What the Brief Doesn’t Tell You…

Shortly before each school board club meeting, the superintendent publishes a “Brief,” which highlights “… a few items that may be of interest to the general public.”

The brief for tomorrow night’s meeting includes the usual awards and reports, but it does not mention a few key agenda items.

First, there is item 16.a.11: It is recommended that the Board of Education approve the Retainer Agreement and budget allocation for Harbottle Law Group effective July 1, 2017 through June 30,2018 for legal services in the amount not to exceed $425,000.

Then there is item 16.a.7: It is recommended that the Board of Education approve an increase to the June 14, 2016 Board of Education approved budget authorization for the provision of legal services by the law firm of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo (AALRR), an additional$105,000 bringing the total legal fees authorized for 2016-17 for this firm to $605,000.

A million dollars in legal fees. And that doesn’t include whatever dough they are spending with the law firm of Parker and Covert, which handle a lot of district business.

These two items will be rubber-stamped without any of the school board club members questioning anything. After all, it’s not real money, it’s just your tax dollars.

But wait, there’s more!

Item 16.3, which I will call the “Assault on the First Amendment” item, has several changes in the way meetings will be conducted. If this is approved – and my guess is that it will be approved by a vote of 7-0 – the public will no longer be able to “Cede his/her time to another speaker’ or speak as an aggregate for more than 20 minutes on any one topic, unless the president changes her mind. (Good luck with that.)

Oh, and meetings will no longer run to a maximum of 11 p.m. After tomorrow night, it will be 10:30 p.m. As if it matters. With all the rubber stamping and so little substantive discussion on anything, meetings rarely come even close to 10:30.

Finally, there is item 17.e: Approve Reorder of Board Agenda Sections, which is explained as, “Occasionally the Board will review the section order within their agenda. Keeping in mind the legal requirements, the Board may move item sections within the agenda” and states that the board will “… discuss the options and through consensus decide on changes to the order of the agenda sections.”

Can’t wait to see whether there will be any changes that will affect the public comments section.

Maybe they should hire another law firm to figure it out.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Respect This! Part II

Recap: In a rambling statement at the school board club meeting of April 25, club member Vicki Snell complained about the lack of respect she is receiving as an elected official – a volunteer – who serves the residents of Newport-Beach and Costa Mesa. Snell complained about her low compensation relative to the time she is spending but did not mention that she is receiving generous health benefits and that she used approximately $21,000 of family money to secure a position that pays her roughly $450 a month.

So… Fast forward to Tuesday night’s meeting. Here’s what disrespect really looks like:

Navarro

This is a picture of superintendent Frederick Navarro ignoring parent Erica Roberts during Roberts’ thee minutes of comments Tuesday night. Roberts has led the charge to get the district to change the elementary math program. Before Roberts’ involvement, teacher and parent comments to the district about the many errors in the existing program fell on deaf ears.

Roberts, with a big assist from her husband, Jeff, started demanding answers and accountability from an administration and a school board club that was not used to being questioned. Along the way, the Roberts’ probably did not make a lot of friends in the admin or on the board, but making friends wasn’t the goal: They wanted a new math program.

In return for their many hours of research and activism, elementary students in the district are being rescued from a math program that raised teacher eyebrows early in its launch. In return for all that time and effort, Roberts last night got the cold shoulder from the superintendent, as she usually does. He barely acknowledged her during her comments.

To an administration and a school board club that doesn’t like interference from outsiders, the Roberts are not saviors, they are an annoyance.

At the conclusion of an update on the math program evolution, there was a slide thanking all those who were involved in this massive undertaking. It was a thoughtful nod to a deserving group of people. But I could not help but feel that the list should have included Erica and Jeff Roberts.

The parents, taxpayers, teachers, and students in the district owe the Roberts’ a huge “Thank you!” for what they have done. That’s not why the Roberts did it, but they deserve it anyway.

Other People’s Money

One under-reported agenda item is 16.d, which is “Adopt Resolution No. 40-05-17 Regarding Layoff of Classified Employees.”

