There are many new readers of this blog so this post will start with a recap of my involvement in school-related and community affairs because I want them to know why I am qualified to write what I write. If you want to skip the credentials, scroll down to the subhead “Moving on.”

I have been writing about school district matters for over 18 years. My interest began when I was a columnist for the Daily Pilot, a newspaper for which I wrote weekly columns for 15 years, from 1998-2013.

The Pilot job was the result of a contest. Longtime columnist Fred Martin was leaving the paper and the folks in charge chose to hold a contest to find his replacement. Sample columns were submitted and I was one of two winners chosen. The other winner was actually a pair of people who wrote together for a short time, then stopped.

In 1998, I was an original member of the district’s Citizen’s Budget Oversight Committee, which was formed after the embezzlement of just over $3 million by a district employee.

When the district decided in 2000 to try to get more money via a bond, I opposed it. I’m not a big fan of bonds, but this one was particularly upsetting. The money was to be used for so-called “brick and mortar” projects but the deeper I dug, the more I discovered what you know as “pork.”

It wasn’t just the pork that bothered me. The district needed the money because many of the schools had fallen into disrepair due to deferred maintenance, that is, money that was supposed to go to maintaining facilities over the years was instead spent elsewhere.

So the district put its hand out and I questioned their worthiness. It seemed to me that any group of trustees – or any governing body anywhere – that cannot manage to maintain its infrastructure within its budget did not deserve more money. That, I wrote, is rewarding bad behavior.

It’s the same in our personal lives: Maintaining your car is a lot cheaper than a big repair bill to fix it.

I wrote at the time that the trustees at the time had not demonstrated the financial acumen to handle such a large amount of money via a bond. It would be harder, I wrote, for the average person to qualify for a car loan that it would for a trustee to get his or hands on the approximately $160 million they sought.

To get the $160 million, the trustees did not have to show that they are fiscally responsible – as you must do when you buy a car – they only had to ask for it.

I was proven right in 2005, when the district again put its hands out – that time to get another $282 million. And I was proven right again just a couple of weeks ago when an analysis of the district’s Citizen’s Oversight Committee (COC) – the folks who are supposed to be watching the bond money – revealed, among other things, that they have met only half of their required time and have not submitted annual reports for three of the past four years, as required by a board resolution.

The COC is supposed to make sure that the bond money is being spent appropriately. But it’s hard to determine that when they do not meet as required: In 2016, the COC did not meet at all.

Oh, and that oversight they’re supposed to provide? It allowed for expensive Alaska Yellow Cedar seats at Davidson field instead of the lower cost, lower maintenance aluminum found in most high school stadiums.

Saying “I told you so” has been no consolation – I’d much rather have a school board that was so fiscally responsible that it does not have to rely on additional taxes (bonds are not free, folks) to get by.

So there is that. Along the way, I am:

  • Former soccer, Little League baseball and softball coach
  • Former member, Victoria Elementary School Site Council (two terms)
  • Former active member, PTSA in three NMUSD schools
  • Former member, Estancia High water polo boosters
  • Former member, Estancia High baseball boosters

And FWIW, I have also been actively involved in Costa Mesa affairs for many years, serving as:

  • Former Vice-chair, Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee
  • Former Chair, Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee
  • Former chair, Costa Mesa Homeless Task Force
  • Current member, Fairview Park Steering Committee
  • Former candidate, N-MUSD Board of Trustees (2014)

I attend most school board meetings and have done so for many years. I could make a strong case that outside of the board and the administration, no one has attended more school board meetings. This blog has over 600 entries, all but one attempting to educate Newport-Mesans on the irresponsibility of those in charge in the school district.

Though I have pointed out good efforts, I’m not here to cheer. The district does a fine job of that without me.

Moving on

I started this blog in 2014 as a promotional channel for my campaign to earn a seat on the school board. It began with a series called, “School Idea of the Week,” which offered evidenced-based recommendations for improving academic performance. A couple of them, such as starting school a little later, and reducing or eliminating homework are now in the news.

Oh, and then there is this School Idea of the Week for the week of Sept. 22, 2014: Install air conditioning in those classrooms that lack it.

Four years later and we still don’t have A/C in all our schools, despite all that bond money.

Those 12 school ideas of the week were created because I wanted voters to know that i would be bringing more than myself to the board: I would be bringing ideas. Trustees rarely propose ideas, concepts or programs. What we have gotten over the years instead is a panel of seven people who wait for the district staff to make recommendations, which are too often just rubber-stamped for approval. I cannot recall a single time when a trustee got up from the dais and moved down to the floor and the video equipment to make a presentation on a new idea.

