Sunday, January 27, 2013

Contentious School Board Meetings Yield Higher Attendance, Plus a Vocabulary Lesson

Every cloud has a silver lining. Even the contentiousness that has characterized Santa Clara Unified School District Board meetings since the new board was seated in December -- although that may be hard to believe for those unfortunate enough to have endured those marathon meetings. 

The upside is that that many more people are attending board meetings and actively participating. And that, after all is what democracy is all about.

Another upside is that the community is getting to know some people, who are clearly articulate and informed about education, and, refreshingly, aren't connected with the usual suspects in Santa Clara politics. 

Let's hope that some of them come forward to run for Santa Clara Unified school board in 2014. Who knows, we may even see a new face from the South of Forest neighborhood if that area is successful in its fight to rationalize* district boundaries in this town. 

*Per Merriam-Webster, there are several meanings for the verb 'rationalize' besides "providing plausible but untrue reasons for conduct." These include: 
  • To bring into accord with reason 
  • To apply the principles of scientific management for a desired result
  • To substitute a natural for a supernatural explanation
  • To free from irrational parts (mathematical)
It seems to me that all of these apply to California's crazy quilt of school districts. They defy reason, are extremely costly and inefficient, are zealously defended by the High Priests of the Status Quo as divine directives, and need to be purged of irrelevant baggage that obstructs proper decision-making. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

SCUSD Online Accessibility: Let's Crowdsource It

Last night at the SCUSD board meeting there was a discussion about online access to board information including district policies and procedures, meeting agendas and reports, minutes, meeting recordings and -- in the future -- meeting video recording.

Now I know that it's more congenial to journalists to be part of the problem than to be part of the solution.

(To release my inner snark, I will only say that last night's conversation illustrated Everett Dirkson's remark that the length of governing body's discussion is inversely proportional to the amoung of money involved. So because actually doing any of this would represent less than .001 percent of the district's budget, needless to say, more time was spent discussing the few thousand dollars involved than on last week's district financial report.)

But sometimes journalists find themselves in a unique position to solve problems, because they're outsiders. So here's the idea; let's crowdsource this job. I was introduced to crowdsourcing for public projects many years ago by the U.S.'s first CTO, Aneesh Chopra, thanks to the an event put on by TiE Silicon Valley. If the federal government can do it, we can too.

Rather than tell you all about it, you can check into I've submitted the project as a "challenge" and will report here on future developments. In the meantime, if you have ideas, just post a comment here.

I know Santa Clara can do it -- we're the heart of Silicon Valley after all.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

ON TAP FOR THE BOARD: Bond Updates, a New Superintendent, and Public Access

On Tap for the Board is a short summary of what you can expect at the next regular meeting of the Santa Clara Unified School District's Board of Trustees


January 10, 2013 at the District Office Board Room, 1889 Lawrence Rd.  Santa Clara, CA 95051
Call to Order – 5:30 pm; Open Session – 6:30 pm


Following a marathon 7 hour meeting last December 13th, which featured the swearing  in of two newly elected Board members and ended with the announced retirement of the District Superintendent, and two special meetings called on short notice on the 18th and 19th, tensions on the Board and between Board and District Staff have rarely been higher.  The December 13th meeting ushered in a new Board majority, consisting of newly selected Board President Christine Koltermann, Ina Bendis, and two new trustees: Michelle Ryan and Chris Stampolis, who survived substantial opposition to handily win his seat.
Following the meeting, marked by disagreement and occasional outright hostility between members of the new majority and the rest of the Board and Staff, Superintendent Bobbie Plough announced her retirement, effective this June, citing family issues.  The December 18th special meeting was found to be in error due to mistakes in the announced agenda, preventing any board action – which did not stop the meeting for lasting over an hour, picking up on the 19th with a contentious discussion over beginning the search for a new superintendent.


(To view the full agenda, visit the District's website here)
As has become practice, expect another long meeting of the Santa Clara Unified School District Board of Trustees this Thursday.  Reports are expected from the Citizen Oversight Committees for the Measure J and Measure H Bond Measures.  Expected to draw longer discussion is item G.7., which will cover the approval of reference checking and further board action on the hiring of a search firm to find candidates to replace the retiring superintendent.  Given the extensive time previously spent on this normally simple matter, expect this item to draw Board and public input.
Finally, several topics concerning public access to Board meetings and records are expected to draw substantial, if not heated, contributions from the Board and public: Item H.4. will discuss increased availability of past Board agendas and minutes on the District Website, I.2. will discuss increasing access to Board meetings after complaints from the Board and public over difficulty hearing and getting into crowded meetings, and Item I.3.  will discuss the possibility of videotaping meetings, including airing them on the public Channel 26.


The retirement of Superintendent Plough means that the board will face a very different staff come this Fall compared to that found less than a year ago.  Of the primary Staff members the Board deals with, only Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Brad Syth remains; Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Lisa Cesario left in May to accept a position outside the District, Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Jim Luyau recently announced his retirement, and Board Secretary Cathy Van Pernis plans to retire, after 14 years in her position, this Fall.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

School Accountability Report Cards, Public Access to Meetings On the Agenda for Jan. 10 SCUSD Board Meeting

The Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD) has another full agenda for its first meeting of 2013.

