Thursday, June 30, 2016
[Fresno County] Selma Stories: The Grand Jury report – Read it and weep
Hot off the presses, as they used to say before ebooks, comes a summer blockbuster that should be read by everyone in Selma. It's just 29 pages, but it's neither an easy read nor a fun read.
The Fresno County Grand Jury report on the Selma Unified School District is the newest take on old news -- the dismissal of a school superintendent and the subsequent recall of three school board members that took place last year.
Today, we are moving forward with three new trustees and a new superintendent, so maybe this is a good time to look back at how we got here.
The report, released a couple weeks ago, is a tale of abuse of power and small-town politics run amok.
Your reaction to the report likely will depend on which side you were on during last year's firing of Selma Unified Superintendent Mark Sutton and the recall of the three board members who voted for his dismissal.
To those who were outraged at Sutton's firing and its cost to the district -- which the Grand Jury estimated to be $432,955 -- the report validates the recall of John Lorona, Roger Orozco and Gilbert Lopez.
To those former trustees and their supporters, the 29 pages no doubt seem like another hit below the belt to three solid citizens simply doing what they thought necessary to make a school district better.
But the Grand Jury makes it clear: No matter how righteous your intentions, there are rules and policies that must be followed.
Dealing with district business as an individual, requesting work from administrators on weekends, demanding that personnel be disciplined, using binoculars to spy on janitors (really?), monitoring which district personnel have recall stickers on their cars, dropping in on classes unannounced -- those issues and more were listed in the report.
The Grand Jury was adamant: All that stuff is verboten if you are a school trustee. You take action as a team, not by yourself. You follow chain-of-command protocol. You don't create a culture of fear and intimidation. You don't abuse the workload of administrators.
Last week, I talked with Lanny Larson, foreman of the Fresno County Grand Jury.
Grand Jury rules do not allow him to go into details about the report at this time. However, I asked him if he thought the report was fair, and he said, "We would not have released a report if it was only giving one side."
Larson emphasized that the Grand Jury spent six months conducting interviews and studying documents and media accounts. The investigation was initiated from complaints that the school board had violated the Brown Act, which prevents elected bodies from meeting separately from scheduled meetings.
Moving ahead, the Grand Jury was optimistic that the system is working better now that it is being lead by a new superintendent and three new board members.
There are challenges, of course. The new board needs to make sure it doesn't repeat the abuses of power and violations of policy that were detailed in the report. It needs to act as a team, dealing with each other and the superintendent in a collegial manner.
The concerned citizens who organized and supported the recall must also remain diligent to make sure the new board acts with the best interests of the district and plays by the rules.
On a personal note, I have a request: Can we put away the overused phrase "for the kids"? It means nothing, since it can be used by both sides in disputes like a recall campaign.
Anything that makes our schools better, whether it is employee salaries and working conditions, safety, nutrition, extra-curricular activities, curriculum, field trips -- yes, even a school board that operates fairly and doesn't violate state and local policies -- can be considered "for the kids."
We all want our schools to be safe, offer quality education and prepare young people to be productive adults. Doing that takes everyone -- trustees, administrators, staff, students and parents -- playing on the same team.
So I'm asking, can't we all get along? Let's do it for the kids.
June 29, 2016
The Selma Enterprise
By Ken Robison