ethics (worth reading).
  • publically and regularly (perhaps annually) reviewing adopted code-of-ethics and conflicts-of-interest statement to reinforce their importance to the conduct of District business. As a UCD faculty member, I am required to regularly review both ethical behavior standards and conflict-of-interest policies.
  • publically and regularly reviewing all policies and procedures related to the proper handling of complaints against District personnel and modify them as needed.
  • displaying a code-of-ethics and conflict-of-interest statement prominently on the Board’s website and make searching for relevant policies and procedures easy (in my view, this is not the case currently).

I believe that it is incumbent upon every Board member to seek the opinion of others if there is even a remote chance of the appearance of unethical behavior or a conflict-of-interest. I do believe that it would be difficult to conduct Board and District business if Trustees were prohibited from engaging in issues related to programs in which their own children participate or have participated or to schools attended by them. An appropriate code-of-ethics would help guide Board members in this regard. As the Connecticut Association of School Boards code-of-ethics states: board members “will strive to bring any needed change only through legal and ethical procedures” and they “will strive to help create public schools which meet the individual educational needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.” The Code goes on to state that a board member will never use their position for their own gain (and by extrapolation the gain of their family) or that of their friends. Amen to that.

Chuck Rairdan: The biggest lesson I think from the Peterson scandal, aside from the enormous amount of damage that was done individually to Nancy’s standing as a board member, was the damage done to the entire school board’s ability thereafter to govern with a high level of trust and confidence from the community. In the case of Nancy, the saga was played out fully in the press.  For the board as a whole, the collateral damage was not as obvious at first but certainly more significant in its impacts.  The lack of foresight and intervention from fellow board members and decisive action by the district administration on what was clearly a train wreck in progress leads to some larger questions about the culture and objectivity of the school board in general.

One of the steps that can be taken going forward is to establish a clear understanding of what constitutes not only clear conflicts of interest, but also potential conflicts of interest that, if not recognized early and properly addressed, could lead to a repeat of needless scandals and further damage to the board’s credibility. Since ethics are not a matter of hard and fast definitions, the new board needs to have an explicit discussion about what the boundaries and triggers are for potential conflicts of interest and the process for resolving them in a timely manner.

With that understanding in place, if a board member chooses to go “rogue” or is not responsive to the rest of the board’s concerns, then a plan for how to minimize or prevent collateral damage needs to be set in motion. The idea here is not to quash dissent or censor fellow board members, but to preserve the board’s integrity in the aftermath of a runaway conflict of interest.  The board should be guided in its decisions by the responsibility to represent the school district’s overall best interests rather than by the protection of individual relationships at the expense of this responsibility. This situation and others continue to make a strong case for more open and transparent board proceedings and a willingness to confront unpleasant circumstances in order to restore and maintain the community’s trust.

Mike Nolan: Serving as a School Trustee requires a strange balance.  The candidate must have an ego big enough to seek election, and at the same time enough humility to realize that the office of Trustee is that of a public servant, who is only one of five members of the Board.  But we know from history that all elected officials may be tempted to use their influence to advance their own personal or financial gain.  To guard against this, the test is whether or not an action COULD be construed as a conflict of interest.  The purest of motives are not enough.  Unfortunately the Board has adopted an inadequate Conflict-of-Interest Code.  for instance, while the Board allows a member with a conflict to attempt to influence a decision by addressing the Board “as a member of the public” during public comment time, the Attorney General has clearly stated that a conflicted member should have no part in any discussion, or attempt to influence the other members of the Board in any way, AT ANY TIME.  If elected Trustee, I will push to strengthen the conflict-of-interest code to cover the appearance of both financial and personal conflicts.

Tom Adams: There are many lessons to be learned. Trustees must remember that they have an educational civic mission, and they must model the behavior that we want to see in our students. In addition, trustees should allow for teachers, principals, and coaches to do their job and recuse themselves from issues of personal involvement. Also, trustees should participate in the training on how to be a good and effective trustee that is given by the California School Boards Association and should plan on participating in learning opportunities throughout their tenure. Lastly, the trustees must be responsive to parents but remain focused on the needs of our students.

Madhavi Sunder: According to the Davis Vanguard, our school “district in the last four school years has spent more than a quarter million dollars on 11 investigations with almost no school board oversight over the expenditures, the hours billed, or even the outcomes.” A Trustee’s husband’s complaint against a volleyball coach “triggered a 100 hour, $22,000 investigation” by outside attorneys, who wrote a 72-page report at a cost of more than $200-an-hour. The School Board President told the Vanguard that the school board does not become aware of these investigations, or the hours and monies spent on them, unless there is an appeal. The quarter of a million dollars spent on outside investigators from July 2010 to February 2014 (as the Vanguard reported) could have paid for a teacher, nurse or counselor.

