Mountain View Voice

News - January 31, 2014

Can't we all just get along?

The answer seems to be 'no' for school district, trustee

by Nick Veronin

It seems that Steve Nelson may never get along with the administration of the Mountain View Whisman School District and his fellow trustees.

At the most recent meeting of the district's board, a number of heated discussions were had — all of them between Nelson and another board member, or between Nelson and Superintendent Craig Goldman — and apparently that's just par for the course.

It's become expected that conflict will arise during district meetings, according to Goldman and Bill Lambert, president of the board of trustees. If that wasn't made clear in the run up to Nelson's October 2013 censure for unprofessional behavior, it is now.

In the months following his official reprimand, Nelson has continued to clash with board members and district administrators — frequently engaging his colleagues in public arguments and making the task of running local schools much harder than it needs to be, Goldman and Lambert told the Voice.

Reached by phone, Nelson said he would not comment for this story.

While Lambert acknowledged that the trustee has been better when it comes to interjecting himself into the affairs of district staff, he said that Nelson has not really changed the way he behaves with the board and district administrators — especially Goldman.

"He continues to be rude and insulting to the board," Lambert said. "He continues to be really the same way — rude and insulting — to Craig (Goldman) via email, and during the board meetings."

According to Lambert, Nelson's actions and behavior are making it difficult to get things done. "There are a lot of things going on in the district," Lambert said, pointing to the continued unrolling of the $198 million Measure G bond, the introduction of Common Core State Standards, and new educational technologies being tried out in district classrooms. "Steve's behavior detracts from our focus and our ability to run the business of the district."

Goldman agreed, explaining that his office is constantly bombarded by emails from Nelson — who frequently requests information that is extremely time-consuming to compile, often for reasons that remain unclear.

"He demands information that isn't readily available, and therefore we have to divert staff time to respond to his request," Goldman said "It's particularly frustrating because he never seems to use the information for any productive purpose."

Further complicating matters, Goldman noted, is the style of Nelson's correspondences.

Nelson has copied the Voice on many of these missives since he took office. The emails often begin abruptly, with Nelson offering little preamble — let alone an explanation as to why he decided to copy the Voice. He regularly uses emoticons, inserts jokes into the middle of sentences parenthetically, and bounces around among a variety of fonts and type styles..

"With a lot of his emails it's difficult to tell whether they are just musings or if he is making a specific request for information," Goldman said "He frequently doesn't say clearly what he wants."

To top it off, Nelson has also been known to request documents that do not exist — only to become angry when he is told that the district cannot deliver the phantom reports, Goldman said.

"Every month he sends dozens of requests for information," Goldman said. "We respond to those requests on a regular basis. Periodically he will request documents that simply don't exist. When we respond to him that no such document exists, then he accuses us of stonewalling him. He makes threats of public humiliation" — regularly telling Goldman that if he does not comply with his requests he will call him out at a board meeting or go to the press.

At the Jan. 23 board meeting, Goldman confronted Nelson, asking him why he had been filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the City of Mountain View, asking for correspondences between city officials and the district administration — which the superintendent identified as being consistent with Nelson's "pattern of harassment and an interference of the operations of the district."

Nelson said he had filed a FOIA request because Goldman had been "stonewalling" him — accusing the superintendent of being "unresponsive" to a recent request for the very information he was seeking through his filings with the city.

"I am really offended by the allegations that I'm not responsive to you," Goldman fired back, bringing up the volume of email he regularly receives from Nelson. "You have an insatiable desire for reports and information. We respond to the overwhelming majority of requests for information."

Trustee Chris Chiang eventually chimed in saying he was concerned with the tone of the conversation and the impact such exchanges would ultimately have on the district and its students. "There are very few organizations out there that can operate if the board and the executive leadership are hostile," Chiang said. "It is a recipe for disaster."

Both Goldman and Lambert are also concerned about wider repercussions rippling out from the board meetings through the district.

"When you see the board of the school district not being able to take a leadership role, it has to effect the morale of the entire district," Lambert said.

Goldman said he is worried that Nelson's constant challenges to the district administration might have a chilling effect on communications with the city and other organizations, and ultimately limit the potential of the district. "It's ironic that Mr. Nelson claims that his goal is to have transparent and open communication but his actions have the impact of limiting communications in the future."

Email Nick Veronin at nveronin@mv-voice.com

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