In the background section,  the agenda item reads “Classified employees can be laid off for lack of work or lack of funds. This resolution includes relevant education codes and services to be reduced or eliminated.”

The Governing Board of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District has determined that the following positions be abolished for lack of work and/or lack of funds pursuant to California Education Code sections 45117 and 45308:

Classification Title                   No. of Positions       FTE
Instructional Assistant                       2                   0.375
Reading Resource Technician           1                   0.450

According to a knowledgeable source, this means that three positions may be eliminated. Two of them work about 13-15 hours a week and one of them works about 16-18 hours a week. Combined, that’s about 45 hours a week.

The classified employees are the people who make the trains run on time. They drive district buses, maintain facilities, work in food service, provide safety services, and perform many other important tasks.

If there is a specific compelling reason why 45 hours a week of classified work needed to be cut, I am not aware of it. But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part is reading this agenda item and watching it pass while on the same agenda, the district is approving item 16.a, which is to adopt a resolution “Recognizing May 21-27, 2017 Classified School Employee Week.”

Why didn’t any member of the overpaid brain trust see how hypocritical this is? Why didn’t one of them say, “Hey, maybe we should wait until a June board meeting to float the reduction in hours resolution?”

Maybe one of them did. Maybe one of them did and decided that they were going to do it anyway. Either way it is bad. Combining those two resolutions on the same agenda is insulting to the many hard-working classified employees in the district.

But wait, there’s more!

As if cutting classified hours just before recognition week weren’t enough, there is agenda item 15.a.8. Make sure you are sitting down.

15.a.8 reads, “It is recommended that the Board of Education approve an increase to the budget allocation for Harbottle Law Group for legal services and authorize the Acting Chief Business Official to execute as approved.”

Here’s the rationale: “Due to the complexity of ongoing hearings for Special Education, it has become necessary to increase the budget allocation an additional $200,000, bringing the 2016-17 budget allocation to $425,000, to cover the legal expenses involved in these hearings.  Costs involved in Special Education hearings cover a variety of legal expenses such as; research of laws regarding Special Education students, preparation and review of documents, collection of student records or correspondence by attorneys on behalf of district and clients.” 

Yeah, $425,000 more for a year of legal fees. It’s a good time to be a lawyer for the N-MUSD.

So while the school board club is heaping raises on the superintendent and spending a lot more of your money on lawyers, they’re cutting classified hours.

Business as usual on Bear St.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

 

Respect This!

At the school board club meeting on April 25, club member Vicki Snell spoke for several minutes, the last three of which were ramblings about respect. Here is a close transcription:

“And… An earlier speaker spoke about respect and about feeling that they’re not being respected and I have to say I try and the board tries, to respect everybody that speaks but I believe that we deserve respect as well. We are public servants and we were elected and we’re beholden to the stakeholders but we’re also beholden to the kids. And when people come up and speak about things we are doing that they don’t agree with that is fine but when they attack individuals on the board or they disrespect us in ways by telling complete lies it’s sometimes hard to sit here and listen to it. It’s very difficult.

“One of the things that happened at the meeting that this speaker was referring to was the three minute rule

“Sure people go over three minutes once in awhile and we let them go over but when somebody speaks continuously at every meeting and they consistently go over not ten second by thirty seconds a minute – that is disrespectful. It is disrespectful to the process, it’s not fair to the other people who want to be heard.

“You’re supposed to speak for three minutes – that what it say and if you want to make it five minutes that’s a whole different thing but our bylaws say three minutes and um I guess I just – I’m blowing off some steam because I think respect goes both ways and w are giving of ourself to this community. I get $450 a month – I mean – that is not why I do this – I donate more than that (unintelligible).

