My View: With School Renaming Issue, District Once Again Fails Local Civics 101


Mary Ellen Dolcini was a great person, she was a great principal at North Davis Elementary School and she certainly is deserving of being honored by this district and is certainly not deserving of having her name be in the center of a controversy.  But unfortunately, that is where we are today and it really has nothing to do with here.

The cardinal rule of local politics is when you want to make a change the first thing you do is you meet with the stakeholders and take their temperature. That did not happen in the case of North Davis Elementary.

The bigger policy question is that this is not the first massive misstep by this district administration.  Last spring they fumbled the hiring of the new Principal at Davis High School.

They announced the decision to hire outside candidate Lee Fleming as new principal, 70 teachers showed up outside the district offices the day after the announcement.  Ms. Fleming, having seen that she did not have support of the teachers, withdrew her name from consideration and the district hired the person the teachers wanted Tom McHale as the new principal.

That messy situation could have been avoided had the district – in this case they reached out to the teachers, but didn’t really listen to their concerns or what they wanted.

In the case of North Davis Elementary school – they failed to even do that much prior to going public.  This was a big mistake.

When I first read about the proposed name change of North Davis Elementary, I didn’t think much about it.  I never attended NDE, my kids do not go there, so I don’t have much of a connection.  Plus I knew Mary Ellen Dolcini and members of her family and she seems as worthy as anyone of being honored.

However, I assumed that the district had actually gone through some sort of process.  That’s not what happened.

What happened was an outside group that had no real connection to the school recommended the name change.  There is nothing particularly wrong with that, but they didn’t talk to the current teachers, students and parents either before proposing this change.

Like me, when the teachers first heard of the proposed change, they originally did not think that much of it. They figured this was a proposal and it would go through a lengthy process. Instead, they were stunned to learn how quickly it was moving forward.

“There was a lack of awareness about how quickly this is going to move,” a teacher explained. They saw it is “they’re talking about it” not “They are going to do it next week.”

This is the crux of the complaint from teachers I spoke with – the speed with which this was proposed, and the seeming lack of process.

“There has to be a better process,” one said.  “They have a process for naming schools, but they don’t have a process for re-naming schools.”

Obviously this isn’t just a process issue – but the lack of process contributed to the frustration because the parents and teachers I spoke to all feel that the name North Davis Elementary is itself important.

The teachers felt like they already have a thriving community under the name of North Davis Elementary or NDE. “We’re North Davis – we are proud of being here,” one of the teachers explained. “Your name is part of your identity.”

“There’s an emotional attachment,” the 5th grade teacher said. “It just seems like this community is so much more than naming this after one person.”

They were emotional, this was an issue that hit close to home and the district’s process did not take any of this into account.

I have little doubt that when this issue comes before the board next Thursday – maybe even before in order to head off what is likely to be a long and emotionally charged night – they will announce that the proposal has been table, they will then either withdraw the proposal in its entirety or they will have a committee or a prolonged process look into the name change.

That is fine.  But my point is that there is a broader issue here and that is that the lesson of Local Politics 101 is that you don’t make changes without vetting them first.  A community group has the best of intentions, but they are not on the ground at the school and taking the pulse of that community.

The teachers suggested that they need to have a process for re-naming schools just as they have a process for naming them in the first place.

I go further.  They need to have process for making changing in the school district.  Just as the city has a process by which stakeholders are briefed in public meetings well in advance of new projects, the district needs to have a similar process for changes that will impact specific school sites.

Again, the unfortunate thing is that a truly great person, worthy of honor is getting caught up in this situation.  Her family has long been prominent in this community and they did not need to be dragged through this.

This could’ve all been avoided had the district prior to having a consent agenda item on the school board agenda followed a simple process for alerting the stakeholders first, getting a read and then proceeding.  They would have realized quickly that there was a lot of pushback and reluctance to this kind of change and slowed things down.

It may even be the case that had they proceeded correctly the first time, the community would have been more receptive to the change.

What is clear is that the district needs to do better at vetting these proposals before it ends up with major blowback.  If I am the school board after navigating this current crisis, I am sitting down to figure out how to avoid the next one.

—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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20 thoughts on “My View: With School Renaming Issue, District Once Again Fails Local Civics 101”

  1. Jim Hoch

    The school board has, since I have been here, confused arrogance for leadership. I would argue that their handling of AIM is even more an example of not listening to the community or making stakeholders feel included.

    I had a conversation once with Susan L about this. She spoke to me about how her votes were all driven by a book she had read called “hear every voice” or something similar. I suggested that the parents of the children at the school may have their own views on what was best for their children and she was openly dismissive.  I was stunned.

    Other districts try to capture parent energy and enthusiasm (and money) to improve the district. Especially here in Davis parents are highly qualified professionals and have a lot to offer.

    1. Howard P

      Agree about Susan L… my experience dealing with her indicated she was a straight “B” trustee… itch to say that Willett and Chavez were both schools “re-named”… nothing new under the sun.

      Oh, forgot Valley Oak… now Da Vinci… from what I’ve heard from folk involved in promoting the latter name change, it was a PC effort… an “orientation” thing, if you will… done subtly…

      1. Ken A

        Do any old timers remember if anyone cared when “East Davis Elementary” was renamed “Valley Oak Elementary”?

