It may be argued that Thursday’s public comment vindicates the school board’s vote on June 4, but I would strongly argue against that view. To me it illustrates why the public needs to be properly and fully noticed about major changes to public policy.
Let us not be deceived here – what occurred on June 4 was a major change to the GATE/AIM program. Interestingly enough, some of the changes would probably be supported by those favoring the current program. But any chance for consensus was destroyed by the perception of a heavy-handed approach by the board, particularly in the unceremonious dispatch of Deanne Quinn – a beloved figure.
Ms. Quinn stepped up for the school district at a low point where every dollar counted and was willing to retire and come back at just .4 FTE to run the program that she had run for two decades. She probably deserved better than to have her contract rejected by a 3-2 vote without comment.
That was one of the focal points for the public commenters – and that the board majority chose to use personnel laws to avoid discussing their reasoning for the decision only pours salt in the wound.
Marla Cook probably said it best when she said, “If what you wanted to do was change the program, I’d like to suggest a better way to approach it than a late night vote on an item somewhat on the agenda and one not listed on the agenda.”
She offered not just criticism but a way forward. She suggested the district take the entire next year to hold public meetings on the subject of AIM and differentiated instruction. These meetings, she said, should include those happy with the program and those “happy to have it gone.” She said, “Lead a productive dialog, listen to them all.”
Ms. Cook did not shy away from the elephant in the room either. She said, “For a while now the school board has been accused of playing to person issues – the volleyball scandal comes to mind – when the AIM committee suggested changes in the program five years ago we suggested raising the qualifying scores, offering training to all teachers… board members then looked away…”
But this was the big problem all along – the board has now pushed the ball forward well ahead of where at least the parents of GATE students knew it was going. People I have spoken to agree that things like private testing and identification methods should be looked at – but they also wanted to be informed of changes in advance and have a chance to have their say and influence on how the program changes.
This figured to be divisive and perhaps the board thought they could avoid this divisiveness. However, now they have generated distrust.
As Thursday night showed, they certainly got the attention of the GATE parents and, if not by the June 4 vote, then by dispatching of Ms. Quinn.
But now it gets interesting. It was easy for the board majority to pass the vote on June 4. There were few people in the room. The Brown Act specifically precludes a governing body from taking action on items that are not agendized. From our view, once the board moved from private testing to differentiated discussion – they crossed the line.
It’s a fine line but it’s an important line. It is easier to cast a vote when the room is empty. It is much harder to cast a vote when they have a room full of angry parents ready to breathe down their neck. And they may well do it – but public policy decisions of this magnitude should be different and uncomfortable.
Avoiding this discomfort breeds distrust and contempt – something that the board members who were elected last November steadfastly said they wished to avoid.
Christine Farnum expressed concern about the process. She said that she’s been paying attention to the school board meetings. “I was completely blindsided by these two decisions, didn’t expect them, didn’t see anything about them on the agendas or have any reason to expect that the process for eligibility would be so drastically changed and that the coordinator would be eliminated.”
She added, “I’m not the only person that feels blindsided and whose trust in this and the board has really been shaken.” “I know that GATE can be a divisive issue in our community. People feel like it creates a divide. These last two decisions have created a huge gap.”
Ms. Farnum speaks for many on this matter and it is a firm illustration of the importance of process and full notification.
While the June 4 vote brings up questions about the Brown Act and proper notification, the decision to reject the VSA (variable services agreement) over the recommendations of staff is a different matter. It was fully noticed on the consent agenda. And while Madhavi Sunder suspected something was up with that vote, the public did not.
The Brown Act is the floor for public notification. It is the legal rules that a governing body must adhere to. However, it should serve only as the very baseline. The Deanne Quinn VSA serves as a reminder that something can pass muster and yet not be the best public process.
The item was placed on the agenda for June 18 – after school had gone to summer recess. It was a consent item – which is reserved for routine and non-controversial or contentious matters. The district staff put it on there, recommending that the board approve another VSA.
There is nothing illegal about the process – items go on consent all the time and get pulled. But it certainly did not give the hundreds, if not thousands, of parents any warning that something was going to change.
The consequence of that action reverberates into future decisions and the trust of the community. One hundred and five minutes of public comment on Thursday probably represents only the tip of the iceberg.
Board President Alan Fernandes firmly believes that the actions taken on June 4 were not final actions but rather the first step in the process. That belief is likely shaken a bit by the board decision on the VSA, but I think there is a more fundamental problem and it comes out in the tone of the comments from Thursday.
The public believes – or at least a percentage of the public believes – that the school board tried to sneak major changes through the back door, late at night and at the end of the school year, when parents were thinking about graduation, vacations and summer activities for their kids.
The board is talking about a discussion in July and a special meeting in September, but really, the damage is done. The community is divided and a sizable segment has lost trust in the school board.
I thought this was the very thing we wanted to avoid most of all.
Alan Fernandes, for one, warned the community last November 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.
“My top priority as a board member is to restore the public’s trust,” Mr. Fernandes stated last November. “The school board needs the confidence of the community to effectively develop and implement policy and procedure for the schools.”
Already some have mentioned a potential opposition or reluctance to support a future parcel tax. That perhaps goes too far in the direction of cutting off our noses to spite our faces, but it does show where this could be headed.
If anything good can come from this, perhaps it is not too late for the board to back off their vote in the face of the Vanguard’s Brown Act complaint and take the route that Marla Cook laid out – bring the stakeholders together and have a plan that everyone can work with.
—David M. Greenwald reporting