Last fall, every candidate for the school board vowed, in the aftermath of the volleyball scandal and the resignation of Nancy Peterson, to restore the community’s trust in the integrity of the decisions made by the current school board. For the first several months of this new board, it seemed things were headed in the right direction – that is, until a series of questionable process decision began on June 4.
Whatever you think of the policy direction of the board on AIM – the process involved here is troublesome. The Vanguard has filed a Brown Act violation complaint over the motion made on that date which, among other things, sought to eliminate private testing and asked the Superintendent to develop a plan for the district which fully implements differentiated instructional practices in all classrooms.
There was no mention of differentiated instruction on the agenda, and the board voted on this item at nearly midnight with little to no notice to the public.
As Board Vice President Madhavi Sunder put it: “This is a radical change that is being implemented.”
However, Board President Alan Fernandes argued otherwise, that this was simply giving direction to the Superintendent and that all of this would come back for full discussion at a later point in time – now it looks like that will be the first few weeks in September.
Mr. Fernandes’ point had merit, but the actions that occurred on Thursday night suggest there is a considerable difference between where Mr. Fernandes sits and the board majority sits on this issue.
In a move that was eerily reminiscent of Volleyball-gate, a VSA (variable services agreement) for longtime GATE Coordinator Deanne Quinn, who retired but is continuing to administer the program at great savings to the district, was pulled off consent.
Three members of the school board – Barbara Archer, Susan Lovenburg, and Tom Adams – voted against a motion made by Board President Alan Fernandes to renew the VSA. They did so with minimal comment during the meeting.
On Friday, the Vanguard reached out to all three, asking for a comment on why the VSA was not renewed if no decision has been made on the AIM program yet.
The exchange with Susan Lovenburg is indicative of the response the Vanguard received. She said in a text: “I will not be commenting on this personnel issue.” The Vanguard received identical responses from Barbara Archer and Tom Adams. Ms. Lovenburg did not say that she has voted no on this particular VSA each time it has come to the board.
When the Vanguard pressed the issue: So you are telling me that the decision was based on personnel issues rather than policy?
Ms. Lovenburg responded, “I am telling you only that I will not comment on this personnel issue.”
This is an unfortunate response. There could be a personnel issue here – but more likely this is a policy issue that the board members can certainly comment on. The argument could be made, with proposed changes to the GATE program, that it does not make any sense to bring on a retired administrator on a VSA. That would not have violated personnel confidentiality provisions.
Belying this point is the comment by Board Member Madhavi Sunder, who stated, “With Ms. Quinn’s consent, I have reviewed Ms. Quinn’s 20-year personnel file carefully, as I believe the Superintendent who recommended we rehire her has also done. That file demonstrates that Ms. Quinn is a valuable employee to the district. All of us can be better. But there is no cause here to deny us the benefit of her expert guidance in meeting the needs of a certain group of children.”
So if this is a personnel issue – why are the board members not evaluating her file? And if this is not a personnel issue, why are the board members refusing to comment?
Even if they plan to make sweeping changes to AIM, those changes are not scheduled to take place until 2016-17 – so why would you not want to bring the current coordinator back who has been doing this for over two decades?
The board majority has been trying to argue that the June 4 vote was not a major change, but two weeks later, they are undermining that claim by making a major change, against the recommendations of staff.
As Alan Fernandes put it, his understanding of the June 4 motion is that they “have not yet made any changes with regard to our AIM program,” so why deny the VSA at this point? If they come back and make changes in September, then it would be a legitimate time to reconsider whether or not the person who’s performing the duties under this contract matches the future needs of the district.”
The comments of public commenter Katherine Unger are insightful here. She noted that she has “seen conflicting information in the paper about how significant of a change (was made to the AIM program on June 4),” and she added “I’ve even heard conflicting information from board members.”
She wanted to wait and see what would happen, “And now I see there’s a move to remove the coordinator who’s probably the most experienced in Gifted Education in our district…
“You’re going to be sending a pretty clear message to families in Davis about the AIM program and how you value it, and you how you value the students and families attached to it,” Ms. Unger stated. “I keep hearing references to segregation – are we going to apply that to Spanish Immersion? Do we apply it to Montessori?
“There are kids in this town who walk around saying, why do people hate me because I’m in AIM? That’s a really hard question to answer,” she said. “But you guys are sending a very clear message – first you change the program at 11:30 at night without public input and then the next meeting you take out the coordinator – I hope you reconsider.”
That is the main problem here. There may well be five votes to end private testing, which would seem to be a problematic practice. I think there may be five board members willing to look at AIM identification as a whole and probably willing to make major changes.
Overall I have not decided where I come down on the issue of AIM. I do think it serves multiple populations in the school district. One population would be the classic gifted student who is a high achiever and needs to be challenged outside of the core curriculum.
Another population, however, is very gifted and talented, but their needs are not being met in the mainstream classroom and they may therefore be, in most respects, underachievers.
Then there is the ethnic and racial mix. The OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test) would seem to heavily identify whites and Asians at percentages approaching 85 percent whereas methods like the TONI (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence), which may well have flaws, more heavily identify blacks and Hispanics and other disadvantaged groups.
What is the right mix and the right test? I do not know.
This is clearly a contentious issue and it will take a great deal of skill and delicacy to guide the community through these changes.
However, what we have seen since June 4 is anything but the kind of delicate balance that we need. With very little notice to me it appears major change was made. The board can disagree with the Vanguard on whether the letter of the Brown Act was violated but to me, the spirit certainly was. The Brown Act serves as the floor for how noticing should occur, but at its core is the idea that major changes in a community should be noticed so those wanting to participate can have the option to attend the meeting.
Instead, we had a poorly-noticed discussion on AIM, ending in a midnight vote on June 4, and two weeks later the board majority pulled a VSA off consent to effectively fire the GATE Coordinator – ostensibly before the final decision has been made on GATE.
I have a great deal of respect for Board President Alan Fernandes, that when he says he believes that a major change did not occur on June 4, he is telling the truth – from his perspective. However, I think even he would admit that, at this point, three of colleagues may not see it that way.
In part, the Vanguard filed the Brown Act violation papers to give the district and board a chance to walk things back, and take a different approach here.
If the board majority flexes its numerical muscles, they threaten to undermine the trust that they said just last fall they hoped to restore. There is a sizable population right now that is angry and confused as to what has happened.
As of yet, they have not mobilized but that day will come and it will come fast. Do we want to carry out a bitter and divided battle with accusations and resentment?
The board has the opportunity here to go a different path. They can start with the features of AIM that everyone agree should be changed. They can move us on a path to implementing those changes and then reevaluate the need to go further.
Unfortunately, the actions taken on June 4 and now June 18 lead us to a different path – one that will divide this community and breed anger and resentment. It is not too late to take us to a new path.
—David M. Greenwald reporting