And I also have  problem  – I have no problem with term limits, I’ve made my views on term limits known – but to assume that because somebody is older  and somebody has served this board and this community and to assume that they have no value, that they are in the pocket of this district, that they are disenfranchised – they just – I mean – that’s disrespectful. If you want to come up here and talk about real issues I’m open to that and we have people who do that – [people who say] I don’t like this, this is wrong – I’m open to that but don’t just attack us personally. And I know you will continue to do so, but I feel better now. [vigorous applause from club member Dana Black].”

Snell’s comments are of tremendous value, for they are an insight into the mind of someone who is feeling attacked and defensive. Not defenseless, apparently: Snell spoke at nearly two hours into the meeting, long after most of the crowd had gone home.

Snell seems to think that the three-minute public comment rule was a worthy starting point to blow off steam. It’s not. It is, as the character Hyman Roth said in The Godfather, Part II, “small potatoes.” On a scale of one to ten measuring district priorities, it’s a .05.

But because Snell apparently had no defense for the substance of the public speaker’s comments, she chose to harp on the fact that this person consistently speaks for longer than three minutes, as if it were disrupting the entire education system.

Snell could have chosen to answer the speaker’s arguments and frustrations, which are legitimate and numerous, but she didn’t. Better just to attack the speaker than to respond to the important issues that were raised.

Of course, she does not appreciate the sad irony of demanding respect on the one hand, while criticizing a frustrated taxpayer on the other.

Snell makes $450 a month plus her generous health care coverage? Guess how much Erica and Jeff Roberts have made during the countless hours they have been pushing for an end to Swun Math and demanding even a modicum of accountability from an indifferent administration? They have made less than zero – this fight is costing them some dollars, yes, but it is also costing them a more precious commodity: They have sacrificed precious time with their family because they believed that they are fighting for a worthy cause, which they are.

Other community members are sacrificing of themselves, too, Laurie Smith and Jen Brooks among them. They’re seeking respect just as Snell is, but their version of respect is something that the board and the administration has trouble delivering. To them respect means action. They are tired of talk and want action. People like the Roberts, Smith, and Brooks want the board to stop tip-toeing around the term limits issue and vote on it, one way or another. They want the board to stop the wheel-spinning on the CdM stadium and put a stake in the ground. They want an end to the endless legal fees paid for avoidable circumstances.

They want someone – anyone in a position of responsibility – to apologize to taxpayers for the colossal waste of money spent on the solar panel/baseball field/netting catastrophe. They want someone to be held accountable for the Mariners Gold Ribbon scandal – someone beyond ex-principal Laura Sacks, whose tenure is conveniently being scrubbed from district history.

They want someone to take ownership of these or any of the number of big mistakes they have made over the past several years.

But none of that will ever happen, and that is why the board and the administration are not respected by these people, and many others who are beginning to realize just how out of whack the whole process has become.

Snell doesn’t seem to understand that respect has to be earned. One of the fastest ways to earn respect is to be accountable for your actions.

Respect does not come because someone won an election. If that’s what Snell is looking for, then she should have thought harder before she ran again last year – a campaign in which, according to public records, she spent about $21,000 of family money to win. Odd, isn’t it? Spending that kind of money, then complaining about the low compensation?

Oh, and about term limits… I can’t speak for anyone else, but if Snell believes that the reason more people are pushing for term limits is simply because too many people have served on the school board club for too long, she is mistaken.

These people want term limits because they are tired of the superintendent du jour running the district with no accountability to the board. They want term limits because they are tired of the runner-stamping voting pattern – the same rubber-stamping that club member Yelsey complained about in her first campaign. They want term limits because they are tired of the low levels of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility.

In other words, they want term limits because they want more respect.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Whew! That Was Close!

When the Mariners Gold Ribbon scandal first broke, there was a coalition of teachers, parents, and community members who were outraged that such a thing could happen at such a good school.

In response, the school board club and the administration quickly went to work to do what they have always done in times of crisis: Arrange the smoke and mirrors to look and sound like they are taking action when in reality they are just putting out another brush fire.

