It was March 18, and the Davis School Board had just voted 3-1 to uphold the district’s decision on not renewing volleyball coach Julie Crawford’s VSA (variable service agreement). At the time, Board Member Susan Lovenburg said that she was declining to speak to her decision, stating that the board’s decision stands for itself.
Sheila Allen, two and a half months from an election for her bid for city council, probably didn’t have that luxury and read from a lengthy prepared statement on her decision. But several days later, rather than simply letting the matter die and allowing the community to move on at its own pace, the two board members joined forces to tell the community that “it is time to move on.”
They wrote a letter to the editor that would likely seal the fate of Sheila Allen’s city council candidacy, while at the same time framing the rest of the year.
They wrote, “Much has been said and written in the Davis media about the Crawford/Peterson complaint, and some of it has been speculative. For the record, we briefly recap the appeal process.” They would add that they “found that a preponderance of the evidence supported the conclusion that a coach made a poor judgment call which had negative consequences for a student.”
They then laid out what they saw as the lessons. “This episode has generated much debate in the community; we trust it will also guide us to greater mindfulness. The board and administration will review and strengthen policies and practices, especially those related to personal conflict of interest and to resolution of complaints. Parents should think carefully where the line lies between advocacy for a child and possible harassment of a coach or teacher. And educators are reminded that the best interest of students should always be the determining factor in a public school environment.”
Had they stopped there, history might have been somewhat different, but they couldn’t resist the last line: “With these lessons in mind, it is time to move on.”
I am absolutely convinced that that line by Sheila Allen ended her candidacy for city council, although some will point to her decision to show up at Uncle Vito’s a month later, for the apparent celebration of the departure of City Manager Steve Pinkerton, as being just as critical.
Either way, the backdrop for this school board race was the Nancy Peterson controversy and learning the lessons. In September, the Vanguard held a candidates’ forum for the seven school board candidates who came forward, many of them fueled by this controversy. The crowd was not a typical school board crowd – in fact, the event looked a lot more like a city council forum, judging by the audience.
To the close the book on the campaign, we asked the candidates in the fifth and final Vanguard question: 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?
Were there other questions that needed to be asked? Absolutely. But this was the closing question that was on everyone’s mind.
Barbara Archer would respond, “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.”
Bob Poppenga reiterated a theme that many had by saying, “One priority of the new School Board should be to find ways to regain community trust; this will take time and effort.” The issue of regaining trust proved pivotal.
Mr. Poppenga laid out his lessons, “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.”
Chuck Rairdan responded, “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.”
For Mike Nolan it was about conflict of interest: “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 responded, “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.”
Madhavi Sunder responded, “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 current approach is broken,” she said. “We need to revisit our district complaint process.”
Jose Granda delivered a late response, arguing, “I think the biggest lesson is that School Board members need to recognize when they have a conflict of interest whether it is in their actions, their beliefs, their campaigns or their own agendas. The position of School Board trustee should never be used to advance personal beliefs or favor family members or friends.”
He added, “Nancy Peterson’s biggest problem was that failure to recognize a conflict of interest of her beliefs regarding volleyball coaching and their relation to her own personal feelings towards the coach in a situation which involved Nancy’s daughter. On the other hand I understand her feelings as a mother which in this case got mixed with her position as a trustee.”
Unfortunately, he did not stop there and instead went after two of his opponents, triggering a prolonged back and forth between himself and the Vanguard.
Nancy Peterson is the 800-pound gorilla – everyone can see its presence. At our candidates’ forum in September, the candidates saw the clear need to regain the trust, but we wanted to push them a step further and identify the lessons we should take away from the fiasco that led to the downfall of a school board member, and possibly the downfall of a city council candidate.
I think it is easy to focus on conflict policies and it is important to look at the complaint process, but for me this controversy was created by the lack of people willing to speak up.
In the middle of the controversy, suddenly people were talking about the long-brewing rift between Nancy Peterson, and Leigh Choate and Julie Crawford. I was told that Ms. Peterson was warned to stay away from volleyball and I was alerted that there had been warnings and red flags in prominent people’s dealing with Ms. Peterson, but none of this came to light during the campaign in 2012.
Worse yet, however, was the handling of the emerging scandal by the school board. You can have a great conflict of interest policy, but unless someone steps up to call out their colleague, it’s worthless.
In fairness, the school board had no inkling of the issue when Nancy Peterson in February 2013 first pulled Julie Crawford’s VSA from the consent calendar.
It was only in July and August that the problem became clear. There was a clear failure by the school board, and in particular School Board President Sheila Allen, who failed to gavel Nancy Peterson down when she publicly denigrated a school employee in open session.
It was that incident that triggered a chain of reactions that ultimately resulted in the resignation of Nancy Peterson half a year later, in March.
The school board members were slow to understand the fact that this was a personal conflict and slower to react to clear breaches in etiquette. To me, that’s the real failure here and the one lesson that we need to learn, or all of the other changes will be useless.
The question, therefore, going forward is whether the candidates are simply going to be willing to go along with the flow or willing to speak up and call out even a colleague for a breach of etiquette. As usual, I leave it to the voters to decide which candidates will be best at diagnosing future crises and nipping them in the bud before they explode – like the Nancy Peterson situation exploded.
—David M. Greenwald reporting