A recent CPRA request via John Caldecott revealed a series of e-mails between a couple of the N-MUSD trustees and members of the public and the administration. Below are two series of e-mail responses by the trustees. The first e-mail is a response to a taxpayer by Trustee and current school board club president Vicki Snell. The second series is about the draining of the Estancia pool.
Just so’s you know: E-mails to and from the trustees are considered matters of public record, as are text messages, even if those texts are not transmitted on a district-supplied phone.
“It appears we continue to not agree on my responsibility as a trustee. All issues brought forth are addressed in public and at special meetings, however, the answers are not always what all people may want to hear. Do I think we could do a better job of finding ways to instill trust? Do I think better decisions could have been made by our experts? Sure. But look at what happens when responsibility is taken and actions are corrected. Is it any wonder that some are reticent to reverse decisions. You talk about courage…well it took a lot of courage to take down those poles at Estancia even though it was used at election time and still to this day to incriminate everyone. It was the fair and right decision for the neighborhood and as long as I serve that will not change.
“The District is not perfect…and I’ve never said all decisions are completely correct, however, we have many talented people and they do the best they can to support our kids. Hindsight is easy…criticism is easy…especially when those doing it do not do their homework and don’t have all the pieces. False facts are also a favorite of the uninformed. It never ceases to amaze me and I grow tired of correcting them.
“The vast majority of our 22,000 students and families are very happy at our schools and appreciate the opportunities. The haters…well…very few. Their postings/rankings..rarely commented on. Look at the “likes”….non consequential. [sic] The latest “Sandy” posts….a joke…especially her cartoons. I believe she is losing it. I have met with these people…Steve….Sandy…Wendy…Erika. Some more than once as have many of my colleagues. They ask the same questions but don’t believe the answers. They are only interested in continuing to perpetuate false “facts” and conspiracy theories.
“I’m facing the reality that in 2018 there will be at least two new board members, perhaps more if Karen doesn’t run. New blood is good and brings up new ideas and ways of doing things. I have faith too that those elected will do what is best for kids but do I think some magical fix will happen to make the haters happy. No way. The haters will continue to find fault and blame because that’s all they know how to do. It must be exhausting.
“I will continue to think about your offer and really do appreciate the positive projects you do for our community. It’s difficult for people to attend all the events/meetings and you give them an easy way to stay in touch.” – N-MUSD Trustee Vicki Snell, Jan. 18, 2018
“Unfortunately, the Estancia pool cannot be filled and reopened. Preparations have already begun to be ready for construction.” – N-MUSD Trustee Karen Yelsey, e-mail of Oct. 12, 2017
“As you know, we have have [sic] speakers Tuesday that are unhappy with the delay of the pool. One of their questions will be why we cannot refill the pool. I believe it is important to have the facts explaining why this cannot happen…if indeed it cannot. A simple…we
can’t do…is not enough. If we do not have those facts as of yet, we need to get them. I don’t know where you are in the process of this entire issue, but I want complete honesty in the mistakes we have made. If you do not have all the answers as of yet, that’s okay too. After our speakers, I will ask for your comments. Letting our parents know that we are sorry for this delay and will be having a meeting outlining all our options and future plans is important and may be enough. That’s your call.” – N-MUSD Trustee Vicki Snell, e-mail of Oct. 23, 2017
“I do t [sic] know where you got your info but you obviously chose to believe the worse. Today I asked Tim to give a briefsummary [sic] of the pool process. The information given was no different that [sic] what you were told…except perhaps with less detail. I’m sorry you feel you cannot trust me or the district. I suggest you contact your principal if you have any further issues. Perhaps he can work better with your group as I am apparently of no help.” – N-MUSD Trustee Vicki Snell, e-mail of Nov. 3, 2017
“I apologize if my response seemed harsh but your email to me was harsh as well. I realize you have put in many years as a volunteer and are just looking out for your school and your children, however, I have done the same thing and continue as well to dedicate my time to our school. I have fought the same battles as you and suffered the same feelings. It was extremely hurtful to me to receive your email. I had thought you would have said “Hey Vicki…what happened at this meeting? I’m hearing……” but you went on attack. I am just a flawed person like everyone else but I can only take so much. The parents at the recent meeting were rude to staff and myself and being disappointed is no excuse. I realize mistakes were made and the district owed them…but we are all trying to rectify the situation. Parents say they want the truth and to be a part of the solution but I don’t think they do. It’s not a perfect world and certainly not a perfect district but most of the people are trying to do the best they can. We are responsible to the voters but we are not punching bags.
