Sunday Commentary II: Stop Looking at Volunteer Record When Evaluating School Board Candidates

image of students at their desks in a classroom

We should have learned our lessons by now, but it doesn’t seem that we have. On October 7, 2012, the Enterprise wrote, “Peterson is the perfect blend of experience and heart. She has demonstrated through her many years of service at school sites, on district advisory committees and as president of the Davis High School Blue & White Foundation that she can learn, understand and lead.”

They later added, “Peterson has garnered rave reviews from those who have worked with her on numerous school initiatives, from the Montgomery Elementary School Site Council to the Davis Bridge Educational Foundation. They talk about her energy, enthusiasm, listening skills, leadership, courage, dedication, analytical skills, wisdom and fairness.”

That endorsement could have been written about one of the three candidates that the Enterprise endorsed today. Nancy Peterson’s record compared favorably with any of the three the Enterprise endorsed today.

But unbeknownst to us, below that veneer, were concerns by people who worked with her – none of which become public until the following year. But our main point – Nancy Peterson’s experience and volunteer work did not make her a good school board member; in fact, those attributes ended up contributing to her downfall.

And yet, when it comes time to endorse candidates, the Sacramento Bee is looking to school and community service. For instance, the Bee downplayed Bob Poppenga because, in their words, “his volunteerism isn’t as comprehensive as with some of the others.”

Stranger still is this comment, “Longtime volunteer and public interest lawyer Mike Nolan knows the district, but his independence from local politics could limit his influence.” Is the Bee really arguing we need someone connected to the political machine?

While the Enterprise seems to have a better grasp of local issues, it is also problematic.

The Enterprise endorsement lauds Barbara Archer for her “distinguished” record “as an active parent volunteer over the past decade, serving as a PTA and School Site Council leader at Willett Elementary and Da Vinci Charter Academy. As co-chair of the successful 2012 campaign for the Measure C parcel tax, she became an expert on the school district’s budget and is ready to hit the ground running when she’s elected.”

Tom Adams they called “a quiet leader in the trenches, chairing the School Site Council at Chávez Elementary and Emerson Junior High schools for many years…”

Have we learned nothing? We point this out not to argue for or against any one candidate but rather to argue against the use of volunteerism in the schools as a criteria to judge candidates.

When we solicited questions from the audience, we did not get questions about how much time the candidates volunteered on the site council, but, rather, people were concerned about issues like accountability, district “chain of command,” special interests, and conflicts of interest.

While there is still concern over the budget and parcel taxes, there was also a lot of concern about things like the achievement gap, at-risk kids, and campus climate issues.

It is not that we necessarily could have uncovered the downside to Nancy Peterson had we been focusing on the right questions. However, a conversation had with people who worked with Nancy Peterson during the days of the crisis last spring revealed that none of them were particularly surprised by how the situation unfolded.

Even supporters of her had warned her that once she was on the school board, she should stay away from volleyball. When she failed to take their counsel, it led to a dramatic downfall where she got caught in a vicious feedback circle and was unable to extricate herself, ultimately having to resign her seat, lose the fight to oust the coach, and eventually leave the community.

In the wake of that kind of community turmoil, both the Bee and Enterprise pay lip service to the conflagration.

The Bee put the issue as “a school board member resigned during a feud with the volleyball coach who cut her kid from the team.”

“Small-town drama, maybe, but with potentially big repercussions,” the Bee writes. “More than most school districts, Davis’ relies on the confidence of voters. About a tenth of its funding comes from temporary parcel taxes that won’t be renewed if the community doesn’t trust the school board.”

“Most importantly, however, this year’s choices give Davis a chance to tone down the tumult, which, for parents, kids and teachers, will surely be a relief,” the Bee writes.

But how? The Bee focuses mainly on volunteerism and never puts it to the candidates as to how to avoid a repeat of the crisis.

The Enterprise mentions that all three talk about “the critical importance of restoring community trust in the school board, which was wracked this spring by controversy between a board member and a high school coach. That trust is important not only for the smooth functioning of the school district, but it is necessary if — really, when — the district asks voters to support another parcel tax to supplement state funding.”

That’s great that they talk about the importance, but there is no answer provided as to how they plan to do that.

