It is perhaps easy to forget just how much the events of the winter of 2014 divided the community. When Nancy Peterson in the winter of 2013 first pulled the VSA (variable services agreement) of volleyball coach Julie Crawford, it began a long saga that would lead to an administrative decision not to renew her contract that summer, and a school board 3-1 vote, with Ms. Peterson dissenting, to overrule that.
However, in late January 2014, the district decided to pull her VSA after an investigation found evidence that she had retaliated against Nancy Peterson’s daughter. Nancy Peterson went public with the complaint against the coach – a move that would backfire and lead to her resignation in early March 2014.
The episode badly scarred the community. Last fall, the community got to elect a new board – three long time incumbents chose not to seek reelection, and in May the board appointed Alan Fernandes to replace Nancy Peterson.
As then-candidate Madhavi Sunder told the Vanguard last fall during the campaign, “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.”
It was Alan Fernandes, the board member who directly replaced Ms. Peterson, who made a critical point during the candidates’ forum in September, stating 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.”
Barbara Archer, now a board member herself, agreed that rebuilding trust is important. She noted, “Our community is engaged in our educational system probably more so than many other communities.”
And yet we arrive once again at a critical juncture, where trust is being frayed and the community is threatened with division on the issue of GATE/AIM.
For some already, they have compared the decision to pull coach Crawford’s VSA to the June 18 decision by the school board not to renew AIM/GATE Coordinator Deanne Quinn.
Shama Hakim Mesiwa writes in a letter to the local paper, “Quinn has been an employee of the school district for two decades and a widely respected administrator of the AIM/GATE program in Davis. I see this as another step in the board’s unwise decision to rapidly dismantle the AIM program.”
She continues, “I fear that because of this school board’s recent decisions regarding the AIM program, the Davis public school system is deteriorating. Children whose educational aptitudes make it such that their needs cannot be met in traditional classrooms will not receive the services they need to thrive academically and socially. Many families making decisions about where to buy homes will look elsewhere.”
For Kathy Russell, a teacher, this is a big loss for the district. She writes, “Every year, many of us GATE teachers consulted with the GATE coordinator on curriculum ideas, horizontal planning within grade levels, and vertical planning and consistency between elementary and junior high classes. Lost.
“We teachers and Quinn consulted on ways to motivate the 10 to 20 percent of our gifted classes who were non-producers. Contrary to the ideas presented in the UC Davis economists’ report and in many people’s beliefs, not all gifted learners are high achievers! Lost,” she continued. “The coordinator attended our gifted classes to make suggestions for improved class dynamics and curriculum delivery, categories unknown to most principals. Lost.
“In addition, I had gifted classes with vision-impaired students, hearing-impaired students, ESL students and students with a variety of hurdles to leap before they could begin learning: health problems, disorganized families, learning disabilities, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, OCD and perfectionist syndrome,” she writes. “I have had students in pain from depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, family upsets, cutting and attempted suicide, but all teachers can attest to these student troubles.
“The point is that these gifted students who people think can learn anywhere and who make classes so easy, do not get a pass on any of these heartaches, and the critical help that the GATE coordinator provided for these students, their parents and their teachers is lost. Quinn participated in individual education plants, parent-teacher-student conferences and family consultations, helping find solutions between home and school to assist the student in attaining as much learning as possible. Lost,” she writes.
“There are parents who thank the coordinator for saving their children’s academic lives, but help for future children? Lost,” she concludes. “Is the district counting on my vote for the next bond issue? Lost. I do not believe the bond issue is ‘for kids’ when the Davis school district has just disenfranchised its many gifted students and their families.”
Last fall we asked the school board candidates: 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?
For Barbara Archer it was, “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.”
For Tom Adams it was, “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.”
And for Madhavi Sunder, she focused on the broken complaint process and looking into a restorative justice practice as better suited to resolving various complaints.
The issues this time around are not the same – however, the lack of transparency is concerning. The Vanguard believes that the public was poorly noticed for the decision that occurred on June 4 and that the decision to go against staff recommendations and not renew the VSA was premature at best. It gives the impression that the board is moving forward with plans to dismantle the program prior to public discussions on the matter slated for September.
That is not a good way to restore trust or resolve conflict and we hope that the board majority will rethink their approach before public confidence is completely exhausted.
—David M. Greenwald reporting