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