Mountain View Whisman School District officials plan to take a long, hard look at their own performance, following the release of a $275,000 district audit that detailed a myriad of problems plaguing the district.
The initial findings, released in November, found a series of systemic problems that are holding back students throughout the district, particularly English-language learners and students with disabilities. The initial findings neglected to mention the performance of the elected school board.
The full report, now available on the district's website, reveals that the dysfunctional school board is also to blame for poor student achievement in the district, with a misguided focus that puts student learning on the back-burner. The board is set to discuss the report at its Jan. 7 meeting.
The report had nothing but good things to say about Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph, who proposed the audit by Cambridge Education, a company he's worked with previously. The report commends him for his frequent meetings with school community members, as well as bringing "positive energy to the district office and school communities."
This contrasts significantly with the audit's critique of the board, which found that trustees have acted as a barrier -- rather than a facilitator -- to raising the quality of academic programs in the district.
The report found that the district was plagued by "strained" relationships between individual board members and district staff, and that board meetings would often break down into contentious debates that rarely yield anything of value.
Parents, community members and district employees told the auditors that they were distressed by the behavior of the board members, calling it unprofessional and unproductive. Parents described board meetings as "an absolute circus where nothing gets done," and school staff have since shied away from attending board meetings. One teacher told auditors that she would like to bring students to a board meeting to learn about local governance, but decided it really didn't serve as a good example, considering the actions and behaviors of board members.
"When debates about any issue arise, they often descend into prolonged arguments that ultimately arrive at no consensus," the report states.
Throughout 2015, the board had been focused squarely on school construction and management of bond funds, which the report cited as an issue. Rather than address the district's systemic academic issues that are holding back students learning English and students with disabilities, the report states that the board has instead opted to pour most of its energy into construction planning and the possibility of a new school at Slater Elementary.
"The consistent lack of board leadership and focus on improving student achievement for all students is proving detrimental to the culture of the district and reinforces low expectations for learning."
In the months leading to the audit, the school board grappled with costly school designs for the shared Castro and Mistral Elementary campus, which at one point ballooned to over $50 million before a series of cut backs brought it down to $43 million. At some meetings, the board would labor over school designs for hours, with board members Steve Nelson and Greg Coladonato often disagreeing with staff recommendations in favor of a leaner project.
And despite the narrow focus, the district is on anything but an expedited building schedule. The report notes that delays on the part of the board have caused construction costs to go well over budget. District staff estimates that $220,000 in "opportunity costs" were lost for every week that the district failed to invest the remaining Measure G bond money.
Less obvious to the public are the problems between board members and district staff that occur behind the scenes. District personnel often find themselves stuck mediating between board members and the community, and spend a great deal of time responding to "arbitrary requests" by board members, according to the report.
In 2014, former Superintendent Craig Goldman told the Voice that Nelson would frequently make large requests for information that would take significant staff time to put together.
While the school board has been locked up in lengthy debates, the report notes that several pressing issues have gone unaddressed. Pointing to the state test results from last year, the report found that underlying problems within the district office have caused English-language learners and students with disabilities to perform well below their peers.
The English-language learner program in the district, for example, is described as "ineffective, inconsistent and, in many ways, counterproductive," with a "clear gap between the district's intention of what should happen through the English-language learner program and what is actually happening in schools."
The report also pointed to the massive differences in test scores from one school to another as a sign that the district's quality of education fluctuates from one campus to another. Huff Elementary had 88 percent of its students pass the state standards for English-language arts last year, with Stevenson Elementary not far behind at 86 percent. By contrast, only 28 percent of students at Theuerkauf Elementary were able to meet the standards, and a dismal 19 percent met standards at Castro Elementary.
Demographics are heavily skewed in some of Mountain View's schools, with mostly low-income and minority students at Castro and Theuerkauf, but the report does not mention this as a excuse for the poor test scores. Instead, the report urges the district to "create a plan to raise the level of achievement in all schools so there is not such a wide range in the levels of success on state assessments from school to school."
The board was originally scheduled to discuss the results of the audit at the December board meeting, but the auditing company was slow to get the report to district staff. The district revealed last month that a donation from Google paid for the audit's $275,000 tab.