Sunday Commentary: District Should Come Clean on DHS Principal Situation

John Bowes

Two weeks ago something remarkable happened – with the district having informed DHS teachers of their decision to hire outside candidate Lee Fleming as the new principal, the teachers rose up and said no.   A remarkable 70 teachers showed up outside the district offices the day after the announcement and several of those spoke to the board prior to closed session.

The result was that the board of education delayed the decision on whether to approve the hiring.

In the meantime, the principal that was going to be hired by the district, Lee Fleming, having seen what transpired, withdrew her name from consideration.

That left the district with only one candidate and made the decision easy.  They announced this last week that the superintendent had recommended the hiring of longtime teacher and vice principal and current interim principal, Tom McHale, as the new principal at DHS.

In the time since the initial board meeting, we have received a few emails and other correspondences questioning the hire of Mr. McHale.  The students for their part seem to be concerned about the way and manner in which the school dance and dance contract were handled.  Others believe that Mr. McHale was largely supported by the teachers because he would operate in their best interest and they wonder if Mr. McHale will a voice for change and improvement at the high school.

Still, as I have previously pointed out, there are legitimate concerns about stability at the high school.  The fact that there have been six principals at DHS in the last decade is troubling, even in an industry that may expect high turnover.  Teachers rightly expressed concerns about principals coming from outside the district who leave after a few years, using the position as a stepping stone.

These are tough questions to answer – how does one bring in someone with vision for change who will be someone who can also come in for the long-term and provide the school with stability and the teachers with a level of certainty?

However, I am more troubled by another aspect of this.  Four years ago this spring, the district was rocked by a scandal.  A sitting board member attempted to improperly use her position on the board to continue a vendetta against a volleyball coach.  The result of her actions – and probably more as a result over misguided efforts at damage control – led Nancy Peterson to resign.

That led to the district looking at ways to be more transparent as well as to have a more robust conflict of interest policy.

What I found remarkable about the second effort to hire the principal – this time apparently successfully – is how non-transparent the district was in all of this.

It is important to remember that the school board as elected officials do not have general hiring and firing authority over most employees.  In fact, the only district employee they have actual hiring and firing authority over in a direct way is the superintendent.  So, much as the city council only hires the city manager and city attorney, the school board only hires the superintendent.

In other words, this was Superintendent John Bowes’ decision and his error.

And yet, John Bowes has said absolutely nothing about this situation.

This is one of the problems that also came up in the Nancy Peterson saga – when we have personnel decisions, most of that is confidential.  The real discussions happen behind closed doors and in secret and they do so legally – and to do otherwise is contrary to the law.

What little we know about the hiring process, we only know because teachers who are not bound by the same confidentiality requirements have spoken publicly about the school district’s process.

But, for a moment, let us forget about the specifics of why Candidate A was chosen over Candidate B.  That is really not that important.

Here are some things that are important:

  1. What was the process by which the district chose to hire a given principal?
  2. Why did that process fail to detect the fact that the hire of anyone other than Tom McHale would lead the teachers to engage in a revolt?
  3. One teacher mentioned vague discussions as to the vision for the high school – what is the district’s vision for the high school? What is the district looking for in a principal?  Does that vision coincide with the goals that the teachers may have?  Why or why not?

Here is the problem that the district faces right now – there were still teachers who came and spoke during public comment who were clearly still angry about how this was handled.  The district said nothing about this to the public.  There was no discussion.  There was no explanation for why a course change occurred.

This is not the only problem that appears to be brewing for the district.  During her comments to the board, Dianna Huculak, the Davis Teachers Association president, is clearly still unhappy with the compensation situation.  The DTA has given mixed signals on a parcel tax, but there appears to be some frustration with the fact that the district is looking at a facilities bond for fall when a parcel tax could mean closing the compensation gap.

A number of FFA (Future Farmers of America) students came forward during public comment, clearly concerned about possible cuts to agricultural.  The district, led by the superintendent, tried to reassure the students but his reassurance was somewhat bureaucratic and weak, stating only that no decisions have been made.  Others have stressed to the Vanguard that there really won’t be an issue here, but that message was not delivered publicly.

The district is treading onto thin ice right now and they need to reassure the public and their students by coming clean on missteps publicly, because attempting to gloss over errors with no public accounting is a recipe for trouble later.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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 Comment

  1. Jim Hoch

    The only certainty in this is that Bowes will open the next school board meeting with a ten minute droning monologue that will contain no useful information.

    Sitting there listening to Bowes drone on I am always struck by the same thought, “This is the guy who is responsible for differentiated instruction? His style was considered archaic in the time of Charles Dickens”.

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