Board to vote on censuring Nelson

New censure policy adopted and motion for censure placed on Oct. 3 MVWSD board agenda

The majority of Steven Nelson's school board colleagues want to censure him -- but first, they had a few procedural hoops to jump through.

Nelson is under fire from several members of the Mountain View Whisman School District's board over his bullying behavior and "insulting" treatment of district staff. At the Thursday, Sept. 19, meeting, a vote on censuring the recently-elected trustee was set for the Oct. 3 meeting, after the board adopted new provisions outlining exactly how to censure a trustee.

The "Censure Policy and Procedure" was adopted in a 3-2 vote, after some of its most punitive language was removed. Nelson dissented on the vote and found an ally in Phil Palmer, who said he wanted to rewrite the policy to make it so a super majority of four trustees was required to officially censure a fifth trustee.

As it was passed, with Board President Ellen Wheeler, Chris Chiang and Bill Lambert voting in favor, it only requires a simple majority of three trustees to censure a colleague.

Elected last November, Nelson has ruffled the feathers of his fellow trustees, Superintendent Craig Goldman and other district staff. According to Wheeler, she and Bill Lambert have compiled evidence of Nelson's questionable conduct, which reportedly includes sending harshly worded emails and shouting at district administrators at the school district's headquarters.

Wheeler said she has seen many emails in which Nelson personally criticizes the performance of individual members of the district staff, particularly Goldman. Nelson has also been known to announce his dissatisfaction with district staff at board meetings. Not only are the emails "insulting," Wheeler said, they are also time-consuming and come at such a frequency that it makes it very difficult for Goldman to focus on his regular responsibilities.

"That's not the job of a school board member," Wheeler said, noting that in the 11 years she has served on the school board, she has never encountered another trustee who has acted the way Nelson has.

As a result, Chiang said he and Lambert began looking into the possibility of officially censuring Nelson. Chiang has said that he hopes censuring Nelson might result in a more congenial board.

When they began looking into censure, Chiang said they realized that the board's bylaws have very little guidance on how to take the action. Though Chiang made a point at the Sept. 19 meeting that there was no legal need to adopt official guidelines for censure, he said he personally wanted to make sure that the board did adopt such language in the interest of "fairness."

And so, at the Sept. 19 meeting, Lambert presented a draft of a formal "Censure Policy and Procedure."

During the public comment portion of the discussion of the policy, two community members spoke up. They never named Nelson explicitly, because the policy, in theory, is not meant specifically for Nelson but is intended for taking action against any board member. However Steve Sherman and Gloria Higgins made it clear in their comments that they were dissatisfied with the way Nelson has handled himself since being elected.

Nelson was elected to the board after promising voters that he would challenge district leaders when he felt they weren't doing a good job. He repeatedly has said he doesn't want to be a "rubber stamp" for the agenda of Superintendent Goldman

But it seems that in refusing to be a "rubber stamp," Nelson has crossed some lines. He readily admits that he has occasionally taken an unprofessional tone -- both in emails and in person -- when communicating with his fellow board members and district administrators.

According to some of his colleagues on the board, it has been more than occasional.

Chris Chiang, who was elected to the board at the same time as Nelson, said he and his colleagues have tried a number of things to get Nelson to change his behavior. "We've tried talking to Steve individually," Chiang said. "We've tried having a meeting that was mediated by a professional facilitator. None of it is working."

At the end of the meeting, Lambert suggested placing an motion to censure Nelson on a future agenda. With support from Wheeler and Chiang, the item was placed on the Oct. 3 agenda.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 20, 2013 at 4:47 pm

What would a censure really accomplish? It is just a public hand slap that does not remove him from office. It's not like he will suddenly learn how to work with people.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 21, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Palmer appears to be the only one capable of rising above it all. Thank you Mr. Palmer.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Gloria Higgins
a resident of Castro City
on Sep 21, 2013 at 4:54 pm

It's true censuring Nelson is a slap on the wrist that probably won't change his behavior. That doesn't make it pointless. The value in censure is that it lets the staff and community know the board does not condone bad behavior. This is especially important for the administrators and support staff members who have to deal most closely with Nelson. The situation doesn't seem to have reached the point it has in Santa Clara, where many exceptional staff members left the district, but I'd hate for it to get that far.

Censure is also a crucial first step toward reviving a climate of open dialogue. I don't expect unanimous decisions on every issue. I do expect disagreement to be respectful.

Palmer set a great example as he stated his opinion and then voted his conscience. He was cheerful even though his suggestion for the board bylaw was not accepted. (On a side note, I think Palmer also supported the future agenda item to censure Nelson. The last sentence of the article gives the impression he did not.)

Chiang, Lambert, and Wheeler have been equally respectful through this frustrating situation. Their work right now is difficult, but necessary. I appreciate their service.

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Posted by Elaine
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Many here have been using the school district to achieve their personal ambitions and satisfy their egos. Nelson is not alone on that point. And how much did staff have to put up with under Ghysels under Gloria Higgins and Ellen Wheeler as board members? That episode still takes the cake.

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Posted by Graham mom
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 23, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Oh Elaine,

Do tell! I was wondering if Nelson was telling them he is fed up and they don't want to listen.

I am surprised how the schools are run now days with all these half days and days off. As working parents we need some consistency.

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Posted by @ Elaine
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Sep 23, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Really not helpful!

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Waverly Park
on Sep 23, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Beyond censure, the voters need to take matters into their own hands and recall Nelson. It is one thing to question staff and have healthy dialog about policy and strategy, but constant insults and criticism in the name of an alternative voice are not productive. People with that kind of axe to grind do not belong in elected office. I hope to see some of the parents who are in leadership in the MVWSD community stand up and fight for good governance and start a campaign to recall Nelson.

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Posted by Charlene
a resident of Castro City
on Sep 24, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Charlene is a registered user.

@Elaine and Graham Mom, I hear you loud and clear.

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Posted by DaveW
a resident of Waverly Park
on Sep 24, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Voters of MVWSD have no one to blame but themselves. They mistook bluster and noise for an informed motivated candidate who would put the district's students first.

Whatever your opinion of the current and past district board and administration, there were certainly better choices to lead or change.

Please let me know where I can sign a recall petition and where I can send a recall campaign contribution.

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Posted by Elaine
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 24, 2013 at 5:50 pm

I would say Nelson is very informed and very motivated. Wheeler has run uncontested so many times I would hardly find her as expressing the will of the voters. Nelson, on the other hand, ran and won in a contested field.

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Posted by Another Observer
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 25, 2013 at 6:56 am

@ Elaine,
No one is saying the Mr. Nelson isn't informed and motivated. The problem is that he is abusive and insulting while interacting with his fellow Board members and staff members. Someone who is truly motivated would modify their behavior so that they could actually get something done. It's the old saying, you catch more flies wit honey than with vinegar.

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Posted by Elaine
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 25, 2013 at 7:07 am

There are many ways for board members to be abusive and insulting. One such way is sit quietly and never respond to community concerns once you are elected, or to rally behind and never question the district administration at whatever cost to protect your ego and tenure along the lines of the old saying, "Don't make waves."

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Posted by school mom
a resident of Martens-Carmelita
on Sep 25, 2013 at 2:44 pm

ditto what Elaine said

 +   Like this comment
Posted by @ Elaine
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 25, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Just curious - have you ever attended a Board meeting or watched the video of one of the meetings to see Mr. Nelson's behavior during meetings for yourself? If you haven't, I strongly suggest that you do so. Mr. Nelson's behavior is like a tsunami - very destructive to everything in its path.

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