“Everyone needs to face the reality of the situation. $7M buys a lot of air conditioning benefiting many many more children than a pool at Estancia. I’m working to move this project forward as quickly as possible to completion. I hope we can work together to do
this.” – N-MUSD Trustee Vicki Snell, e-mail of Nov. 4, 2017
“I completely understand your anger…really I do. As you have seen, I get very frustrated and impatient as well. I promise you that as long as I am here, you can count on me to stand up for Estancia but I have to be strategic as well in order to get what we all want for our kids. You can always reach out to me with concerns and clarity on an issue. I also understand you must do what you think is best for [NAME] and I can only hope
you find there are more positives overall in remaining at Estancia with his classmates and his team. I’m optimistic that [NAME] has a renewed understanding of the issues with the program and he has told me he will work with the staff/students and parents to improve the morale and the quality of the program. I believe it’s so important to continue to model resilience for our kids as we face these disappointments…because life is chock full of them. It just doesn’t get any easier…as you well know.” – N-MUSD Trustee Vicki Snell, e-mail of Nov. 4, 2017
This is a great summation of issues that need to be addressed. Thanks for addressing them in a timely matter. I believe it would be helpful for the site to meet with parents as soon as possible on the first two issues as these are internally solved (with CMHS coordination) and would provide parents/students with some positive encouragement. I would like to see if there is any possibility that a partnership with CM Aquatics could begin sooner than 2019…at the very least the summer before. The Future Pool Plans meeting should be scheduled as soon as we have information but it is important to keep the issues separate so we don’t repeat the inclination for the community to blame on all the program issues on the pool schedule. Interested in your thoughts. – N-MUSD Trustee Vicki Snell, e-mail of Nov. 4, 2017
“While I appreciate your taking the time to come to the meeting this morning and offer your opinions, your comments reflected a gross misunderstanding of the Board’s role and responsibility in the education process. You are not alone in this in this misconception but as a community leader, it is important you understand it.
“The School Board’s role is to set direction for our schools to ensure that a long term vision as well as short term goals are achieved. In order to accomplish this, we empower our professional staff and experts to oversee these efforts and report on the progress. In short, we decide on the “what” and the staff decides on the “how”. We reflect the community in listening to their concerns and providing information on everything from programs and goals to our fiscal condition. We are responsible to the community but we make decisions that will best serve “all” the students. We make the rules (incorporating the Education codes), and provide direction through our policies and procedures.
“Most importantly, we understand the distinction between staff and Board roles. We are not the CEO. Our power is only as a group and not individually. In order to effectively run a district, you cannot have individual trustees instructing staff how to accomplish tasks. We have one employee, the Superintendent, and he takes responsibility for all issues and we hold him accountable.
“Personally, I have over the past three years spent at a minimum 300 hours in workshops and trainings [sic] in all aspects of governance and fiscal management. I received a CSBA Master in Governance. I continue to attend meetings on everything from math/english programs, legislation, student services, special education and variety of others subjects as well as interface with Board members from across California and the nation. The entire Board is knowledgable [sic] in all aspects of our responsibilities and roles.
“While I am disappointed in mistakes that have been made on several projects, I believe it is the result of a multitude of issues that are being addressed and will be followed by our Board. It is not helpful to us or the community to oversimplify the situation and assign blame without all the information. It is not helpful to offer your expert advice as if management and staff are not qualified for their jobs. Please remember we used “expert” advice from two sources in bidding this project initially. I respect your right as a parent and
community leader to speak out, however, I expected more of a constructive statement not disrespect and pretension.
“I believe the decisions made today were the right ones, but I will never make a decision based on insults and pressure from the community. I am proud of our District and all we have accomplished in the past 5 years. Opportunities for students in career and technology, orchestras in elementary school, modernizing and updating facilities and athletic fields. It can be disappointing when people narrow their focus to the extent that they cannot appreciate all the great things happening right here. I wish I could take people to other
Districts and let them see how far we are ahead of everyone else. You would be shocked.” –
N-MUSD Trustee Vicki Snell, e-mail of Nov. 4, 2017
There is so much here. Snell admitting that the district is not perfect and that the experts on which the board relies could have made better decisions. She acknowledges that the school board club will have some new members this year and that is a good thing.