There were meetings, statements, and even an investigation that took nearly a year to complete – all part of the stall, stifle, and stymie M.O.  – orchestrated by the superintendent – that has worked so well in the past. Once again, as we saw with John Caldecott’s dismissal, the fox was allowed to run the henhouse.

In the end, the principal took the fall for everything and resigned, that being the lesser of two bad options. The report and the scandal have not been mentioned at a school board club meeting by any of the trustees, preferring instead to let others get their hands dirty.

So, away goes the scandal, wiped clean from the school’s website and filed neatly with the prom draft, the CdM break-in, the Estancia pole debacle, and more, including the Swun Math controversy.

Except for one teensy detail – a permanent record filed with the Orange County Dept. of Education that will always be available for interested parties to see – a not-so-small footnote in what could have been an opportunity to show leadership but revealed instead the depths to which the school board club and the administration will go to protect their image.

That detail?… The superintendent signed the Gold Ribbon application for Mariners.

In the real world – the one in which most of operate where mistakes are answered to a greater or lesser degree with consequences – the superintendent would have been called upon to explain why he signed an application filled with 16 incidents of what the teacher union called “untruths and inaccuracies.”

The answer can be only one of four possibilities:

  1. He did not read the application and confirm the contents
  2. He read it and took everything as gospel
  3. He read it and knew it contained errors but signed it anyway
  4. He was forced to sign it

Pick one. Doesn’t matter which one you choose, they are all bad. But instead of being called before the board to explain why he signed the application, the school board chose to give him a raise and rate his performance as “exceptional.”

The scandal may be gone in the minds of most people in Newport-Mesa. But there is some solace in knowing that at least a few people know the truth and that the superintendent knows he did not fool all of the people this time.

Ranting and Raving

In the eight days since club member Vicki Snell told meeting attendees that she was being paid only about $400 a month (conveniently forgetting to mention her generous health insurance coverage) and did not appreciate criticism (my take), I have received numerous private messages from readers who are flat out appalled and disgusted (my words again) with Snell’s outburst, which was supported by applause from fellow club member Dana Black.

OK, so Snell can’t take the heat and should get out of the kitchen. But there’s more behind what she said.

About two weeks before Snell’s bad PR move, Oklahoma congressman Markwayne Mullin told his constituents at a town hall meeting that that the idea that they pay his salary is “bull****.”

“You say you pay for me to do this,” Mullin said. “Bull****. I pay for myself. I paid enough taxes before I got [to Congress] and continue to through my company to pay my own salary. This is a service. No one here pays me to go.”

These are two examples of the mindset of public servants who believe they are doing us a favor by occupying their posts. And because they feel under-compensated, they also feel justified in doing things the way they want which, in the case of the N-MUSD, is not always in the best interests of taxpayers.

These people need to find other things to do with their time. We need public servants who understand and emphasize the term “servants” – not people who believe we are grateful for their presence in whatever bureaucracy of which they are a part.

The 21st [C]entury Way

Activist and parent Erica Roberts finally received the internal documents she requested from the district – a stack of paper 8″ high.

Docs

Now combine that image with what occurs at every school board club meeting: The entire well-compensated cabinet sitting at their tables taking notes, not with a tablet or laptop, but with a pen and paper.

The district has been pushing for students to be competitive in the “global economy,” the “21st [C]entury economy” or whatever it is being called these days. But until the district starts walking the walk, it’s talk. Roberts’ documents should have been put on a thumb drive, which would have saved time, taxpayer dollars and part of a tree. Instead, they were handed over the old-fashioned way.

The cabinet is doing the same thing, month after month, laboriously writing and presumably transferring needed notes to a… computer. So, you ask, if some or all of those notes are going to be entered into a computer, doesn’t it make sense to be more efficient and enter them into a computer as they are being written?

Of course. But there you go again using that “logic” stuff.

And besides, they’re not being compensated enough for you to tell them what to do.

Steve Smith
N-MUSD Taxpayer

“Better to Stay Silent and…

… thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln

Work and travel have kept me from contributing to this blog and for that, I apologize. Even right now, I am facing yet another deadline and have little time to spare.

