Nearly every person in attendance took to their feet and stared down the four school board members seated before them. Sue Gonzalez, a reading intervention teacher at West Marin-Inverness School, spoke in support of Tom Stubbs, who submitted his resignation last week after the board indicated it would not renew his contract for a second year as superintendent of the Shoreline Unified School District.
“We have not been given any opportunity to provide input regarding the performance of our superintendent, so we would like to do so at this time,” Ms. Gonzales read after asking people to stand with her in support. “Tom Stubbs has been an extremely supportive and visionary leader. This perspective is widely held. We want Mr. Stubbs to continue as our superintendent.”
Ms. Gonzalez’s feeling of exclusion from the board’s decision was echoed to the trustees repeatedly throughout an emotional, four-hour meeting last Thursday at Tomales Elementary School. Teachers, union leaders, the school groundskeeper, parents and concerned community members expressed frustration at not being asked for opinions about Mr. Stubbs’s performance over the past nine months. But even after listening to concerns of the nearly 50 people present, the board did not revisit its
decision. The first steps in the search for a new superintendent had already been put in motion, trustee Jill Manning-Sartori announced.
In response, the Light sent a formal letter to the board Wednesday alleging violations of the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law. During last week’s closed session, the board may have illegally discussed Mr. Stubbs’s resignation and the commencement of a search for a new superintendent, business that should have been conducted before the public in open session and properly described on the agenda. The board has 30 days to respond in writing, or legal proceedings can be initiated by a complaint to the district attorney or independent action.
With the audience on their feet, Heidi Koenig, a West Marin School parent, read a joint statement from the West Marin-Inverness School Parent Teacher Association, School Site Council and English Language Advisory Council.
“More than once you have promised to improve communication with the entire community, staff, parents and students, but your actions have left us in the dark again,” she said. “The last two irregular school board meetings, with their cursory notice and unwelcoming locations, discourage public input,” she added, referencing the March 28 board retreat at the district office where the audience was asked to listen from the hallway and the April 10 special meeting at Ms. Manning-Sartori’s house in Tomales, where Mr. Stubbs resigned.
She asked that the board take the time that evening to clarify a number of its policies: how it disseminates information about its major decisions throughout the school system, how it evaluates superintendents and which stakeholders’ opinions are solicited as part of the review.
“I feel very strongly that had any of the board members been on our site on a regular basis they would have come up with a different result,” Rhonda Kutter, the president of the West Marin-Inverness School Site Council, continued. “Now this is happening and I feel like we’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The board did not take active steps the moment they decided to make this huge disruption and show up on our school site to support our principal and our staff and our parents. It’s a real shortfall.”
Board President Jane Healy nodded silently. Ms. Manning-Sartori showed up for the five o’clock meeting at 5:07 p.m., sandals flapping, in time to catch only the tail end of Ms. Kutter’s comment; another trustee was late, too; and Monique Moretti would not show up at all.
“Okay, any other comments?” asked trustee Clarette McDonald, taking her turn to preside in the regular rotation of duties. Soft-spoken, she leaned forward, mentioned the board would recess to closed-door discussion without responding and struck the gavel to adjourn.
For 45 minutes, the attendants milled about the room, sampling Chips Ahoy and Fig Newtons as they waited for the trustees to return. Chatter filled the empty space, enough agitated voices to sound almost lively. Some expressed optimism, believing they had made enough of a showing for the board to reconsider. But at 6:05 p.m., when the board reconvened, Ms. McDonald said there was no reportable action taken, implying the board’s earlier decision to accept Mr. Stubbs’s resignation was final.
The board members provided only a 10-sentence update during the trustees’ report, an agenda item Ms. McDonald almost skipped. Ms. Manning-Sartori told the audience she wanted to reassure them there would be “no disruption” in the district’s operations, including implementation of the Local Control and Accountability Plan and Common Core.
“In the meantime, the board is going to start—almost immediately—the process of searching for a new superintendent,” she said. “With the recommendation of [County Superintendent] Mary Jane Burke, we are going to use the services of Scott Mahoney from the Marin County Office of Education”—a consultant who aided in the search for a new superintendent for the Lagunitas and Bolinas-Stinson Union School Districts—“to guide us through the process, and that will include opportunities for input from all of the major stakeholders. Everybody who wants to will have an opportunity to comment on that process.”
The board also provided a blank copy of the superintendent’s evaluation form that was filled out during a March 12 closed session, asking them to rate Mr. Stubbs’s performance from superior to unsatisfactory on 51 questions under six general topics: superintendent-board relations, community relations, staff and personnel relations, educational leadership, administration and personal qualities. Ms. Healy would not disclose how many people had been asked to submit testimony during closed sessions before each board member completed the form. As much as she wishes she could disclose more, Ms. Healy said the board has had to balance the public’s right to know with protections for employee confidentiality, she added.
“In the moment when we make that decision as a board, it’s just us. At that point we don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Gee, I wish I had a peanut gallery to second-guess me on all these decisions.’ It’s one of the hardest things the board does, and we have to go just off what we know,” Ms. Healy said. “That’s a really strong asset that the board keeps everything confidential. We can’t have it be an open forum on school employees.”
She continued: “One of the things that I have to do is constantly choose excellence. It’s very hard for us to listen to our community being unhappy with our decision and not being able to say anything back. It sounds like maybe something worse than it is. It isn’t.”
Without an agenda item related to the superintendent, public comment was delivered scattershot throughout the evening, and the board could only briefly respond.
“There were some questions in what I said earlier and I haven’t heard basically anything to address them as far as communication, as far as the process of review,” Ms. Koenig said. “Are we all going to sit here and watch you guys kind of nod and agree? Yet this action is still moving forward. It’s kind of mind-boggling, actually.”
After a moment of silence, Tim Kehoe responded, “We’re not supposed to comment on items not on the agenda.”
“Then put it on the agenda,” someone called out. “You can when you choose to,” another person said. Ms. McDonald moved on to the next comment.
For Madeline Hope, a former trustee, the board’s decision and the secrecy around it were disheartening. “Every year there’s a crisis in the leadership of the school district, and the last three months of the school year isn’t about the kids. It’s about what the adults are grappling with,” she said during public comment. “I think that’s a huge disservice to the children and a complete waste of our tax dollars.”
Besides their concerns with the process, many attendees expressed their appreciation for Mr. Stubbs’s work. Parents and teachers commented on his leadership. For the first time, many in the Latino community felt they had a superintendent who cared about their concerns, said Avito Miranda, who lost a race for trustee in November. And on administrative issues, as many as 25 contract errors that had been on the books for years were resolved this year, said Linda Borello, the chapter president of the California School Employees Association and an administrative secretary at West Marin School.
“I have trouble listening to you say we want to turn to the community and ask what they want in a superintendent. We spent money and time and effort and staff development, days having a listening campaign, and we told you what we wanted in a superintendent,” said Ms. Borello, who said she has seen a revolving door of three superintendents and eight principals in recent years. “We’re told we don’t have money to give cost-of-living raises. We don’t have money to buy an extra bus or a truck for the groundskeeper. We don’t have money to have all the special-ed teachers covered. But we have money to go out and find a new superintendent? That’s not how I want my money spent. I want my money to go to the people who show up every day, who come to every site and want to be there for those children. Tom has done that.”
The board will hold a special meeting on Tuesday, April 29, at 6 p.m. at Tomales Elementary School at 40 John Street. An agenda is forthcoming.