When we elect people to the Davis City Council, we don’t generally elect people based on how many commissions they have served on, and how many city services that they have received, so why do we continue to believe that service on site councils and having kids in the school are what qualifies people to the school board?

The Enterprise, when it endorsed Robb Davis for instance, led with the statement that anyone who spends any time with him comes “away impressed with his open-mindedness, intellect, thoughtfulness and understanding of the complex issues facing our city. We can think of no other first-time candidate who has been this fully prepared to serve.”

They don’t ignore his volunteerism, but it’s mentioned in passing, not as a centerpiece to his endorsement.

“While Davis may be best known for his volunteer efforts with Davis Bicycles! and the fledgling Neighborhood Court program — which seeks to apply restorative justice for first-time offenders — he has an impressive command of the fiscal challenges facing our city,” they write, noting, “He’s frustrated that, while the seriousness of the budget deficit was known as long ago as last summer, there’s been no real community conversation about solutions.”

They continue, “He’s ready to dive in to that conversation, however, saying City Hall needs a thorough staffing analysis and an up-to-date accounting of not only the necessary road repairs but the entire maintenance backlog for city facilities (fire stations, swimming pools, public buildings). Davis also knows the next council must continue on the path blazed by this council in holding firm on employee costs, proposing that conversations with employee groups start well before their contracts come due.”

The differences are stark. On both Barbara Archer and Tom Adams their volunteer work is the centerpiece of the endorsement, while in the case of Robb Davis, his commitment on the issues is the centerpiece.

It seems very apparent that, while it was a personal issue on the part of Nancy Peterson that triggered the cycle, the entire culture of the board allowed it to fester and get worse. No one stepped in when Nancy Peterson first raised the issue in February 2013. No one admonished her when she made an inappropriate comment in August of that year.

By the time the district realized it had a problem in February of 2014, it was too late.

There are critical issues facing this district, and the candidates and campaigns need to focus on those issues rather than who served on the site council or a PTA president.

Pick the candidate you think will serve us best, but from a community perspective, let’s make sure we are asking the right questions, in addition to getting the right answers.

—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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25 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    Maybe someone should ask the people who served with the candidates on the various site councils or committees — ask them off the record — how their personalities meshed, how effective they were, and whether they support them unreservedly.
    This school board election is a complete crapshoot. If you don’t use volunteer record, you’re going to go on vague answers to generic questions, or endorsements.

    It seems the candidates have broken into two camps, more or less. If you like the current school board members, you’re going to vote for Archer and Adams. If you are didn’t like the performance of the incumbents, you’ll vote for Poppenga and somebody else. I’m sure the candidates aren’t thrilled to be in slates like this, but it’s the consequence of the endorsements of certain candidates by the local political establishment.

    In any event, Sunder is the consensus candidate — unless you have a hostility to AIM/GATE, and happen to remember her support of that program in 2013, in which case I guess you’ll vote for Archer and somebody else.

    If you really are hostile to the district and public schools in general, you might vote for Granda.

    I note that Lois Wolk split her endorsement between the two ‘camps’ and may have actually made that endorsement based on conversations with the candidates.

  2. Miwok

    A timely article, for when we consider getting involved in community service we constantly see people who are volunteering for their interests. Conflicts of interest are rampant, and benefit them or their friends. Unless we have the luxury of not having a job, or working locally, it is hard to know as this article mentions how these people will use their office when elected. We tend to have no requirement like this for State or federal Candidates.

    Thank you for making the point that many of us who are finally able to run for an office, or volunteer, are mostly ignored by these people. I have contacted many candidates, and many of them will not answer. Others have been delightful to talk to even though I could do little for them politically. “Longtime volunteer and xxx_xx knows the district, but his independence from local politics could limit his influence.” – I would tend to vote for that guy, because he is independent, at least when he gets there, can cast a fresh set of eyes on the issues.

    When people are everywhere all the time, I question whether their family is important to them, and point out there are only so many hours in a day. If you don’t work and live in the same town, or have a flexible job, you cannot participate, but don’t mistake that for lack of interest. When some people ran for office who work in another city or county recently, they were derided for this. That is a low blow IMO.

  3. tj

    The Vanguard raises an excellent point.

    The skill set required to be a parent volunteer or PTA member has little to do with being an effective school board member.

