After a sometimes tumultuous relationship with the public over issues like the Burlingame pool usage and the placement of a new charter school in the district, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is asking the civil grand jury to investigate a school board’s interactions with the public.
At a San Mateo Union High School District Board of Trustees meeting Thursday night, the senator brought up his concerns that the board has lost its way and that its actions give little confidence that it can find its way back.
“This attitude is unacceptable,” Hill told four of the five school board members, as board Vice President Stephen Rogers was absent. “It is clear that you do not recognize in yourselves the offensive, divisive and unfitting behavior you have exhibited. Our constituents must be served in a better way. And our schools must be responsive to our citizens. Therefore, I will be asking the grand jury to institute an investigation into your conduct and actions.”
The district said Friday that Hill’s comments were inflammatory and take away from the fact that the district’s mission is to educate students to the best of its ability.
Hill, however, referenced how Burlingame Councilman Michael Brownrigg told the board at a Dec. 11 meeting that the board and district might be out of step with the public.
“For the better part of the last year, constituents shared with me their serious concerns that the lack of transparency, and the disdainful attitude of some board members, have eroded the public trust in this district,” Hill said. “Some parents feel so estranged from this board that in order to get your attention they felt they had to place an advertisement in the San Mateo Daily Journal. Others hired a community relations firm to try to reach you.”
The Mills’ Vikings Parent Group ran an ad calling for the district to find a new location for the charter school, Design Tech High School. The district has been grappling with finding a new location for it next school year, as it is temporarily co-locating with Mills High School in Millbrae. By law, the district needs to provide facilities the charter with facilities by Feb. 1. The San Mateo Adult School was worried, and rallied, when d.tech asked to be placed at the Adult School’s SMART Center location in San Mateo. The district is also looking to house its alternative high school, Peninsula High School, which is located on the site of the aging former Crestmoor High School in San Bruno, but has run into trouble as there are few facilities on the Peninsula fit for a public high school. The district is looking for new facilities for its district office as well.
Trustee Linda Lees Dwyer said that elected representatives should work together to solve problems — like the d.tech location, and would appreciate Hill’s assistance, as the district works to find the best location for the charter school.
“We all know that the current location is less than ideal and if everyone who believes the charter school needs a new location works on finding a new location, we all benefit — and in particular the students at Mills and d.tech benefit,” she said.
Hill noted that dozens of interested citizens came to the Dec. 11 meeting to engage the board in a discussion about the future of the pool at Burlingame High School, which is shared by the district and city and closed for the month of January. The district also recently threatened litigation against the city of Burlingame in relation to the city not responding to the district’s request for additional space in the 50-meter Olympic size pool for its teams and more payments from the city for its usage.
“The board did not place the pool on the meeting agenda,” Hill said. “This move allowed trustees to posture at length on the issue during their comment session and avoid a public discussion because the topic was not on the agenda. Instead of asking yourselves ‘what is it about the way we do business that would cause the parents of our students to do such things?’ instead of engaging the parents in a dialogue, your response has been shameful: you deride them for their efforts, rant about what you claim are false allegations and you point the finger of blame at the very people you are obligated to represent and serve.”
He noted the board demonstrated its contempt for the public and its complete lack of interest in hearing what the community has to say, when at the Dec. 11 meeting, it determined that it would vote on a matter first and take public comment after the vote. He added it may have been a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law.
The board issued a strong reaction to Hill’s comments, stating that his speech contained accusations based on misinformation that only hinders the public process.
“From erroneously asserting that members of the board do not read letters from constituents, to board members not allowing public comment, Sen. Hill made a number of unsubstantiated claims directed at the SMUHSD board,” said board President Marc Friedman in a prepared statement Friday. “The SMUHSD board continues to tirelessly move forward in finding d.tech a home of its own. The board’s intent was not to offend any member of the public who attended the Dec. 11 board meeting. This public matter has regrettably caused much frustration. Sen. Hill’s comments last night do little to diminish what has been a very difficult situation for everyone involved — including students.”
Millbrae Councilman Wayne Lee and Millbrae Vice Mayor Reuben Holober came to the Thursday night meeting as well and asked the board to try to resolve the issues with finding a new location for d.tech.
“I see you’re trying to make progress,” Lee said. “I do have respect for elected officials — it’s not easy. Some things the public doesn’t have total grasp of, but we’re asking you to know the community. Some of you have expressed you don’t have to know the community. The point is when I go overseas and Mills comes up and I ask, ‘why are you asking about Mills 4,000 miles away?’ Because there is a great investment in the city of Millbrae and Mills High School.”
Hill went on to state that he was appalled when he read one trustee’s recent communication to a concerned parent where he wrote that he has ‘an extreme negative reaction when I see children and foreign nationals/immigrants unfamiliar with our system so obviously being manipulated and used as I witnessed at the December board meeting.’”
Board members want to stress board members serve as board members for one reason — to ensure the best educational experience for all the community’s high school students.
“Wanting an education that will help prepare our teens for future success is a common interest that we can all agree on,” Friedman said. “A common interest that will allow all of us to move forward in working collaboratively together to provide that all students have a school they can call their own.”
Recently, the district also dealt with an upset San Bruno Relay for Life at Capuchino High School when the district changed its 24-hour event to a 12-hour one because of a new policy of closing campuses after midnight.
At the same meeting, the district interviewed search firms that will work to help find a new superintendent, as Superintendent Scott Laurence will be leaving the district at the end of the school year. The district selected Leadership Associates after interviewing it and other firms such as Dave Long & Associates, Education Leadership Services, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, McPherson & Jacobson, L.L.C., The Cosca Group and Ray and Associates, Inc.
The district will hold a special meeting on the budget and financing 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 27 at the Adult School, 789 E. Poplar Ave. in San Mateo.
January 17, 2015
The Daily Journal
By Angela Swartz