We need to revisit our district complaint process. The current approach is broken, consuming huge sums of taxpayer money without accountability, transparency, or oversight. We need to find alternatives to expensive outside investigators. A complaint alleging that a child was improperly removed from a sports team does not require the hiring of an outside lawyer, even if the complainant is a district official’s family member. The Davis school district could, for example, ask for an employee from a neighboring district to investigate on the promise that our district would reciprocate as needed.

Restorative justice practices may be better suited to resolving parent/teacher conflicts and allow for healing. Under this approach, the parties communicate with each other directly, allowing the victim to express concerns, and the accused to explain or apologize. Such processes may also be better for teacher and coach morale, which ultimately affects students.

We need to prioritize spending of precious taxpayer money on things that matter—teachers, counselors, and nurses.

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. hpierce

    Am disappointed in all the answers.

    The answers I would have respected would have been:

    Peterson was unfit for office.

    When other trustees recognized this, they should NOT have “enabled” her.

    We need common sense, not a bevy of new guidelines, procedures, etc.

    Alas, these candidates are not “stand up”, they’re politicians.  Based on the answers to this question, cannot positively support ANY of these candidates.

    1. Matt Williams

      I’m not as disappointed in the answers as you are hpierce.  That may be because I don’t see what we experienced as a Nancy Peterson-specific issue. In recent years DJUSD has had situations where specific public comment was made by individuals that should have caused a Board member to immediately recuse himself/herself from the vote on the issue about which the public comment was made.  That example of past failure to recuse was what Nancy Peterson saw as the on the ground behavior guidelines.

      With that perspective as my guide, I find Barbara Archer’s answer to be very solid.  It appears to be dealing with the disease itself, rather than the symptoms of that disease … Nancy Peterson’s specific actions.   I also like the suggestion that ends Madhavi Sunder’s second paragraph.  Working in collaboration with other school districts will not only bring the cost of investigations down, but will also remove the “I need to tell them what they want to hear” incentive out of the equation.  The employees of the collaborating school district will not be tempted to protect their personal revenue  stream.

  2. wdf1

    So the Vanguard questions have been:

    #1:  Do you believe there is an achievement gap in DJUSD? If not, then how can we make sure to keep it that way? If you believe there is an achievement gap what are concrete steps to address it?

    #2:  What do you know of Common Core?  How is Common Core being implemented in Davis?  What do you think should be done to further implement Common Core in Davis?

    #3: If elected, how would you direct the district to address issues of race, race relations, and racism?

    #4:  Have you been involved in the GATE/AIM Committee Meetings? If so, what has been your involvement? How do you view the current state of the GATE/AIM program, and what would be your interest in a future direction? Finally, how will you be able to balance the needs of the great majority of students that are not in the GATE/AIM program with that for GATE/AIM students?

    #5: What is the biggest lesson we should take away from the Peterson scandal from last winter and what steps would you take as a school board member to prevent its recurrence in the future?

    All worthy questions, but I’m disappointed that there was no question on the budget or LCAP.  Budgeting and fiscal oversight is a huge responsibility of the school board, and it has been the topic of ongoing community discussion for about five of the last seven years.  You can find that at least every ten years or so, there’s some sort of major budget cutting that the district must face.  In the later years of this four year term that’s up for election, we may well find ourselves with another fiscal downturn that affects the school budget.

  3. Davis Progressive

    “In the later years of this four year term that’s up for election, we may well find ourselves with another fiscal downturn that affects the school budget.”

    maybe so, i know i’m appreciative however of having questions that didn’t relate to budget because that feels like all we have covered in the last ten years.

    1. wdf1

      And LCAP (Local Control Action Plan, along with LCFF — Local Control Funding Formula) is a newer state policy initiative that affects district spending.  If one is asking about Common Core to see how current the candidates are, it is just as worthwhile to ask about those other acronyms.

      1. Matt Williams

        wdf, does that related and relevant budgetary issue include taking a realistic, fiscally wise and fiscally sound look at The Money Pit, aka Emerson Junior High School?

          1. Matt Williams

            Do you think that sanity will prevail and the School Board will accept the fact that Emerson was a structural nightmare when it opened, and is now a compromised structural nightmare?

        1. Gunrocik

          Emerson is the tip of the iceberg.  The last School Board buried a facilities study that shows well over $100 million in upgrades needed to existing facilities   No question that number has grown in the past five years.

          I can’t think of another similar sized District that hasn’t taken advantage of the 55% passage rate allowed under Prop 39 over a decade ago.

          I’m sure the reticence to take on a facilities bond is related to protecting the parcel tax — and the opposition the DTA would have to any tax measure that doesn’t help salaries –but the fact of the matter is, just as with the City’s roads — the cost increases exponentially the longer you wait.

