School board president Chris Chiang announced Friday night that he will be stepping down from his post with the Mountain View Whisman School District over what he called insults, harassment and bullying by trustee Steve Nelson toward district staff, parents and community members. On Monday, he said resigning will allow him to head the recall campaign to replace Nelson.
In a June 12 email to the school board, Chiang stated that after the June 11 meeting he could no longer serve on the board "in good conscience" while a fellow board member "insults and bullies fellow board members, staff, teachers and families." His resignation will be effective June 22, but he said he will not attend the June 18 meeting.
Chiang said the district has been dealing with tough issues including school boundaries, new facilities plans and addressing the needs of students in low-income families, and that it's difficult to do that when Nelson makes himself the center of any issue. He said he has been increasingly frustrated that people haven't stood up to Nelson. In trying to find the best way to help the school district, Chiang felt the best course of action was to step down so he could spearhead an effort to recall Nelson from the school board.
"I've exhausted ways to change things on the board," Chiang said. "It's the best thing I can do for the district now."
In an email to board members and the new superintendent, Ayindé Rudolph, Chiang said the problem is not just Nelson's actions, but the way board members have sat idly by and allowed the alleged abusive actions continue. He said the board failed to take action when Graham Principal Kim Thompson refused to bring any of her students to board meetings because, she said, the board undermines the character development work she and her community are doing at Graham.
When reached by the Voice, Thompson declined to comment.
Chiang said Stevenson Principal Tyler Graff reported that his school's teachers and staff are scared to report to the school board. In an interview with the Voice, Graff explained that quite a few third grade students visited board meetings in the spring, and that it's important for the adults to model behavior for kids. He said some school board members do a great job, but others could use some work.
"I hope the school board is able to get to a place where they are focused on kids and students and it's a collaborative atmosphere," Graff said.
In 2013, the board voted to censure Nelson for what it called unprofessional behavior and violations of the board's code of conduct. Among the reasons for the censure was an incident in which Nelson shouted profanities in the district office following a meeting with former Superintendent Craig Goldman.
In an email, Nelson said Chiang's comments appear to be a continuation of the points made against him during the censure vote. Nelson said he hopes Chiang is able to take up a new job either as a trustee or a school administrator "commensurate with his drive and education vision."
"I think he could still be an effective trustee and advance his educational vision for (the district) by supporting our new superintendent," Nelson said.
Board member Ellen Wheeler, who has taken over as board president, said Chiang had been telling board members about his plans to resign for a while now. She said the strongest action they can do as board members against Nelson is to vote to censure him, and that speaking up against Nelson at meetings always led to complaints from the public that the board can't get along.
"It's definitely disturbing that he felt so strongly about this that (resigning) was the only way he could help the greater community understand the bullying going on on this board," Wheeler said.
In a letter to County Superintendent John Gundry, Chiang wrote that he no longer believes the Mountain View Whisman school board serves the best interests of all students, but instead "chooses which children, families, and schools deserve their support."
Chiang asserted in the letter that each family deserves to be treated with equal dignity and respect, and that he could no longer associate himself with a board that refuses to stand by that standard.
Nelson made comments at the June 11 board meeting alleging that the district's facilities committee was unfairly loaded with members from the more affluent Stevenson PACT community, without adequate representation from Theuerkauf Elementary.
Chiang responded by saying he had complete confidence that members of the committee were able to recommend building plans that reflect the needs of all students in the district, and apologized to the committee for Nelson's comments. After a back-and-forth between Chiang and Nelson, Chiang charged that some resignations have been tied to Nelson's actions and treatment of district staff.
"Trustee Nelson, we've lost so many people in this district because of (your actions). We've lost a great principal, we lost members of our district's leadership team."
It was announced earlier at that meeting that Graff would be stepping down from his position as principal of Stevenson and leaving the district. Graff later said his sudden decision to depart from the district was for a new job opportunity in San Francisco, rather than any board-related issues.
At the same meeting, Nelson also referred to Stevenson PACT as a "segregation program" based on the wealth of the families in attendance. Chiang called Nelson's comments inappropriate and said that the board "as leaders of the district should not stand by" and allow these comments to be made.
Chiang later told the Voice that it's the board's job to defend all of the schools, and that it's not acceptable for him to "pick" which schools and families to support. He said the district lost one of its best principals, Graff, because Nelson has made it unclear whether he, as a trustee, even wants the school to exist.
During a discussion over the reasons for Goldman's departure late last year, Chiang indicated there was a strong connection between the $230,000 payout for a "release of claims" against the district by Goldman and Nelson's actions. At the time of the meeting, Chiang said an unnamed board member had caused a great deal of harm to the district, and that he would gladly be voted off the board if it meant replacing that board member as well.
Wheeler said there will be a meeting to decide how to move forward in the coming weeks. She said the two options, according to the board bylaws, are to either have a special election to fill the vacant seat or vote to appoint a fifth member to serve on the board until the 2016 election.
Wheeler said often times it's preferable to appoint a new member because an election would cost the district about $200,000, and she said there would be no shortage of viable candidates that could apply for the appointment.
"I'm confident with all the talented people in our community we're going to get a number of highly qualified applicants," Wheeler said.
Following Chiang's announcement, residents started a petition to recall Nelson, which picked up a little over 100 signatures as of Monday. In an email, Chiang said he supports the petition and that Nelson's heart may be in the right place, but his demands to be at the center of any issue "robs the board of its ability to make contemplative decisions."
Chiang said it's helpful to have the online petition, but going through the official process for a recall means all the signatures collected would need to be gathered again. It's a long and difficult effort to get someone recalled, but Chiang said he's familiar with how the process works. Once he is officially off the board, he said, he will be able to head the recall campaign.
"I don't think the school district can move forward with Nelson on the board," Chiang said.