School board discord erupts into public view
School board discord erupts into public view
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.”