    Often times, volunteers are different than most parents in that they aren’t employed, they’re more affluent, and they’ve got a lot of time on their hands to cozy up to school staff and look for ways to help their own children. They may not have the big picture and the knowledge needed to actually oversee a school district.

  4. Dave Hart

    I disagree with David that volunteerism is a red flag. I would argue that it is a better criteria than simply being part of the “machine” in this town. If there is a lesson in the Peterson debacle, it is the corrosive effect that the athletics programs (as currently implemented) have on public education at the high school and college level. I know of no other school program that would engender the level of misuse of power and cause such confusion in the ranks of management with such potential damage to the District. A background in school athletics is a red flag, not necessarily to eliminate a candidate, but requiring extra scrutiny.

    The Peterson fiasco demonstrates why it is futile to evaluate a candidate based on what they write about themselves, yet we give official credence to the practice by mailing out their statements with the sample ballot. Candidate forums would seem to be an improvement by giving the electorate a chance to personally observe a candidate’s body language and tone of voice when answering questions. But that can also be misleading because most of us are not trained to read such signals in anything like a scientific way. Case in point: I attended a candidate forum when Nancy Peterson ran for office and decided to vote for her based on the above in response to questions on every issue under the sun. Looking back I note there were no questions about the sports programs. I liked Alan Fernandes but he seemed a little “green” compared to Peterson and maybe even a little too nice. Peterson had a little edge and I thought in the context of the very destructive No Child Left Behind it would be good to have someone on the Board who seemed to have some fire in her belly to counter it. Turns out, I was very wrong about her based not on the big issues we should all care about, but on a very narrow, personal hidden agenda.

    In the end, most of us will and actually must vote based on a gut feeling. We must vote based on the opinions of those we trust. Some of us will vote based on what we know first hand about the person. Some of us will vote based on what the Enterprise, the Sacramento Bee or the Davis Vanguard says. With the exception of Granda, I think any of the candidates would be okay in the absence of knowing what unknown flaws they may have.

    I disagree with David that volunteerism is a red flag. I would argue that it is a better criteria than simply being part of the “machine” in this town. If there is a lesson in the Peterson debacle, it is the corrosive effect that the athletics programs (as currently implemented) have on public education at the high school and college level. I know of no other school program that would engender the level of misuse of power and cause such confusion in the ranks of management with such potential damage to the District. A background in school athletics is a red flag, not necessarily to eliminate a candidate, but requiring extra scrutiny.

    1. David Greenwald

      “I disagree with David that volunteerism is a red flag.”

      Dave, My point wasn’t that volunteerism was a red flag. My point was that we needed to look beyond volunteerism to determine the criteria for judging candidates.

      1. Dave Hart

        Fair enough, but because there is no way the electorate can know much more about a candidate for office, why not let volunteerism be a deciding factor with much else being “equal”? It’s just as reasonable as a criteria as anything else that is visible about a candidate. I get your criticism in general, but short of some kind of personality test I don’t see how the mass of voters have much else to go on.

  5. wdf1

    Vanguard: But our main point – Nancy Peterson’s experience and volunteer work did not make her a good school board member; in fact, those attributes ended up contributing to her downfall.

    I disagree with that statement. By this logic we should start viewing volunteer work as a character flaw in potential candidates. Should parents then say, “I’m sorry, I’d like to be a volunteer for my child’s classroom, but I want to preserve my future viability as a school board candidate.”? Should we view such behavior (avoiding volunteering) as virtuous?

    Peterson’s volunteer work was not the factor in her downfall. Personal character traits did, character traits which were not clear in the campaign.

    For me it is a whole package. A candidate can present good ideas, but if he/she is a “Johnny-come-lately” to the scene, personally I am inclined to question their commitment, how well they know what’s going on and can implement their ideas.

    This article missed opportunity to do better longterm evaluation of the school board. Greenwald is prolific, so there is still a chance to address this. The Nancy Peterson case was a particularly glaring transgression the likes of which we haven’t seen in recent (past few decades) years. So far I think the Vanguard (as well as the Bee and the Enterprise) have missed the same opportunities to zero in on a key issue that is very likely to visit the winners of this race — the school budget. Prop. 30 will expire, Local Control Funding Formula does not necessarily favor a district like Davis’, and school financing has never been stable over the longterm.

