School board discord erupts into public view

School board discord erupts into public view

Michele Ellson
Alameda schools

Long-simmering tensions between school board members and district staff erupted into public view Tuesday, as discussions over the district’s strategic goals for the year and plans to ask voters for bond money to fix Alameda’s aged schools spawned charges that some board members are overstepping their roles and micromanaging district staff.

“It’s clear to me that we’re struggling as a board and as an executive cabinet and a staff to do the work this district needs to do,” school board trustee Mike McMahon said during the board’s meeting Tuesday.

The discord is so deep that schools trustees decided to hire a facilitator to lead a session that some hope will bring the board to consensus on a path forward for a schools bond – a decision one board member, Trish Spencer, said she could not support.

“I’m not sure how that would move it forward,” said Spencer, who said she wanted to ask community groups that gathered in the spring to discuss future uses for Historic Alameda High School whether such a session should take place.

The latest episode in the board’s long-running bond discussion was only one of a host of flash points that erupted Tuesday over the level of confidence board members have in district staff, a list that included continuing strife over the board’s split decision to move the Alameda Community Learning Center onto the Wood Middle School campus this year. (Another likely bone of contention, replacement of the district’s general counsel, was pushed off to another meeting as Tuesday’s session hit the five-hour mark and the board returned to an earlier closed-door session.)

Board member Barbara Kahn, who voted against the charter’s move and has repeatedly pressed Superintendent Kirsten Vital regarding her plans for Wood, asked for weekly reports on the status of the move; she questioned the lack of detail in a shared space agreement the board was to approve Tuesday and is asking the rest of the board to consider setting up a task force to find a new, permanent location for the charter school. Kahn also questioned Vital about her plans to include teachers – and the teachers union, which backed her candidacy – in the planning process to implement the new Common Core curriculum.

Spencer, meanwhile, has doggedly questioned district staff’s recommendations on issues great and small. Over the past year she opposed the board’s decision to move ACLC to Wood and questioned whether staff’s enrollment decisions for the new Junior Jets middle school squared with the school’s written plan, and has routinely pulled – and voted against – contracts typically approved on a voice vote.

Both board members have complained about what they see as a lack of transparency at the district office and difficulty they’re having in getting the information they need to make decisions, though Vital and other staff have said they are providing the information board members are requesting.

But some board members think their dais-mates are overstepping their roles as policymakers and trying to make decisions that should be handled by staff, and they said so Tuesday night.

“I believe that we do need to trust the superintendent and staff to be able to do the work, that the board cannot micromanage,” board president Niel Tam said. Board member Margie Sherratt said she has faith district staff can work with the community in order to move forward on schools bonds.

While schools trustees have clashed on a host of issues in the months since last November’s election shifted the composition of the board, questions about whether to put a bond proposal before voters and what that money should pay for seem to have prompted new levels of disagreement.

Vital said the board’s support will be critical for moving forward, though she said efforts to win a bond election should proceed even if one member – an apparent reference to Spencer, who has raised questions about whether the district should ask for the money – doesn’t agree.

“We can’t get stuck on the minority opinion,” Vital said.

While most of the trustees seem to agree that bond money is needed, board members have been unable to agree on the scope of a bond or series of bond, with McMahon advocating for an initial bond focused on the high schools and Sherratt saying additional schools should be considered. And they are struggling to decide whether to engage a consultant to create a plan that will detail the district’s future demographic educational needs and the facilities needed to support those or to give the community a broader hand in that decision-making process.

The one thing board members did seem to agree Tuesday on is that the amount of time they have left to make these decisions is short. District staffers said the board will need to have a plan for moving forward on a bond for the November 2014 ballot by May.

“We can’t move forward,” McMahon said, “until this five-member board is willing to commit to what is important to this district.”


Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Wed, Aug 28, 2013

I applaud board members Spencer and Kahn for asking questions. For too long the school board has given a rubber stamp of approval to district staff recommendations without investigating competing recommendations of essential stakeholders. I encourage the school board to be thorough, rather than swift, in its decision making process.

