Mountain View Voice

News - December 27, 2013

Year in review: School news features spat over Bullis, censured trustee

by Nick Veronin

Local schools made plenty of headlines this year — some of them even drawing the attention of a wider audience as regional news outlets picked up stories that regular Voice readers will be familiar with.

The year kicked off with a handful of heated high school board meetings, in which parents, students, teachers and administrators debated what was acceptable for students to wear, say and do at school, at school dances and in the student newspaper.

The battle between Bullis Charter School and the Los Altos School District surged all year long, as officials from both educational organizations went back and forth between tentative agreements and taking jabs at one another through open letters.

And a newly elected trustee to the Mountain View Whisman School District has ruffled more than a few feathers in his new position. Steven Nelson was officially censured by his colleagues for what they described as continued and sustained unprofessional behavior.

High schools debate values

At the beginning of the year, a group of mothers concerned that the high school district was not adequately enforcing many of its policies, and upset with a series of articles printed in a student-run newspaper, sparked a controversy that eventually drew the attention of many more parents, local broadcast news and even a few educators on the East Coast.

Tabitha Hanson, Christy Reed and Dr. Sara Robinson — mothers of children enrolled in Mountain View High School — first addressed the board of trustees for the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District on Jan. 21. The three mothers said administrators and teachers were turning a blind eye to dress code violations and foul language on campus, and that not enough was being done to ensure that students acted appropriately at school dances.

The mothers called for a number of actions, which ranged in severity from stepping up enforcement of dress code and language violations, to suggesting that an officer with a drug-sniffing dog might police school dances.

Soon thereafter, a group of parents, including Hanson, Reed and Robinson, returned to the MVLA board to blast two packages of articles that ran in "The Oracle," Mountain View High School's student-run paper. One of the packages contained articles about drugs, and drug and alcohol use by local high school students. Another package was titled "Sex and Relationships," and featured a variety of stories — some tame, others more explicit.

Some parents and community members were outraged. At least one parent suggested that the district might be wise to take disciplinary action against the teacher in charge of overseeing "The Oracle." The outrage was met by a backlash — as students, parents and teachers defended the student newspaper and its right to publish both packages.

It all came to a head on March 11, when teachers, parents, students, administrators and other community officials filled about two-thirds of the seats in the 375-capacity Spartan Theater to listen and share their views on the role of the student newspaper. The event was covered by local NBC and ABC television news affiliates.

Ultimately, district Superintendent Barry Groves said he wished that some of the student journalists had chosen to use less racy language. However, he strongly defended the students' right to pursue the topics they are interested in. Furthermore, he noted, California law prohibited him from taking any action that could be perceived to be an attempt on chilling the First Amendment rights of the student journalists.

Bullis vs. LASD

The years-long battle between Bullis Charter School and the Los Altos School District continued to rage in 2013. And while there were a number of ceasefires called over the course of the year, the two parties appear no closer to coming to an agreement.

Over the course of the year, the two educational organizations traded barbs in the media with a series of open letters.

In early August, things took a particularly ugly turn when LASD officials had the locks changed at Blach Intermediate School — effectively locking Bullis teachers out of their classrooms, which officials from the charter said they needed to access in order to prepare for the coming school year.

While LASD officials said they changed the locks because Bullis was refusing to sign a facilities use agreement, officials from the charter claimed that the action was meant only to antagonize and belittle them.

Two months later, it appeared that the two organizations had moved past the lockout episode, as officials from both BCS and LASD were talking about working together on a district school bond that would allow two new schools to be built — one for Bullis and one to offset the swelling student population in LASD schools.

Those talks quickly fizzled, however, with members of Bullis' board of directors questioning whether LASD really wanted the bond to fail, by framing it as a "Bullis bond."

The communities of Los Altos Hills, Los Altos, and the portion of Mountain View in the Los Altos School District have been divided by the battle between Bullis and LASD.

Nelson censured

Many were surprised when Steven Nelson was elected to the board of trustees of the Mountain View Whisman School District in 2012 — Nelson may have been the most surprised of all. Last year, at an election night party hosted by local cable access channel KMVT, Nelson indicated that he expected to lose.

One of Nelson's opponents, Peter Darrah, was also shocked. In an interview with the Voice immediately following the announcement that Nelson had won, he let his guard down and expressed concerns that Nelson would be bad for the district. Darrah pointed to Nelson's behavior at previous board meetings, where, attending as a citizen, Nelson had developed a reputation for reciting song lyrics, holding up crudely drawn visual representations and criticizing district officials in a manner that could be described as less than constructive.

Although Nelson told the Voice that he planned to change his "style" of commentary now that he was on the board, he has continued to rub people the wrong way, including many of his fellow trustees, district Superintendent Craig Goldman, and other administrators in the district. He is known for interrupting his colleagues on the board and taking a confrontational tone during meetings, and he has been criticized for attempting to use his position on the board to micromanage school principals and other school district administrators.

In September, the Voice learned that a plan was in the works to formally censure Nelson.

In the run-up to the censure vote, district trustees Ellen Wheeler, Chris Chiang and Bill Lambert said they were concerned with Nelson's combative behavior and outbursts. In one such outburst, which Nelson admitted was out of line, the trustee raised his voice in the district office and said that Goldman was "full of sh**."

"We've tried talking to Steve individually," Chiang told the Voice in September. "We've tried having a meeting that was mediated by a professional facilitator. None of it is working."

In a 4-1 vote on Oct. 3, with Nelson opposed, the board of trustees censured Nelson.

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