Mountain View Voice

Opinion - October 11, 2013

Is censure enough for Steven Nelson?

The normal collegiality of the Mountain View Whisman board of trustees was ripped apart with the election of Steven Nelson last year. Nelson has overwhelmed board president Ellen Wheeler, other board members and district staff with his off-the-wall comments and often abrasive demeanor.

He is known for his tendency to go off on long tangents without ever arriving at a point or being cut off by justifiably impatient colleagues before having a chance to fully explain himself. During the Sept. 19 board meeting, he brought up the bloody turmoil in Egypt, and mentioned the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which were established in South Africa as the years of white rule were coming to an end. It appeared he was attempting to compare his pending censure to political violence or a massive investigation into human rights abuses. The audience was unsympathetic, and several in attendance scoffed audibly.

Nelson has developed a reputation for attacking and second-guessing district plans — especially those related to the substantial school upgrades called for under the $191 million voter-approved Measure G bond.

While he has rudely criticized teachers and district staff, both in public and in emails, no one has received more of his vitriol than Superintendent Craig Goldman. On March 28, at the height of what was likely his most egregious outburst, Nelson reportedly yelled at the superintendent: "You are full of sh--," in front of other district staff members.

In an email recounting the incident, Goldman wrote that Nelson had "accused me of resisting a Bay Area News Group request for earnings information and falsely claimed responsibility for getting the District to provide the requested information. I both defended myself against these allegations and expressed my belief that he (Nelson) did not care about the students." Nelson later said that he lost his temper after Goldman questioned his commitment to the district's children, admitting he was wrong to act the way he did.

According to emails dating back to January, which the Voice obtained through a Public Records Act request, Nelson has made many apologies over the past nine months.

In our view, the emails, and evidence compiled by trustee Bill Lambert, show that Nelson is quick to make serious and often inaccurate accusations, has a pattern of threatening and insulting district staff members, has attempted to use his position on the board to gain political leverage over Superintendent Goldman, and appears to think little of issuing a terse "mea culpa" when he is called out for his transgressions — as if a simple apology will suffice without any real change in his behavior.

For example, in an email sent Aug. 1, he claimed that the board would be breaking the law if it went ahead with a special meeting with multiple items on the agenda. "The law is pretty darn clear," he wrote, adding "only one item may be on a special meeting agenda."

But when Superintendent Goldman responded that he had never heard of this rule, Nelson quickly backed down: "Probably MY BAD. In a two-minute search I cannot find that limitation."

As a local school district trustee, Nelson should not be barred from asking tough questions of the superintendent and voicing his concerns in board meetings. However, no board member has the right to hijack meetings or hurl insults at those with divergent views. Nelson's behavior has interrupted the ability of the board members, and to some extent, Superintendent Goldman, to do their work.

Nelson's behavior has left lasting scars on his colleagues and the district staff. It is a terrible way for the district to do business, and often works against Nelson in getting any support for his concerns — many of which have some validity, albeit misunderstood.

We believe the district did the right thing, but even after being censured, we wonder whether Steven Nelson's behavior will change. We hope it will.

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