          It is going to take leadership and standing up to the unions to do this — not sure we have any candidates that will be able to do that.

          And I’d much rather pay a higher parcel tax and facilities tax than the annual amount in five figures I am now dedicating to private school.

          1. Matt Williams

            Emerson is a different animal than the other facilities. There is a very reasonable structural engineering argument that not a penny of capital improvements should be put into it, because that will be throwing good money after bad. The bottom-line of those arguments is that the existing Emerson structure should be razed. I don’t know if there are other DJUSD buildings that are in that same category.

          1. Matt Williams

            wdf, your comment addresses the demand side of the facilities supply/demand curve, and it would appear you are referring to after school hours demand. The capital cost of providing and maintaining the supply is what the “Money Pit” comments that I have heard have from Davis citizens. Their chief concern is that it is almost surely (in their personal opinion) a much more fiscally wise decision to raze the existing Emerson structures and start again from scratch than it is to try and “patch” the existing fatally flawed Emerson structure.

      2. Gunrocik

        I think the antiquated design of Pioneer is also problematic and if you have ever been in Chavez,  you see a building way past the end of its useful life.

        1. Matt Williams

          I hear you Gunrocik, but were either Pioneer or Chavez flawed designs and flawed construction right from Day One the way many people argue Emerson is?

          Are the problems of antiquated design at Pioneer fatal flaws in structure, or rather space allocations that were meaningful at the time the buildings were built, but are no longer meaningful in 2014?

          Are the end of useful life issues at Chavez ones that warrant razing the existing structures and building new ones from scratch?

  4. wdf1

    This is the Long Range Facilities Master Plan as accepted in 2010.  They included every last facilities upgrade that the could think of, just to document it.

    Why hasn’t it proposed a facilities bond yet?   Apart from the school parcel taxes,I think the school board probably wants to make sure that it has used other available funds before it would propose a facilities bond measure.  Involved with that would be the selling of the Grande property, and maybe leveraging the District Office property.

    Gundrocik: …and the opposition the DTA would have to any tax measure that doesn’t help salaries…

    I wouldn’t see the DTA necessarily opposing a facilities bond.  From their perspective it would be an improvement of work conditions and teaching/learning environment.

    1. Gunrocik

      I have a friend who is a pollster for school districts across the state.  He said that he constantly faces this issue of opposition from teachers unions for facilities bonds — and is often able to convince them otherwise, but many times not.

        1. BlairH

          Thank you wdf1 for pointing that out. Gunrocik has no idea of where DTA stands on bond issues. DTA has never indicated that it is against a bond. We care about bonds because the schools are where the students learn and where we work. I hear about facilities needs from DTA members frequently, and am glad that the district is doing something about issues like air conditioning and WIFI. The district just took out 27 million though COPs, will have  a few million more dollars with the sale of Grande and may be able to raise one time or on going money with the development of the district office site. I know that this is not enough and DTA is always interested in working with the district to serve the students of Davis.

  5. Gunrocik

    Which in my mind proves my point.  That bond issue was a small one due to its failure two years earlier.  We had to downsize that issue to get a 2/3rds vote.  Since that time, Prop 39 passed and every other District in our area has passed at least one bond issue to start chipping away at the huge facility maintenance backlogs that built up post Prop 13.

    Why did this District stand pat, when they didn’t even get what they needed back in 2000?  I believe DTA played a role in that, particularly as the recession brought on the avalanche of supplemental parcel taxes.

    Take a look at our peer group of school districts:  Rocklin, Granite Bay, Folsom and El Dorado Hills — our facilities are an embarrassment compared to our competition–and it is only getting worse.

    1. Don Shor

      Why did this District stand pat, when they didn’t even get what they needed back in 2000? I believe DTA played a role in that

      Do you have any evidence of that?

    2. Anon

      I agree that our facilities are shameful.  Look at Woodland’s new high school compared to ours, for instance.  I know Pinkerton was shocked at the condition of our schools when he came to town.

    3. wdf1

      Gunrocik: Which in my mind proves my point.  That bond issue was a small one due to its failure two years earlier.

      You refer to Measure H, a school bond measure which lost in 1997.   I don’t know immediately what DTA’s position was, but there was a whole lot more to why Measure H lost than what you assume.

    4. wdf1

      Well, I got to check, and DTA also did endorse Measure H in 1997.  It’s hard for me to understand how DTA would have manipulated any of the terms of the bond issue.

      A big reason why Measure H failed was that the bond was funded by taxing newer residents at a higher rate than older residents because it was based on the assessed value of the home at purchase.  Housing prices in Davis were spiking at about that time, and several newer neighborhoods were coming online.  It lost by 4%.

      Although Measure K passed for a smaller amount in 2000, the district received matching facilities funds from the state, so it wasn’t as big an apparent loss as you’d think.

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