Ask them about that and you’re likely to hear that that’s not their role. I call BS on that.

The 2018 difference

Anyone who witnessed the recent “Toes to the Stove” forum saw what I saw: The four school board candidates – Michelle Murphy from Area 2, Dr. Gina Nick from Area 4, Michelle Barto from Area 5, and Ashley Anderson from Area 7 – displayed the energy, vitality, and enthusiasm that has been missing from the school board for as long I have been covering it.

Oh, and they also presented new ideas, as I wrote in a recent post.

Campaigns are usually ho-hum: He did this, she did that. Oh, yeah! Sez you! Blah, blah, blah, and it’s all just noise. You know the drill. But this year is different and not just because trustees are being selected by Area instead of at-large.

This year, for the first time I can recall, an incumbent trustee launched a personal attack on a challenger.

In doing so, Karen Yelsey helped highlight her own dismal record as a trustee. It’s typical politics: When you can’t run on your record, attack your opponent.

Except for one thing: I don’t like typical politics.

Yelsey’s attack was launched without any proof in hand and while her opponent was not even in the room to respond. It was a reprehensible cheap shot and it has no place in any campaign, let alone a campaign to become one of seven people elected to craft the educational future of our children.

The Lack of Communication

Yelsey is not alone in her failure to provide an appropriate level of communication with the community. None of the trustees are meeting even the minimum standard. Posting ghost-written, templated notices of wonderful and exciting things on Facebook doesn’t count – I’m talking about real communication – old school stuff – that generates interest and excitement and conversation.

Yelsey could have a blog. Why not? Tell the community your thoughts behind your latest rubber stamp vote or take a deep dive into why a faulty math program wasn’t ditched nearly as quickly as it should have been.

How about monthly Saturday coffee meetings at a Starbucks or similar outlet? Even quarterly would be nice.

She has had 12 years to create a communications channel outside of the district’s Facebook template but she hasn’t. Why hasn’t she? I can only guess. You ask her and I’ll report the answer here.

It seems to me that as the speed of education changes increases, we need trustees who are more willing to expand the level of communication with parents, students, teachers, and the rest of the community.

Lost Credibility

I’ve beaten this horse repeatedly over the past few weeks, but it’s still not dead: There are a lot of people in Area 4 who do not know that when she first ran in 2006, Yelsey advocated 12-year terms for trustees. So let’s do the math… She first ran in 2006 so that has been 12 years so far and, well, 12 plus the 4 more she wants now, that equals 16 years.

She also decried the rubber stamping that is still standard operating procedure.

If I were a voter in Area 4, the failure to quit after 12 years would be enough for me to vote for her opponent, Dr. Gina Nick.

Then there is this – verbatim – from a piece of campaign literature:

“As your NMUSD Trustee for the past 12 years, I have:

  • Promoted the highest quality education possible to prepare every student for college and careers
  • Ensured safe and secure campuses including mental health support and outreach to all students and parents
  • Provided trustworthy management of taxpayer dollars”

This is what passes for credibility. So what’s missing? Here’s what: Take a look at the first word in each of those bullets: Promoted, ensured, and provided. What you don’t see are the actions we need in a trustee in 2018: Started, began, created, etc. It’s no longer enough to promote and ensure: Trustees have to initiate.

Lax Financial Oversight

Then there is that “trustworthy management of taxpayer dollars” bullet. I wrote earlier in this post about the COC’s failure to abide by the promise of the bond and the board’s resolution. The oversight has been overlooked.

So where is trustworthiness regarding the COC? It seems to me that anyone who claims to be a trustworthy money manager should be demanding some answers and accountability from the committee. But we haven’t heard a word.

One of the reasons may be that Yelsey has no clue about when they meet or their duties or how they operate. I have checked all of the meeting minutes since 2007 and Yelsey’s name is not listed as an attendee on any of them – none of the trustees are. Had she been at the meeting where it was decided to install Alaska Yellow Cedar seats instead of aluminum, maybe she would have taken off her shoe and pounded it on the table.

Or not.

The COC is just one financial shortcoming. Yelsey voted to give the superintendent a bonus of $34,500 last December and rated his performance “exceptional,” despite the mismanagement and low teacher morale.

