Mountain View Voice

News - January 18, 2013

Tempers tested at school board meeting

by Nick Veronin

Newly elected school district trustee Steve Nelson is sticking to his campaign promise that he would not serve as a "rubber stamp" for the district administration. Whether he will be the instrument of change he campaigned to be on the Mountain View Whisman School District's board — without alienating the other trustees, the superintendent and other top-ranking district staff — remains to be seen.

Tensions flared and voices were raised at the Jan. 10 board meeting, as Nelson and board president Ellen Wheeler engaged in a couple of heated exchanges. Each tussle began with Nelson pushing for a motion, and each ended with his proposal going down on 1-4 votes.

Measure G projects

The first motion was a suggestion that the next public meeting of the trustees be moved to Crittenden Middle School and that a special community input session be tacked on to the beginning of that meeting. The goal was for the board to gather public opinions on the first of the Measure G projects, which are set to begin at the district's middle schools, Crittenden and Graham.

The second motion suggested that a number of amendments ought to be made to the contracts between the school district and the two architects chosen to design new buildings at the district's two middle schools.

While each motion was seconded, and discussions began on each topic — seemingly in earnest — in each instance, members of the board appeared to become exasperated with Nelson, who more than once cut off his fellow trustees and Superintendent Craig Goldman.

Nelson was also cut off many times mid-sentence by his colleagues and by Goldman.

Reflecting on the first heated exchange over the proposed citizen-input meeting and the moving of the next board meeting to Crittenden, Nelson said he felt tensions began to rise sharply when Wheeler sought to defer to Goldman for input and Nelson argued that he wanted to hear the input of all board members before the staff was consulted.

"My opinion is that when the board is having a discussion and it's a motion that we initiated, the board members should get their say before the superintendent is called on to say what he thinks the board has said."

Nelson has voiced concern in the past that the previous trustees simply did everything the district staff suggested they do, without ever asking tough questions. "There's no reason for me to show up at any meetings if the only thing I'm going to do is vote yes without any discussion."

Members of the public in attendance tried to stifle laughter during portions of these arguments, newly elected trustee William Lambert left the room abruptly in what appeared to be frustration. After the meeting, two observers told the Voice that the productivity of the meeting suffered as a consequence of the bickering. It was a point of view apparently shared by newly elected trustee Christopher Chiang, who suggested that the board stop discussing Nelson's first motion because the tone of the meeting was "not productive."

Architect contracts

Nelson said he was "very uncomfortable with the very first part of the meeting." However, he added, he was not concerned over the fervor that bubbled up during the discussion of his proposal to amend the architects' contracts.

Nelson said that the Mountain View City Council — which he often points to as an example of excellent local governance — frequently has disagreements among its council members. "That's how compromises are reached," he said.

He said he also felt that his issues with the architect contracts were worth airing.

In reviewing the contracts, Nelson said he was concerned with several items, including that the project manager did not have sufficient power over cost control, nor was he or she granted "explicit supervision of both architects," and that a group identified as the "district facility team" throughout the contract is not explicitly defined.

Nelson insisted that he was not being nit-picky by going over the contract with a fine-toothed comb. Rather, he said, he merely wanted to see the contracts be as clear as possible or else risk a less-than-perfect execution of the upcoming construction projects.

Nevertheless, there were points during last week's meeting when one might have wondered whether Nelson was simply shaking things up for the sake of shaking things up.

When asked if he thought this might be the case, Superintendent Goldman said he believed the meeting's fits and starts were due mostly to the new board members, Nelson included, figuring out the process.

"Unlike many other organizations and families, school boards don't get to work out their issues behind closed doors," Goldman said. "They have to do it in public view. I'm optimistic that we will work through our issues, that we will find alignment and a way to work together effectively and productively."

District parent Greg Coladonato, who was at the meeting, had a slightly different take than Goldman.

"Trustee Nelson obviously desires that the school district involve more public input and openness in the decision making process," Coladonato said. "And he received a lot of votes, so he may well represent a large constituency who shares that desire. That being said, Thursday's meeting called to mind the aphorism, 'If you want to gather honey, don't kick over the beehive.'"

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