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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Commentary: The School Board--Where they got it right, Where they got it wrong

It was with great sadness that the Davis Joint Unified School District made their decision in the end to support the closing of Valley Oak. There are a number of mistakes that have been made along the way, some by this school board, some by the district under the leadership of David Murphy as Superintendent, and some by the previous School Board. All said it is a very complicated process and I think the public needs to understand where actual fault lies and where this school board has done the right things.

We start once again with David Murphy. I hear the consistent complaints from the public and from Valley Oak parents looking suspiciously toward the district paying for two superintendents. There is much to criticize this board for. The superintendent situation however, in my opinion, is not one of them. First of all, the blame needs to rest with the previous school board. When BJ Kline, Joan Sallee, and Marty West left office in 2005, at the 11th hour they extended by a 4-1 vote, the contract of David Murphy for three additional years. Jim Provenza was the only no vote. They did this to protect Murphy from the new board. They also wrote into his contract a provision that required that any termination of Murphy by the new school board would still require that he be paid in full for the entire length of his contract.

There are a whole host of reasons why Murphy needed to go, really we have already discussed many at length, the King High School debacle being one of the more recent ones and that was quite a bit of money that the district lost. But look no further than the debacle with Montgomery Elementary School. Deputy Superintendent for Business Tahir Ahad formed his own private educational consulting company while still employed by the school district. He took with him several current and former employees of the district. The District was aware of this situation and there was no attempt made by the board majority or the administration to put an end to this situation. The attitude was that Tahir was brilliant and could do anything.

However, Tahir would miss filing paperwork for a critical deadline for the Montgomery Elementary School that would cost the district $5 million. It does not take a lot of math, to understand why it would probably be more financially sound to eat $160,000 to $200,000 on an additional superintendent rather than taking a chance on further financial debacles. It also doesn't take much to realize how much losing $5 million would impact the district's overall budget.

So despite the apparent unseemliness of the arrangement, it is my view that the district did what they had to do with regards to the superintendent situation.

Where I criticize the majority of the school board is how the Task Force report was handled. The previous board named this Task Force. It was not originally designed to be a close the school task force. However, at a very early stage Chair Kirk Trost decided that a school had to be closed and that it needed to be Valley Oak. Trost then turned his mission into an advocacy mission and all findings directed him toward those ends. This is not the role a Task Force should have played. The final report read like a legal brief rather than either an academic paper or a Task Force report with a number of alternatives and with specific research to justify assumptions and conclusions.

Rather the Task Force should have been there to provide the District with an array of alternatives that they could then choose from. This Task Force took the decision making effectively away from the District. The members felt obligated to follow the direction and advise of this board that had spent considerable time.

This was no more evident when not only did the board defer to the Task Force on the issue of enrollment and demography, but so did the interim Superintendent. This despite the fact that the Task Force had no particular expertise with demography and had in fact driven the process by selecting which assumptions should be made--assumptions that ran against what the demographers (the actual experts) would have suggested. My unfortunate first impression of Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore is unfortunately a negative one. I am grateful to the board for making the right decision on firing Murphy, but they left Murphy's staff largely in place and that showed on Monday night.

I honestly believe that the decision to close Valley Oak for both Gina Daleiden and Tim Taylor was an exceedingly difficult decision. While I do not agree with them on their final analysis, I also believe they they shared the best interest in of the students.

However, I think Tim Taylor made a monumental error for both the Valley Oak parents and the district as a whole by making a well-intentioned attempt at compromise.

The district relies on the parcel tax to account for 5.5% of their budget and fund a number of very important programs. It must be renewed every so often with a two-thirds vote by the electorate.

Board Member Tim Taylor made the suggestion that a second parcel tax be placed on the ballot. It could only win if the first parcel tax won. And the second would fund Valley Oak Elementary and enable it to stay open. If it fails in the fall of 2007, Valley Oak would close in 2008.

Taylor was attempting to give the Valley Oak parents an alternative. It was a well-intentioned move by him, however he made a large error by bowing to Keltie Jones' browbeating of him on the issue of having the two parcel taxes on the ballot. Jones was concerned that the second one being on the ballot may doom the first one. The compromise means that they will poll the parcel tax to determine if having the second parcel tax on the ballot will cause the first one to lose.

Jones, overreacted and failed to recognize that by having a large and energetic group from Valley Oak working to pass both parcel taxes, it made it more likely to pass.

However, if the board makes the determination that having the second parcel tax on the ballot would harm the first parcel tax and decides to stick with only the original parcel tax, that would create a potential backlash. Moreover, given the numerous problems that have beset the district, the passage of the main parcel tax is no longer a given.

It may be that the parcel tax was in jeopardy even before and without this issue. But tying the issues together may cripple it regardless no matter what the district does.

The bottom line here is that it was probably a mistake to close a school before a critical election was held on the parcel tax. The closing of the school comes before the new enrollment figures of the fall. They may show another rise in enrollment, in which case, some of these fears may be false. Moreover, as Board President Provenza has suggested on multiple occasions there is no current financial crisis.

In the end and despite protests to the contrary, the board made this decision too quickly without a full exploration of alternative funding sources. In fact, the administration never addressed the issue of how it could keep open nine schools financially. They spoke at length about how to close down a school and in what time frame, but there were never really alternatives presented.

In the end, I guess the saddest part of this is that this school was a successful school and that the district closed it down because of concerns that were not directly related to its performance.

My enduring memory from this issue will be the sight late Monday night of parents with tears streaming down their faces as the district had made it clear that Valley Oak was closing. And that is something that I will never forget.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting