Commentary: A Turning Point in the Election and AIM


The DJUSD election was difficult to predict – it was clear that Bob Poppenga was running a strong campaign, it was not clear that both he and Alan Fernandes would unseat Susan Lovenburg.  But there seem to be key two key moments early and late, that may have swung this against Ms. Lovenburg.

While the AIM community is perhaps small, over the years it probably goes deeper than one might think and, if people vote as a block, in a relatively close election, they can create disproportionate influence on the race.

The first moment came early.  It was the decision by the board, on a 3-2 vote, to only have two strands, after parents were promised to have three.  Alan Fernandes and Madhavi Sunder put forward a compromise motion but could not gain a third vote.  Instead, the board majority, which included Susan Lovenburg (joined by Tom Adams and Barbara Archer, neither of whom were facing reelection), pushed through an AIM two-strand vote.

While at that time there were concerns about the size of the program and the demographic composition, this was the first time a real change was pushed through on a split vote.  I think that vote really started a push against Ms. Lovenburg – again, by a small group.

On October 25, basically two weeks before the election, Shun Yao wrote a letter to the Vanguard, concerned that the district had administered the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test) and the test was invalidated, and therefore, on October 4, the district sent a letter to the parents that all of their kids would have to be retested with the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test), basically requiring them to take a 170-question, 3-hour long, computer-based test instead of the 65 questions, 40-minute long test.

The district’s response to this was almost tone-deaf to the concerns of parents.  Maria Clayton basically said that the situation which “resulted in OLSAT-8 testing irregularities was unfortunate but the resolution, led by the AIM office in concert with principals and teachers districtwide, was immediate, comprehensive and well-communicated to employees and parents.”

To parents concerned with their third grade kids having to take a three-hour test, that’s not the response they wanted to hear.  And this impacted 300 kids – a much broader swath than just the core AIM parents.

As one parent put it, “I want to add my voice to those who are frustrated with how the AIM program is being administered. The testing this fall, in addition to the debacle that occurred last spring with parents being uninformed/misinformed about the location of the various AIM strands suggests to me that there is a systemic problem.”

Another commenter put it that “the AIM program has been under much scrutiny, you would think that DJUSD would take a little extra time to ensure that the testing goes smoothly.”

Causal or not, the tone of the campaign seemed to change after that.  A few days later, Katherine Unger wrote a letter in the Enterprise and Vanguard that reminded voters not only about Ms. Lovenburg’s views on AIM, but also her ill-fated letter regarding the Nancy Peterson situation from March 19, 2014 with Sheila Allen.

Many people believed that that letter ultimately doomed Sheila Allen in the 2014 City Council race.

On November 3, Ann Block authored the “AIM – The Elephant in the Room” article pushing back, writing, “While Bob Poppenga is clearly an accomplished professor of veterinary medicine, and probably a very nice guy – most people seem to have forgotten that he was one of the leaders against GATE/AIM reform in Davis, perhaps because he has a child in the program, as does Ms. Sunder, the only vote on the current board that was against GATE/AIM reform. “

The entire dynamics of the race seemed to change in the last two weeks.

Where does the election leave the AIM program now?  First a few thoughts on what went right and what went wrong with the AIM reform.  Clearly there was a problem with the private testing – and, while I believe the district needs a protocol to allow students entering the district after testing to get identified for AIM, the private testing system seemed rife for abuse and ending it was a good idea.

Creating a more rigorous and systematic approach to AIM testing always made sense.

Where I was concerned was here:

First, laying off Deanne Quinn seemed less about policy and more about politics.  That was a 3-2 vote against the staff recommendation.  If there was a third factor in this race, it started there.

Second, I always understood the need to clean up the identification process – I never understood the driving need to go from 96 to 98.  There was no educational reason for that, which the previous administration could come up with.

Third, my concern for the size of the program has always been about the concern that fewer students would mean less diversity – that played out a lot more starkly than even I believed.

In the end, I felt like a lot of these changes were rushed – that the district was pushing an agenda, not reforming an educational program.

My guess is that, with the new board, you will see a revisiting of a few issues.  I would suggest to the board to take the time to get this right.  That means, pause the change from 96 to 98.  That means, get the AIM testing protocol right – I think there are some real questions about the suitability of the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test to diverse populations.

This election result, I think, gives the board the mandate to re-examine the program and to try to smooth out the rough edges of the reform.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. quielo

    Have you reached to Tom Adams and Barbara Archer for their take on the implications of the election? The wind shift seems clear to me as well and what will their response be? I have never met Tom Adams but from my conversations with Barbara I suspect she will get with the new program.

    1. Chamber Fan

      In some ways Barbara was more gung-ho that Lovenburg.  At one point she basically said, I don’t care what the impact is on minority students, I want to keep the changes.

  2. Misanthrop

    This election was clearly a referendum on gate and the gate advocates won. Two years ago the anti-gate faction won but they were less than transparent about their intentions. It was there but it was in the background. After the election the Adams, Archer and Lovenburg majority preceded to make significant changes to the program, firing the long time coordinator, changing the testing regime, reducing the number of strands and deciding to house them not where the people involved most wanted, ignoring the demographics impacts of the changes and instituting, from above, differentiation and pedagogy in a heavy handed top down process. All the while claiming they weren’t making significant changes to the program.

    One thing I found extraordinary  was that the board majority never took their case to the community. They never wrote an op-ed explaining what they wanted to do and why, leaving that work to the Enterprise editorial staff and a few letter writers.They hardly ever explained it from the dais, at one point after hours of public comment, hiding behind the Brown Act to say nothing. Even from the beginning of the term they lacked transparency. After not prioritizing gate at their retreat they put Tobin White on the agenda. Then at a subsequent meeting Trustee Lovenburg presented a comprehensive pre-written motion that went far beyond what the gate supporters realized was going to be proposed.

    This lack of transparency continued all the way up to almost the end of the campaign when the Lovenburg team must have realized they were in trouble and Ann Block tried to rally the anti-gate forces with the “elephant in the room” letter and Debbie Davis took the unprecedented step of republishing the Enterprise’s endorsement of Lovenburg and Fernandes.

    The board majority, and the district administration under its direction, ignored the gate advisory committee and the almost constant stream of parents who paraded before the board providing countless hours of public comment. They never seemed to notice that after a large supportive turn out by the anti-gate coalition the number of people supporting them dwindled down to just a few die hard opponents of the program that would constantly remind the board that opposing  gate was why they were “Put up there.” All the while disgruntled parents continued to turn out and be voted down by the majority, setting up the inevitable showdown at the ballot box.

    Another aspect that hasn’t been mentioned was the old versus new dynamic. Poppenga published his ballot statement in English, Spanish and Chinese. His fundraiser was the most diverse gathering of a political meeting I have ever seen in Davis. Look at the photo of his victory party, it looks like 21st century California.

    An additional irony was Lovenburg’s opposition to Sunder to fill Nancy Peterson’s seat. While Fernandes turned out to be openminded and listened to people, at the time of the appointment all the other board members supported Sunder. Lovenburg blocked Sunder who went on to receive the most votes in the last election. Had Lovenburg not done so Fernandes might not have run again and who knows if things might have played out differently. At the end the person Lovenburg picked went on to beat her last Tuesday night.

    I agree the board needs to now have an honest and deliberate community discussion about how to proceed but some changes are obvious and should be implemented as soon as possible. The administration of the program and the testing program are a mess. The district should bring back Deanne Quinn. Firing(not rehiring) her and then replacing her position with a Differentiation Coordinator was foolish and a waste of money. While differentiation is a skill that teachers should practice with every child you don’t need someone on the payroll overseeing it at the district level. Training can be provided by the district like it is on many topics. Also some decisions need to be made about what the program is going to look like next year.

    The board should recognize what the outcome of the election means and appoint a subcommittee of Sunder and Fernandes to figure out what needs to happen in both the short term and long term. The logic here is that Poppenga will join Sunder as pro-gate and Fernandes by his nature will be more of a swing vote. Doing this now will allow the new board to get a jump on what needs to be done near term instead of waiting until the new board is sworn in. If the current board can’t go there out of pride or denial or whatever the new board should create a subcommittee with either Poppenga or Sunder and Fernandes. Otherwise, if next years Board President Archer decides to dig in and fight, what we will see is a continuation of gate taking up too much board time and distracting from the many other issues the board needs to spend time addressing. The last board refused to refer gate to a subcommittee the new board should not make the same mistake.

    One final note on the election, the people on both sides of this issue should be commended for supporting the parcel tax and fighting the gate issue out separately. At different points some gate advocates threatened to withhold support for the parcel tax but as the election neared these voices fell silent. Sunder deserves credit here for rallying the votes of her supporters to help pass Measure H.

    Lovenburg deserves credit and our thanks for her many years of service to the children of this community. She had to work through the worst financial crisis of my life and oversaw budgets that required many unpalatable decisions like increases in class sizes at early grades. She was on boards that consistently got the community to step up and pay to keep the schools afloat. She always kept her cool and maintained her dignity. Thank you Susan Lovenburg.


    1. quielo

      Very well written summary. I look forward to parents engaging with the board to determine the best way forward rather than just being dismissed as a “vocal minority” by Lovenberg and her smug surrogates.

        1. hpierce

          Respectfully disagree, CF… if the “community” is expected to financially, and politically support the district and its programs, why would they not have a seat at the table, along with parents? If parents were the only ones choosing Board members and paying parcel taxes, I might agree with what you said… but that is not the case…

        2. hpierce

          I guess, quielo, you would ‘disenfranchise’ me and my spouse from participation, as we have no children currently in the district.  One child was in GATE for 3 years… three children of ours were DJUSD students…  I was a G&T student many years ago…

          I assume you mean we have nothing to contribute, except money and voting for who parents want… you want us to be political pawns (?)…

      1. Misanthrop

        Dismissing “Lovenburg and her smug surrogates” is not particularly humble or productive rhetoric. Thinking that way is a recipe for continued disfunction. The pro-gate and anti-gate factions both have two seats with Fernandes in the middle. That might actually provide the balance needed to find the best path forward if we can honestly discuss our hopes and fears in an open and compassionate discussion about what should be the future of the gate program.

        1. quielo

          I moved from a district that did not have defined strands in GATE and they did a great job so I am not “all in” on a particular way of running AIM.

          I do object to Ann Block and the other SL surrogates referring to parents as “vocal minorities”. I would submit that the  article she wrote was both smug and patronizing.

  3. Chamber Fan

    Mis: “Debbie Davis took the unprecedented step of republishing the Enterprise’s endorsement of Lovenburg and Fernandes.”  Could be wrong, but I think that’s actually routine.

    The part of the Ann Block piece that baffled me, is that she claimed Madhavi, Poppenga and Rairdan ran as a slate.  That’s not my understanding.  Rairdan certainly didn’t which is why he finished last.  Poppenga may have worked with Madhavi this time, but their campaigns were separate and distinct.  The two who worked closely together were Archer and Adams – Adams didn’t have a campaign other than Barbara’s.

  4. Frankly

    The GATE/AIM proponents are very much the same people that vote to prevent development so Davis stays primarily white and exclusive.  And they have a lot of political power in this city.

    1. Chamber Fan

      You’re completely wrong on this.  You need to go back and watch the AIM discussions – the opponents of AIM were primarily white, the proponents were largely people of color.  Find one name among those people that you recognize as being an opponent of growth.  You won’t find it.  You have this wrong.

      1. wdf1

        Chamber Fan:  You’re completely wrong on this.  You need to go back and watch the AIM discussions – the opponents of AIM were primarily white, the proponents were largely people of color. 

        The proponents were also college educated, many with graduate/professional degrees.  This observation also tracks with data for the demographic profile of the students in the program during the 2015-16 school year.  I think it’s a big mistake to overlook this fact.


      1. Chamber Fan

        I was trying to find the endorsement list of Measure A, but fairly certain both Sunder and Poppenga supported it.  At the very least, that should invalidate Frankly’s statement

    2. DavisAnon

      Frankly, I think you’re wrong on this one. What I have seen is that many of the no-growthers are the white, financially comfortable, old guard of Davis. This same group enjoyed having their kids in special programs yet seem unwilling to support maintains the options for current parents and children. This is obviously not an absolute but has been my impression from watching both growth and AIM discussions. Those with more open minds in evaluating potential developments (rather than a knee-jerk rejection) seem to be more recent arrivals to Davis, more often different ethnicities and SES levels, and often have young children or children in school. These groups are also the ones who have been supporting AIM at Board meetings to the predominantly white Board. Merely my observations…

  5. MrsW

    I am dismayed that the School Board race is being presented as a one-issue referendum.  It wasn’t for me.

    Bob Poppenga, if you are reading this, I voted for you because I hope that you are fair-minded and can help DJUSD’s and your fellow Board members make a distinction between using statistics (1) descriptively OR (2) to make conclusions about causes and effects.  I’m hoping you know the difference between national trends and whether something is actually true here, in Davis, in this time and place.

    Also, for the record, I blame Public Education for Trump and Clinton and I think its DJUSD’s responsibility to be part of the solution.  I think it’s DJUSD’s job to do better and to help our community raise humans who are fit to live and thrive in a Democracy.  Yes, I am assuming it’s not too late.

    I believe that pulling children out of an environment where they can best learn to be inclusive tolerant flexible resilient citizens should not be done lightly.  There are times, where it is the right thing to do.  There are times when it is not.  DJUSD and Davis, can you learn to tell the difference?

    Last, given the demographic trends in California, DJUSD should prioritize raising Asian and Hispanic citizen leaders who, having learned from the white majority’s history, are capable of leading every ethnicity and versed in creating welcome inclusive communities.  Tell me, how is allowing the vast majority of Asian students to be in self-contained AIM classrooms devoid of Hispanic students going to get there?  Oh, that’s right–add a few more token Hispanic kids to the AIM classrooms, frame it as “integration”, and check their standardized test scores.

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