        Has anyone been in the North Davis MPR recently?  I seem to remember seeing something on the wall that already named the room after Mary Ellen Dolcini.

        P.S. I agree with Jim that 99% of the DUSD administration and over half the teachers are “openly dismissive” to any parent that wants to talk with them about the way they do things…

        1. Howard P

          You exaggerate, Ken (your PS)… it’s only 95% of the admin, 92% percent of the board who are often dismissive, but don’t disagree with your observation re:  teachers… except I’d have worded it, “slightly over half”… but, have to give them (latter) some leeway, as they are only following the examples of Admin and the Board…

          Have found that many with educational initials after their name, BA, MA, PhD, etc., figure that the rest of us, with dumb BS, PE, PLS, CPA, etc. initials after their names are knuckle-draggers who don’t know anything important… and, appropriately should be ‘dismissed’ as an SOP…

        2. Jim Hoch

          Some guy who writes a column for The Enterprise with the initials BD wrote once that they changed the name from East Davis to Valley Oak to avoid the shame of living on the wrong side of the tracks.

  2. Matt Williams

    I had coffee with Ron Glick yesterday at Mishka’s and he shared a good solution with me.  Honor Mary Ellen Dolcini by naming one of the NDES buildings after her.

    That is a solution that appears to me to honor all the parties in this controversy.





    P.S.  Ron acknowledged that the idea he shared was not his own, but rather arose from a members of the community talking to one another inclusively.

  3. Jim Hoch

    Matt, naming the MPR room to be constructed with Measure M funds after Dr. Dolcini has been on Nextdoor for days.

    I disagree as there are also a number of Judy Davis partisans who also seem to have a strong case. There is no need to “buy off” the makers and supporters of this motion with a consolation prize. It should be rejected outright and naming of the new MPR room is a separate issue which Dr. Dolcini can be proposed for.

        1. Jim Hoch

          I would prefer to name it “Measure M-PR” After where the money comes from.

          If any of the competing naming factions wants to stuff a fat check in their application that would sway my preference Maybe Ms. Bridge of the DAR can raise some money?

  4. Rik Keller

    Setting process aside for a minute, there are two very different characterizations of the group supporting/proposing the name change.

    David Greenwald said: “What happened was an outside group that had no real connection to the school recommended the name change.”

    In contrast, a local newspaper said: “Several longtime Davis residents and former teachers and students at North Davis Elementary spoke on Thursday in favor of renaming the school after Dolcini, and no one spoke in opposition to the proposal. Among the speakers were retired teacher Delee Beavers (who knew Dolcini over a period of many years); Cindy Evans (who was a first-grader at North Davis in 1956, when Dolcini was a teacher); Davis city council member and former North Davis elementary student Will Arnold (father of a child who is currently a student at the school); retired teachers Claire King and Verena Borton; Estelle Shiroma of the Davis branch of the American Association of University Women (which voted to support the name change);and former school board trustee Jan Bridge.”

    1. Jim Hoch

      They are not mutually exclusive, simply separated in time. I understand Dolcini retired in 1990 so people who know her are pretty old. Someone may very well have taught there in the 70’s or 80’s and have no current relationship to the school while they may be current DAR members.

      Having been involved with NDE until this past June I do not know any of these names and none of them checked with the current school community.

  5. H Jackson

    Jan Bridge — a school board trustee in decades past, who helped coordinate the effort to rename North Davis Elementary after Dolcini — told The Enterprise that “We met with (school district superintendent) Bowes in July, with Board President Adams in August and with North Davis principal Sarah Roseen in September. As a group of people with no standing with the District we could not invite ourselves to the school and no one from the school invited us to come to make a presentation.” source


    1. David Greenwald Post author

      This demonstrates the point I was making here – the outside group did not have a current connection to the school, whether it was their fault or not, they did not interact with the current faculty or parents to see if this was a change they supported. My comment was meant more to criticize the district for failing to bring the stakeholders in than the group. When I talked to the PTA, teachers, parents, they all told me at no point did the group attempt to contact them. And more importantly, the group could have requested that the principal set up a meeting with PTA and teachers and they didn’t do that either. So I’m not exactly sure what the issue is with what I reported.

    2. David Greenwald Post author

      Adding to this point, Jan Bridge would have been perfectly capable of finding out who the PTA President was (they have a webpage and an email), sending an email and asking to be invited to the next meeting to give a talk. There is a lot of failure here to do outreach – again, I think most of that falls on the school district, but I spoke to a lot of people on campus in the past week and not one of them was approached prior to this going to the school board.

      1. Jim Hoch

        From my point of view the primary failure here was to not follow established procedure on school naming. I watched the 12/06 meeting video and Bowes had several opportunities to say “we have a policy and it calls for x,y,z” but he did not.  As he is the chief administrator and should be advocating to follow policy I find that curious.

      2. H Jackson

        It does seem like the principal was also in a position to pass on information about the interest in a name change to the PTA officers, but apparently didn’t.  Nor, it seems, did she offer to facilitate a meeting between Bridge’s group and the PTA.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          That’s a fair criticism of the principal.  When I talked to the teachers, they said that the principal was relatively new and trying to stay neutral in all of this, but facilitating a meeting would seem to have been a good step.

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