In just these few e-mails, we get support for my two warnings this year to the board that they are not always receiving the information they need to make the best possible decisions. We see this in the Yelsey comment that the EHS pool “can’t” be refilled. Yelsey didn’t make that up, one of the so-called “experts” referred to by Snell told that to Yelsey: Can’t do it. Uh-uh. No way.
They recently refilled the pool.
We see Snell’s repeated defensive posture and too much emphasis on people instead of programs and solutions. In one e-mail, she is admitting that mistakes are being made but offers no solution; no attempt to fix a serious problem by, say, conducting a top-to-bottom review of the internal communications process to determine the weakest link(s) in the chain of command.
Particularly telling is Snell criticizing the critics on various levels, one of which is to state that “Sandy” has to be wrong because Snell believes she is “losing it.” Steve (moi) and others don’t have legitimate beefs, we’re just “haters.”
Strung together, we gain an insight into Snell’s preferred way of thinking. There is an emphasis on people and little substantive discussion of the process, or specific new ideas or plans for the future. And everyone else is shut out because they don’t have all the facts. Which leads us to the ongoing demand for transparency: Perhaps if the district were forthcoming with these important facts, there would be far less objection to the decisions they’re making.
But there I go, using that “logic” stuff again…
We read Snell’s self-defense with the recitation of resume highlights and time commitment, which only causes us to wonder why, with all of that extra credit, things are still being mismanaged.
Then there is the playing of the pity card: “I am just a flawed person like everyone else but I can only take so much.” This is the same person who wrote, ” … it’s so important to continue to model resilience for our kids as we face these disappointments…because life is chock full of them. It just doesn’t get any easier…as you well know.”
We’ve heard this so many times over the years. In each case, the trustees chose to run for office. Snell spent about $20,000 of her own money (to get a job paying about $400/mo. + health insurance) to get re-elected. Yes, that is correct: She had been on the job two years, already knew it was a hot seat, but she runs anyway and then complains about the complaints.
Snell needs to pick one: Either she can only take so much and is fed up or she needs to model resilience. Can’t have both.
Then there are the spins…
The district erected giant poles at Estancia (with nets, but the nets never went up) to protect solar panels from damage due to foul balls from the nearby baseball field. Why were the panels placed in prime foul ball territory? Because that is what the “experts” advised. It was only after community pressure that the poles were taken down. They were moved to Costa Mesa High, then sold, even though taxpayers were told in October that they would be “repurposed” in the district.
Of this “Ready! Fire! Aim!” mess, Snell wrote, “It took a lot of courage to take down those poles at Estancia even though it was used at election time and still to this day to incriminate everyone. It was the fair and right decision for the neighborhood and as long as I serve that will not change.”
“It took a lot of courage.” No, it did not take a lot of courage, it took an ounce of common sense. And has the person who pulled the trigger on the pole construction been reprimanded or disciplined? Beats me. How about taking some responsibility for placing the solar panels in a very bad spot? Had they been properly positioned in the first place, this mess would never have happened.
But, the experts said that’s where they should go and they were not challenged. Again.
This particular excerpt highlights an ongoing struggle for Snell and some of her trustee colleagues. Yes, there are people like Steve Smith – “haters,” according to Snell – who will keep reminding taxpayers of the waste of the poles, but I, for one, do this in the context of the larger issue, which is the mind-blowing number of blunders that have been made over the past five years.
The failure of the board to connect the dots from, say, the prom draft, to the Estancia swimming pool indicates that they are playing Whac-A-Mole: When a controversy pops-up, it is pounded down with more tax dollars, the passage of time, or by throwing someone under the bus. All of the episodes of mismanagement are just that: episodes. There are no trends to review and no connection of the dots, just another mole to pound down.
There is so much more hypocrisy to write about here, so much finger-pointing and blaming (it’s the experts, not the board, who are making the mistakes) but I have to stop. Snell is right: With so much to report, it is exhausting.
N-MUSD Taxpayer and Hater