Much has been happening but I want to highlight one of the most outrageous board member reports I can ever recall.

These reports are almost always meaningless. Each board member tells the other board members about the ribbons they cut and the dog-and-pony shows they attended. They usually speak for longer than the three minutes the public is allowed, which is another blog post.

Last Tuesday, several members of the public spoke about the need for term limits for board members. When it came time for the board member reports, the first five trustees ignored term limits or anything else substantive. It was though they had not realized how important this was that night, or they did not care. Either way, it’s bad.

Then Vicki Snell spoke on the topic. Snell railed against the recent crop of activists who are making demands and sticking their noses where they don’t belong. And, oh, gee, they’re critical of the board and the administration.

Snell pointed out the time she puts in/they put in and the meager compensation and implied that we should all be grateful for her effort/their efforts. Dana Black was actually applauding this.

Here’s what for Snell, Black, and any other trustee who isn’t feeling the love: Too bad. No one put a gun to your head and forced you to be a trustee. You signed up for this (Snell and Black as recently as last November) and if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen.

Stop whining or resign. If you don’t like the money (Snell conveniently failed to mention her generous health care coverage), stop whining and start organizing an effort in Sacramento to change the rules and pay trustees a real wage. Stop whining and start listening: Those people you complained about are taxpayers and they deserve far more respect than you gave them two days ago. They’re trying to tell you something: They wouldn’t be demanding term limits if things were going well.

Thank you, Vicki Snell, for putting an exclamation point on why we need term limits.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Just So You Know

The decision by the school board club to proclaim the superintendent’s performance as “exceptional’ and shower him with more of your tax dollars despite a tenure filled with problems is not unique.

According to ESPN.com, “The New York Knicks and team president Phil Jackson reportedly picked up their mutual option for the final two years of [Jackson’s] contract.”

That’s fine, except for the fact that Jackson has a terrible won-lost record in New York at just 80-166. This season, the Knicks wound up only 31-51.

So you see, it’s not just the N-MUSD superintendent who seems to have convinced seven people that he is an exceptional leader – a professional basketball coach just did it, and for a lot more money.

The difference is that the N-MUSD superintendent is being paid with hard-earned tax dollars. And it’s hard to claim an “exceptional” performance when employee morale is so low, when so many projects have been mismanaged, and when one problem follows another.

Actually, I’d love to see Phil Jackson take over the superintendent spot here. He doesn’t need to know anything about education – one review of the list of squishy superintendent duties and responsibilities will show that.

But he will be expected to show hour high school teams how to perfect the full court press.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

When Mariners El received the Gold Ribbon award from the state Dept. of Ed last year, the district administration made a big deal out of it. They created a press release announcing the award, which was one of 12 in the district, which you can read here:

http://mariners.schoolloop.com/news/view?id=1456824293953

And as one might expect, they also posted a notice of the award on the school’s website. Curiously, though, that mention was yanked a long time ago. You don’t suppose it had anything to do with claims by the union of “untruths and inaccuracies” in the application and a subsequent investigation, do you? Nah, can’t be. Must be some technical error.

The administration and the school board have successfully completed their goal of diffusing the controversy by delaying the inquiry, creating a scapegoat, and refusing to make any public comment about the scandal, despite the fact that the superintendent’s signature was on the application. He signed off on the “untruths and inaccuracies” and was punished by the board for his role by receiving a review grade of “exceptional” and receiving a lot more money.

Everything is pushed into one convenient pile, which has been neatly swept under the district rug.

Except for one loose end. Oh, yes, there are some parents and a few activists who know the truth, but the district knows their interest will fade over time. The memories they can’t erase are those of the Mariners’ teachers – you know, those people the district claims to care so much about.

Plenty of teachers had a front row seat at this drama and many of them did not like what they saw. Maybe they liked the eventual scapegoat, maybe they didn’t, but either way, they know that she was not the only administrator responsible for this mess. Among others, they know that three people from the county signed off on the application and they know that the super did, too.