Interim annual reports about current bond projects are on the agenda. Both bond issues – 2004's Measure J ($315 million) and 2010's Measure H ($81 million) – are for capital improvements to school facilities and both have a clean bill of health.

The district is also opening a request for bids to provide travel services for the district for the rest of the school year for multi-day field trips, athletic competitions, band performances, educational study trips, and special events.

The board will also be asked to approve hiring an Interim Assistant Superintendent, Business Services Division, Dana Taylor, at $85.00 per hour for up to 960 hours, for the remainder of the school year. This follows the retirement of the former Asst. Superintendent, Jim Luyau, after a 2012 extraordinary audit (report and analysis)  by the County Office of Education found questionable accounting practices on the part of district employees who were handling bookkeeping for two other county education agencies. Dana Taylor has experience in Moreland School District and was recommended by the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

Discussion Items:

School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs). These are detailed analyses of each school in the district, including: physical plant, materials, per-pupil spending, teacher salaries, demographics, and student performance. One observations: teacher salary and per-pupil spending doesn't predict student performance, but – no surprise – the percent of economically disadvantaged students does.

This item could be an opportunity for en encore of the Dec. 13th out-of-the-blue proposal made by Board Member Ina Bendis to make Bracher a K-6 – or K-8 – school. Making such a proposal through a routine Board Agenda, and without prior investigation or discussion is highly unusual, and provoked a tsunami of criticism from district teachers and parents, and accusations of hidden agendas and conflicts of interest. Board Member Chris Stampolis' children attend Bracher. Bendis has donated to Stampolis' political campaigns and provided him with pro bono legal advice

Posting Past Board Agendas and Minutes on the District Website, Video-Recording Board Meetings, proposed by Board President Christine Kolterman. There has been discussion over the years about bigger online archives, video-recording (instead of just audio-recording) and TV broadcast of board meetings. In the past the board majority ruled that the additional equipment, data storage and staff costs weren't justifiable. 

The irony here is that two sitting board members who opposed these moves lost re-election campaigns arguably because of the opacity of board proceedings. In the past, the Board kept detailed minutes of discussions. Baord Member Bendis objected, claiming that the minutes were biased, and the Board now keeps an action-only summary. 

Update from the Superintendent regarding the District's Extraordinary Audit Report: The Superintendent will present the district's 3-part plan to prevent similar abuses in the future:
·      Internal Control Structure: e.g. documentation
·      Hard Controls: signing authorities, monitoring
·      Soft Controls: social, i.e. employee roles

Public Access to Board Meetings.

Expect plenty of discussion on this topic, precipitated by the last three board meetings (Dec. 13, 18, and 19) which saw overflow crowds and audience behavior more familiar in the context of a sports competition than a school board meeting. A change of venue as well as rotating meeting locations will be discussed.

Board Members Ina Bendis and Christine Koltermann are trying to frame this as a civil rights issue on the grounds that the people who didn't get seats – some of whom may not speak English and at least one of whom was apparently disabled – were denied access to public meetings. As these meetings also were the setting for harsh criticism of the actions of the board's new majority – Bendis, Koltermann, Michele Ryan, and Stampolis – Bendis and Koltermann also allege that the their critics have suppressed other points of view by taking up all the seats.

Bendis previously set the tone for this discussion of civil rights and public decorum by referring to those who had reserved seats as an "exalted class." Over her 6-year tenure on the Board, Bendis has contributed to the lack of decorum she now bemoans with other similarly sarcastic remarks belittling other board members and district employees. She has also the subject of two harassment complaints brought against SCUSD. And last year she filed a police complaint (subsequently dismissed) against former Board Member Pat Flot, claiming that Flot had physically threatened her. Flot claims this was aimed at intimidating Flot from running for the board seat that opened up when long-time board member Don Bordenave retired.

Bendis also has claimed special privileges for herself, including speaking beyond the two-minute limit and a private office, on the grounds that she has ADHD, a disability that must legally be accommodated. Despite her ADHD, in the course of her 60+ years Bendis managed to earn a Ph.D.,, M.D.,  J.D. and admission to the California Bar.

Also under discussion
  • A process for qualifying search firms for finding a new Superintendent to replace Bobbie Plough who announced her retirement following Dec. 13's chaotic, 7-hour board meeting. This makes the third time SCUSD has hired a new Superintendent in 6 years. At the Dec. 19 meeting, Bendis proposed a subcommittee appointed by Board President Koltermann to research search firms. This was voted down 6-1 by the board. 
  • New instructional materials/resources for AP Foreign Language
  • New editions of handwriting and literacy intervention – who guessed that penmanship was still taught in school? You certainly couldn't prove it by my son's writing.
  • New Construction and Engineering Program Teacher position
  • Scheduling an SCUSD Board Governance Retreat
No indication about whether there will be a report from the Stampolis and Ryan about their recent trip to China, sponsored by the Hanban Institute of the Chinese Ministry of Education.