    Right now things are on sounder fiscal footing, but odds are that the budget will creep up as a major issue for these candidates. The Vanguard would do well to press on this issue.

    I recommend digging up the Enterprise endorsement from Oct. 2005. If one has a library card, then go to this link and enter it. You have access to much of the Enterprise archive (as well as other select papers) going back to about 1997.

    This was the opening for the Enterprise endorsement, Oct. 25, 2005:

    Davis residents are extremely fortunate to have four top-notch, worthy candidates running for the Davis Board of Education on Nov. 8. However, only three seats are available, so choices must be made. We recommend incumbent B.J. Kline and newcomers Tim Taylor and Gina Daleiden .

    All three are hard-working, dedicated public servants with long records of volunteer commitment to our schools. They are sure to have the best interests of our children, and our schools, at heart.

    For those who follow, B.J. Kline lost and Sheila Allen and the other two endorsed candidates won. Getting past the issue of volunteerism, I suggest evaluating what issues occurred after Allen, Daleiden, and Taylor were elected that were not addressed in the 2005 campaign, nor of the Enterprise’s preferred candidates in their editorial. The glaring issue missing is how would those candidates manage the school budget — how would they make cuts, what process(es) would they consider, etc.

  6. Southie

    I think you draw the wrong conclusions about the lessons of the Peterson debacle. It is not about the ‘corrosive effect of athletics’ on education. It is about the corrosive effects of having a board that allowed a board member to play out a personal vendetta on the public dime. It is about a board that refuses to push the current district administration on any issue.

    As far as the subject at hand, I don’t see volunteerism as an issue either way. Volunteers do a great public service in Davis. Our many volunteers have helped our schools continue to be successful despite a shrinking budget. I respect anyone willing to do the work that I am unwilling to do. However, I don’t see serving on a school site committee or heading the PTA as something I’m looking for in a candidate. It is not evidence of an ability to govern. In most cases, it is evidence of only a willingness to be helpful.

    1. DavisAnon

      Thank you, Vanguard, for writing this much needed and long overdue article. I, too, have been quite disappointed in the reasoning given by the Enterprise and Bee for their endorsements. Archer and Adams are the only two candidates being endorsed by a remaining incumbent Board member, Susan Lovenburg. She is very actively campaigning for both. Her letter to the Enterprise from Sept. 28 supporting them both was even summarized with the heading, “They’re consensus-builders”. Doesn’t that really just mean they’re “yes-men” (sexist slight unintentional)? How likely are they to stand up against things Lovenburg proposes after she helps get them elected? I would not have a problem with someone leaving the Board endorsing but the potential for conflict of interest is too high from a Board member who will be voting alongside of these trustees. It is not ethical to try to pick your teammates so that you can be sure the Board votes go your way.

      Please remember that Susan Lovenburg is the one who told the community to get over it and move on when the community was appalled at the unethical ‘witch hunt’ treatment of the volleyball coach by the administration and Board. Lovenburg has yet to acknowledge any shortcomings of her behavior in supporting the sanctions against Coach Crawford. I do not want a “consensus builder” who will rubber stamp either the administration’s or Lovenburg’s poor choices. We need people who will not allow this to happen on their watch but will use ethics, evidence and logic in reaching their decisions. Ms. Lovenburg’s endorsement of these two as consensus builders tells me we need to avoid electing them at all costs unless we want the next 4 years to be a repeat of what has gone on the last few years.

      “It is about a board that refuses to push the current district administration on any issue.”

      Southie, you nailed it. It is time to bring in some people who aren’t already “in the club”.

      1. Tia Will

        Anon

        “It is not ethical to try to pick your teammates so that you can be sure the Board votes go your way.”

        I would agree with your statement as it sits. However, I do not see this as a matter of
        being sure ” the Board Votes go your way”, So far I have spoken with four of the candidates and all have more or less directly indicated that if they had a choice of whom to work with on the School Board, they would choose someone who they “felt they could work with”, or “who was a good team player”. I believe that wanting to be on a team with people who are capable of building a consensus is a fairly universal point of view and as such is quite a benign statement, not an indication of nefarious intent.

  7. Miwok

    Good points, Southie and wd1. Another question is how can a person run for School Board and have kids in the District? Isn’t that inherently a conflict of interest? And can a person volunteer in a school without having kids in said school? Many people have kids, but with commuting and family obligations, maybe the only way they can contribute is to run for office? A Good Accountant, for instance?