So, try as the admin might to re-write Mariners’ history, or erase it, there is a living legacy of what really went down.

If the superintendent had the right moral compass, he’d own his part and take the lead in returning the award. He’s visit the school and tell teachers he is sorry.

But he won’t. The mindset of weak leadership is that strong people never apologize. Strong people never give their critics any ammunition.

The fact is that strong, confident leaders know that more than anything else, setting a good example is the best way to get everyone to act in the manner they’d like. So when you stifle, stall, and stymie an investigation, when you refuse to clean up the mess you made, when you don’t have the backs of the people who work for you, you’re going to get a team of people who will act accordingly.

Teachers are not robots. They are hard-working, bright people who expect high standards of conduct from the administration. What they have seen from the district in the last few years, however, is series of examples of how not to behave.

They can erase a website mention, but they will never erase teacher memories of this tragedy.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Don’t Be Afraid

It’s hard for bureaucracies to get their arms around this transparency thing. After all, it means that all of their business, save for those personnel issues, will be made public without taxpayers having to ask or dig for it.

OMG!!!

The case in point is the PowerPoint presentation used in the first two meetings to reveal the options for new Area boundaries. I’m not sure it was posted last Friday as promised, but let’s give the administration the benefit of the doubt and say that it was.

The problem is finding it. Sleuther Laurie Smith discovered it. To see the presentation, one must first click on “Trustee Area Boundary Adjustment,” which appears prominently on the home page. So far, so good.

Clicking on that takes you to the Area Boundary page. but from there, one must look for the Compliance Reports header and click on “Current Trustee Area” which will take you to the PowerPoint.

“Current Trustee Area?” It’s hard to believe that with the supposed benefit of the brains earning the multi-million dollar payroll in the district office that “Current Trustee Area” is the best name they could create for the PowerPoint presentation.

Maybe it’s just bad creative work, or maybe they don’t want people to find it. Either way, it’s another example of how little attention is paid to the care and feeding of local taxpayers. Anyone who wanted to assist taxpayers in finding it would have renamed it appropriately and/or put a link directly from the home page in a drop-down menu from “Trustee Area Boundary Adjustment.” But they don’t think that way because they really don’t care.

Case in point: At the two Area meetings, forms were distributed for people who wanted to comment on the three Area options. I’ll bet a Big Cookie dessert at Sgt. Pepperoni’s that the results/comments are never posted on the district’s website. Why? Once again, because they don’t care what you think. Transparency is not in their DNA. Accountability is not in their DNA, unless you are the scapegoat for some scandal.

I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d like for someone to show me when and where the results from any of the community input meetings over the past several years were posted on the district’s website. All those forms, all those silly easels with sticky dots attached, amount to nothing more than a show.

And how about the embarrassingly low tech execution of this input gathering? While they’re distributing Chromebooks like Halloween candy and teaching students so that they become essential to the “global economy,” the district is still handing out paper and using easels with markers and colored sticky dots to collect opinions.

Here’s an idea: Open up a page on the website a la Facebook. Let taxpayers post their thoughts and encourage respectful exchanges. Saves paper, saves staff time, and – OMG! – it’s completely transparent.

(Yeah, right, Steve.)

But, wait! There’s More!

Attendees at the Area meeting in Costa Mesa were told by the district’s legal counsel that the Settlement Agreement for resolving the Area boundary issues is a public document and it’s therefore OK to post on the district’s website. It was requested at that meeting that the Settlement Agreement be posted.

But I learned today that the district has no intention of posting the Settlement Agreement on the website. If you want a copy, it will be made available to you – all you have to do is request it.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this: “Wait a minute. If they’ll provide the Settlement Agreement to anyone who asks, why not save a lot of time, trouble, and taxpayer dollars and post it on the website?”

The problem with that is that you’re using that “logic” stuff again. Doesn’t work that way.