Submitted by Il Cane di Ferro (not verified) on Wed, Aug 28, 2013

Agreed now is the time for tough questions and not another knee-jerk reaction "for the kids" bond issue. If another bond vote, no more senior exemption where they can vote but don't have $ to pay $. Everyone has to have skin in the game. Better yet, make school-age parents pay more. There has to be an end to this fiscal madness...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, Aug 28, 2013

Neil Tam thinks the School Board is micro-managing by addressing these issues rather than handing all the decisions to District staff? OMG That's scary! What is he doing on the Board of Edu in this community if he wants to shy from hard decisions? BOE rubber-stamping may be the result of the votes by past District administrators who are sitting on the board.
These are huge school issues facing the community and must be handled properly, openly, and with community involvement. It seems pretty easy to tell which BOE member's participation tries to reflect the community interests and children, and which members do not participate that way.

Submitted by Anne DeBardeleben on Wed, Aug 28, 2013

I can not begin to tell you how tired I am of the rubber stamp statement. Having attended school board meetings on a very regular basis for years, I have seen all board members engaged, asking clarifying questions and working WITH not FOR the Superintendent and staff, very successfully I may add, to continue to improve the education of our students. On many occasions I have greatly appreciated the questions Member Kahn brings to the dais. She has the ability to cut through the "jargon" and tell it like it is. I have also seen her listen to and engage her fellow board members respectfully. On the other hand Member Spencer is notorious for badgering staff endlessly; disrespecting fellow dais members, using community outreach as a tool to avoid or delay decision making and playing to whatever entity is in the room at the time.

Last night she chose to use a group of community volunteers as her road block to decision. Those involved with the HAHS outreach never discussed, agreed to or even shared the idea of being the community group responsible for the facilities bond. Our task was clear; provide input on how the HAHS buildings should be used, period. In the final meeting we were asked if there was any additional input for the board and we stated the board should look at a student needs analysis when making THEIR decision and other school sites should be included. Since that meeting, no one has reached out to ask if there’s interest in expanding the groups roll yet there was Member Spencer refusing to support any decision except having volunteers complete a task we, as a group, never agreed to do.

Last night was a low point and this community deserves better.

By the way, a facilities plan was developed about two years ago. Facilities have been reviewed and the list of needed work compiled, community input has been drawn on for Historic Alameda High and they have now moved to the phase where the Board determines whether to float a bond for facilities, how much that bond should be and what should be covered. Not only is this not a knee-jerk reaction, the plan is right on schedule. If the process is allowed to move forward respectively, we all will have the opportunity to voice our opinions during community input meetings and vote our minds should a bond be placed on the ballot next November.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Thu, Aug 29, 2013

Hi Anne -

Thanks for your comment (and for putting your full name on your comment - I appreciate it when people are willing to be accountable for what they have to say). I did want to offer a little bit more info regarding the facilities planning, which I didn't have in this story (and am happy to have you or anyone else weigh in to add or correct as we go along).

My understanding of the discussion Tuesday (and in previous board discussions about this) is that staff would like to move on to a second phase of planning that would involve some demographic forecasting, so they know where their students are going to be, and also lay out an educational program so that whatever the district decides to fix, rebuild or build new matches with what kind of education they're hoping to provide future students. So for an example on the educational program - I think Robert Shemwell may have said something about laying out specifications for a science and technology (STEM) high school if the board chose to create one and having designs for a building that would accommodate that.

Staff had proposed this "phase two" study last January, and the board I think decided to address Historic Alameda High first, which is where the public process you referred to came in. The original timeline for the phase two study and for talking with the public about what they'd like to see fixed, replaced etc was laid out as an 18- to 24-month timeline according to the story I wrote about this in January, which is why I gather everyone was feeling they are in crunch time now to get something ready for a November 14 ballot.