    1. DavisAnon

      I believe some communities prohibit people from running while they have kids in the local schools. While it seems like a good way to avoid some conflict of interest, I’m not sure that it would result in trustees who would be truly interested in building strong schools (and may instead just favor minimizing costs to the taxpayers). That is something that our community could discuss in the future if there is interest, but obviously it’s a bit late for this election. Also, would you then exclude people who are grandparents of kids? Potential future grandparents or parents?

      1. wdf1

        DavisAnon: I believe some communities prohibit people from running while they have kids in the local schools.

        Source? I’d be interested to read how that works out.

      2. Davis Progressive

        i don’t think the problem is people running while they have kids in school, the bigger problem to me is that we are drawing candidates from a very narrow segment of our community.

        for fun look at the difference between where most city councilmembers live compared to where most school board members live?

      3. wdf1

        DavisAnon: I believe some communities prohibit people from running while they have kids in the local schools.

        What you state can’t be in California:

        California Ed Code, 35107: Eligibility for governing board members

        (a) Any person, regardless of sex, who is 18 years of age or older, a citizen of the state, a resident of the school district, a registered voter, and who is not disqualified by the Constitution or laws of the state from holding a civil office, is eligible to be elected or appointed a member of a governing board of a school district without further qualifications.

        (b) (1) An employee of a school district may not be sworn into office as an elected or appointed member of that school district’s governing board unless and until he or she resigns as an employee. If the employee does not resign, the employment will automatically terminate upon being sworn into office.

  8. wdf1

    Vanguard: Stranger still is this comment, “Longtime volunteer and public interest lawyer Mike Nolan knows the district, but his independence from local politics could limit his influence.”

    I think what that means is that Mike Nolan didn’t get any major endorsements from current or former public officials.

  9. Napoleon Pig IV

    It seems clear that if elected, Archer and Adams will be just 2nd and 3rd votes with Lovenburg on matters that come before the Board. That’s great for expansion of power in the Porcine Pinnacle, but not so great for everyone else’s kids. “It’s time to move on!” Oink!

  10. Don Shor

    So which candidates would be most likely to hold the line in contract negotiations? What board majority would be more compliant with union wishes for pay increases?

  11. Southie

    Speaking of a possible Lovenburg, Archer, Adams board…How about Lovenburg’s genius idea of reviewing the district level admin as a group and then extending their contracts for 2 or 3 years? No individual performance review? I thought it was a joke when I heard it. Maybe I’d better start kissing the ring and ask for a job. I’d love a job with no real performance review, no legitimate oversight, and automatic contract extensions. Sounds pretty sweet actually. Did I mention the 1 year, full salary severance package? If Archer and Adams are following that kind of leadership, I’ll go a different direction with my votes. There’s too many tricky issues coming up. I definitely don’t want that kind of leadership following some developer down the primrose path and turning the downtown EGUSD property into a ‘mixed use’ shopping at our expense. Yes, I know nothing has been decided, but it certainly seems to be heading in that direction doesn’t it?

    I don’t mind paying my fair share of property taxes, but I don’t want themt wasted by a group of people who refuse to make common sense decisions.

  12. wdf1

    Southie: I definitely don’t want that kind of leadership following some developer down the primrose path and turning the downtown EGUSD property into a ‘mixed use’ shopping at our expense. Yes, I know nothing has been decided, but it certainly seems to be heading in that direction doesn’t it?

    First, “EGUSD”?

    If you refer to the downtown DJUSD property, the reason that there are discussions about it are because any revenue that could be derived from its sale could be used to fund facilities upgrades in the district. That is also the reason that the Grande property sale is also being discussed. If the district were to not sell one or both properties, then the only other source for facilities money would be to pass a local facilities bond. If you’re against selling either property and also against a possible facilities bond, then you have to contend with condemning buildings around the district, such as happened with the DHS MPR.

    1. wdf1

      I should add that Jose Granda is against selling the Grande property, but doesn’t offer any alternative funding source to cover facilities upgrades. I assume it’s likely he’d be against a local facilities bond as an alternative. Not identifying alternative funding sources is fiscal irresponsibility.

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