I requested the Settlement Agreement, read it, and frankly, other than the $105,000 taxpayer dollars going to the law firm that started the whole thing, it’s pretty tame. The only reason I can think of for not posting it is that – wait for it – transparency is not in their DNA. It doesn’t occur to them to make it easy for you because they don’t really want you to read it. If they did, the Settlement Agreement would have been uploaded as soon as it was received.

The N-MUSD is not a private company. They have an obligation to transparency and it is only the lack of strong leadership that prevents them from understanding that every desk, every stapler, every paperclip in the district was paid for with taxpayer dollars and that taxpayers deserve far more respect than they are getting.

Sorry – that list of taxpayer office items does not include those paid for by teachers with their own money. Another item in the Hall of Shame.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Corona del Mar Version

Last night was the second in a series of meetings being held to get the community’s input on the three options for new trustee area boundaries.

The meeting was held in the lecture hall at CdM High and was attended by about 12 people. If we subtract five people who were there as part of a growing group of concerned taxpayers and at least two members of the citizen committee that helped create the three new options, there were really so few people that it raised other issues:

  • Are these meetings being communicated properly?
  • Are they being scheduled at the right times and days to maximize attendance?
  • Will the low attendance void the fulfillment of the district’s requirement to conduct them?

To that last point, I am not familiar with the details of the requirement to hold meetings, but it seems to me that if the meetings are announced and so few people show up, it may not meet the criteria for a qualified meeting.

The concept of a meeting has changed, too. This morning, I attended a meeting online. There were people in attendance from two locations in the country and it lasted about 30 minutes. I’ve attended many such meetings, as have, I suppose, many readers. They are efficient and effective. Perhaps this virtual meeting is something the district should consider as an additional option to boost community awareness of these important changes.

And they are important – perhaps the most important changes in the district in the 30 years I have been a resident. For all of the emphasis on getting our kids proficient in the latest technology to help them compete in the “global economy,” it seems to me that the decision-makers should do as they say and try the virtual meeting option. In this case, it’s easy to do.

At the meeting, there was a mention of the 2001’s California Voting Rights Act as the catalyst for the Area change process we are now seeing. This came up when one attendee wondered why it took over 50 years to do here – a reference to the federal version which was approved in 1965.

The federal version has the same provision as the state version. Specifically, the federal version reads:

“Section 2 is a general provision that prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities.”

The perception of discrimination against Costa Mesa’s Westside Latino population is a massive part of why the district is facing the legal challenges over boundaries and trustee composition. Despite a large Latino student population in the district, there has never been a Latino member on the school board.

The federal law of 50 years ago dictates what the district is now doing. So this parsing over whether it has taken 50 years or 16 is nothing more than a distraction. And besides, even if we use the California standard as a benchmark, that’s still 16 years of district foot-dragging that has cost taxpayers a lot of money – to start, about $100,000 just to get the new Area map process completed.

According to a knowledgeable source, had the district used the demographics firm used recently by the city of Costa Mesa, the cost would have been in the neighborhood of $25,000 “for a school district.”

Once again, the attorney who initiated this process was portrayed as the bad guy, the scapegoat. “The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) is pretty clear,” said the superintendent last night. We didn’t need a lawsuit to know [the rules].”

That’s true: The district did not need a lawsuit to know the rules by which they should be playing. But they did need a lawsuit to do something about it.

The superintendent wanted all (net) 7 or 8 people in attendance that the district was a willing participant in this process. “We moved forward because we saw a trend happening,” he said last night. What he doesn’t understand is that regardless of whether he wants to be portrayed as a hero who stepped in a got the ball rolling, it was still the threat of legal action that finally moved the needle. This should have happened 16 years ago when the CVRA was enacted, or 51 years ago when the unified district was created, or 52 years ago when the federal Voting Rights Act was signed, and it should not have taken a lawsuit or even the observation of a trend before things changed.

There was a significant change from Wednesday night’s presentation in Costa Mesa. Last night, attendees were given printed copies of the presentation to help them read the tiny demographic information that was shown on the screen. Oh, and there were two attorneys present, not one.