She also voted for a 6% increase in the super’s salary after only 15 months on the job, among many other raises for him. Oh, and there was at least one other bonus – $26,500 in Feb. 2017. She voted for that, too.

Yelsey voted for an additional $274,000 in pay to a former Deputy Supt. so he would not retire. The board claimed at the time that he was too valuable to let go, but his replacement is doing just fine for less money.

During Yelsey’s tenure, there have been too many incredible, costly mistakes such as closing the pool at Estancia High; erecting, then dismantling huge poles at Estancia at great expense, and the seven figures spent on a new math program to replace the faulty one for which she voted. And don’t get me started on the large legal fees you and I are paying out.

Trustworthy financial management? I see a lot of money being spent for fix-ups – money that should be going toward the education of our students.

Lack of Stewardship

We need trustees who are asking better questions. Recently, Yelsey voted in favor of an initial $48,000 for the Raptor visitor management system and did not ask the investment questions that any fiscally responsible person would ask, such as:

  • In what other districts has this been used?
  • For how long?
  • What are some of the challenges these district’s faced after implementation?
  • Has another district canceled the program? If yes, why?
  • Is there an impartial case study available to read?

Those questions should be asked of any new program. But Yelsey didn’t ask them.

Low performing academic performance 

Some folks reading this will look at it and think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about test scores? What about the bottom line?”

In Yelsey’s Area, there are four schools for which she is supposed to be the liaison, so to speak. They are:

  • Harbor View El
  • Anderson El
  • Newport Coast El
  • Lincoln El

On Tuesday, the 2018 state test results were revealed. If you are a parent in Area 4, you have every reason to be upset.

Before doing the deep dive on the numbers for these four schools, I need to explain the rationale.

The state lists four categories for test results for math and English:

  • Standard not met
  • Standard nearly met
  • Standard met
  • Standard exceeded

I don’t buy into the “standard nearly met” spin. “Nearly met” is like “almost pregnant.” Either the standard was met or it wasn’t. So the numbers you are going to read are the numbers for “not met” and “nearly met” combined.

Let’s take a long view of the scores (rounded up at 50) – one that goes back to 2016. At Anderson in 2016, 12% of the students did not meet the state standards for English, and 10% did not meet the standards for math. In 2018, those numbers are 14% for English and 16% for math.

At Harbor View in 2016: 17% for English and 28% for math. In 2018: 22% in English and 27% in math.

At Newport Coast in 2016: 19% for English and 24% for math. In 2018: 16% for English and 26% for math.

Finally, at Lincoln…. 2016… 26% for English and 34% for math. In 2018 it’s 34% for English and 39% for math.

Here’s the table view (E=English, M=Math). The higher the number, the worse the result:

2016: E12 M10
2018: E14 M16

Harbor View
2016: E17 M28
2018: E22 M27

Newport Coast
2016: E19 M24
2018 E16 M26

2016: E26 M34
2018: E34 M39

The totals: A 4.45% average drop in math scores from last year and a 1.51% average drop in English scores. In other words, these numbers are going the wrong way. Yelsey has failed to maintain the high academic standards we need.

26% of the students at Newport Coast failed to meet the state standard for math? Really? When I discussed this with a friend, I was told that parents there are already sending their kids to private schools because they want their kids to get a better education than the one provided by the district.


When I look at the dais, I see seven trustees who are not providing the stewardship we need at this level of government at this crucial time. There is far too much complacency on the school board and too little time spent on important matters such as transparency and accountability, and I have no hope whatsoever that anything will change.

Due to trustee decisions not to run for reelection, we are assured of at least two new trustees this year. In one of those, Area 5, I support Michelle Barto. In the other, Area 7, I support Ashley Anderson.

The two trustees up for reelection are Charlene Metoyer in Area 2 and Yelsey in Area 4. I support Michelle Murphy in Area 2. If you had the chance to see her live at the candidate forum Monday night, you saw the potential for positive change on the board.

Yelsey is opposed by Dr. Gina Nick in Area 4. I support Dr. Nick in her campaign. Dr. Nick has a child in the district and is an entrepreneur who will bring fresh ideas to the board.

Times have changed and the pace of changing is quickening. We need new leadership on the school board to help eliminate the rampant complacency and restore our once-proud legacy.

Let’s get started this year…. Vote for:

Dr. Gina Nick in Area 4
Michelle Murphy in Area 2
Ashley Anderson in Area 7
Michelle Barto in Area 5

Thank you.

Steve Smith