Last night, for some wrong reason, the four large easels presenting the four districts maps – one current, three new – were divided up. Two were placed on one side of the large lecture hall and two on the other side. Not exactly easy to navigate. It was a moot point because we were given hard copies but one has to wonder why they were divided.

To his credit, the superintendent attended both meetings.

The bigger issue

Redrawing Area boundaries and ditching the at-large election process are important steps. But the remaining hurdle to accurate representation is to make trustee positions full-time and start paying school board members a living wage. Until that happens, the many people in this and other districts around the state will be deprived of the involvement of good, bright people who would like to make valuable contributions to their school districts but are prohibited because they cannot quit their jobs to hold a school board job with peanuts for compensation.

This change would also go a long way toward reducing the rubber stamping and total dependence on staff recommendations for decisions. In the N-MUSD, the tail wags the dog and it has been that way for a very long time.

The compensation issue, however, is one that must be decided in Sacramento.

Next up

There will be more meetings, more chin scratching and more concerned looks from people who say they care about community input but who are really doing all this because if they don’t, they might get sued.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

 

That “Clarity” Thing

Last night, the district held the first in a series of community meetings to gather input on the proposed redrawing of trustee areas.

Present at the meeting at Rea Elementary School was Spencer Covert, the district’s legal counsel in this matter. When I first saw Covert, I wondered why he was there and at what cost to taxpayers. If for making only one particular point, it turned out that it was good that he was present.

A review of the district’s agendas or websites will leave the reader believing that the district realignment and the switch to area voting is at the recommendation of the superintendent and/or because the trustees are just nice people.

Both are wrong.

This entire process is happening only because the district is being threatened with a lawsuit for its failure to comply with laws pertaining to the federal Voting Rights Act and Covert made that quite clear last night. Contrary to what the district believes when it evades the truth, the sky did not fall. So, thank you, Mr. Covert.

Superintendent Frederick Navarro was also present, and revealed an interesting insight into his attitude toward the process of equalizing the opportunities for community representation. Regarding the attorney who has threatened to sue the district and who has sued or threatened to sue other government organizations with the same law violations, the superintendent said, “It’s a shakedown to get money from them.”

So, there you have it. Despite the law having been around for over 50 years, despite numerous opportunities to change their ways on their own, and despite a growing number of lawsuits over similar arrangements that were handwriting on the wall, the superintendent and the school board did nothing.

But, you see, it’s not their fault, it’s the fault of some parasitic attorney.

I’m not buying this pathetic excuse for foot-dragging. Pointing fingers and placing blame in response to this issue – or any issue –  is a clear sign of weak leadership. A strong leader would have said, “We’re being forced to do something we should have done a long time ago,” and left it at that. Instead, attendees got scapegoating.

But, scapegoating is the district way. Just ask Laura Sacks.

I asked Covert why the district was not fighting the lawsuit and once again, I got clarity. He told me that it would be expensive and the chances were good that they would lose.

There were some complaints about the PowerPoint presentation – census and other figures were small and difficult to read and the superintendent promised to put the slide show up by Friday. I asked the superintendent whether the settlement agreement could also be posted and he turned to Covert for a reply. Covert stated that since it is a public document, there was no reason why not. Thank you, again, Mr. Covert.

See? This clarity thing isn’t so hard. Kind of refreshing, too, once you get the hang of it. Even though he’s an added expense, I’d like to see Covert up there providing it more often because no one in the district seems to know how it’s done. And there is some irony there, too: The truth is revealed from a guy named Covert.

Here’s the bottom line: This whole thing is about Area 7, which is Costa Mesa’s heavily Latino Westside. Everything else is status quo. The tea leaves say that Plan B is most likely to be adopted and that’s fine because it preserves the Westside boundaries appropriately.

Oh, and we were all handed forms we could fill out to offer input. If you go, don’t bother. Plan B will be presented for adoption regardless of what you say.

There’s some more clarity for you.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD