Calling the Mountain View Whisman school board "dysfunctional" and badly in need of new members, board member Bill Lambert announced that he will not run for re-election this November.
Lambert joined the five-member board in 2012 along with Steve Nelson and former board member Chris Chiang. The arrival of the three newcomers marked a big change in leadership that Lambert said he believes has damaged the school district. Looking back on the last four years, Lambert told the Voice that the school board has been "remarkably dysfunctional" and spends too much time micromanaging staff and getting bogged down in the minutia of big decisions.
By stepping down at the end of the year, Lambert said he hopes to encourage as many people as possible particularly younger candidates, parents and non-incumbents to run for a seat and get the school district back on track.
"You need new people in there," he said. "It's healthy for the community."
Lambert, who has a doctorate degree in chemistry and works as a patent attorney, originally got involved with the school district out of frustration. He said he got tired of reading about how science education was taking a back seat in local schools because of cuts to state funding, and he began volunteering to teach advanced math and hands-on science experiments at Monta Loma Elementary School.
As he became more aware of what was going on in the Mountain View Whisman School District, Lambert said he began attending board meetings, deciding to run for the school board after sitting through meetings for two years straight. Lambert said he feels very strongly about science education, and plans to continue helping the district adopt a stronger science curriculum even after stepping down.
Lambert isn't alone in his scathing opinion of the school board's performance. A recent audit commissioned by the district found that school board members have shown a "consistent lack of leadership" on improving student performance, and have strained their relationship with district staff to the point where the district's top brass feel like they are constantly being accosted by combative board members during meetings.
Lambert has a reputation for staying out of the fray, reserving his comments and avoiding the arguments, rants and grandstanding that have become common at board meetings. The quiet demeanor, he said, is his conscious and best effort to keep the meetings from flying out of control.
"I go to board meetings now with the sole objective of not having it turn into a circus," he said. "I guard my comments, I do not engage, I say as little as possible."
Board meetings over the last year have been governed by a rigid time-limit system that grants board members only a few minutes to talk during each agenda item. A big, red shot clock installed in the board room often cuts off comments abruptly. Lambert called it a bad system that does a disservice to the district, but it's the best solution the board could muster.
"It has prevented our board from having open and honest discussions that the public deserves," Lambert said. "But I am willing to give that up, because the other alternative is that it turns into a joke and makes our district look foolish and irresponsible."
Much of the dysfunction has been attributed to Nelson, who has been censured for his hostile behavior toward district staff and his fellow trustees, was the subject of a short-lived recall effort last year. Chiang, who was the board president last year, resigned from the school board to protest what he called "devastating harm" caused by Nelson, prompting school community members to call on Nelson to resign.
Nelson announced earlier this year that he would not be running for re-election, leaving two of three seats open for new candidates this November.
Although Lambert has taken careful steps to avoid the controversies facing the board since 2012, he has avoided pointing the finger and blaming Nelson for the dysfunction in district leadership. The board acts as a whole, Lambert said, and everyone serving on the board needs to take responsibility for the problems.
Looking forward to the next election, Lambert said he thinks the district could benefit from new board members who represent regions throughout the city, particularly north of El Camino Real. Parents with children in the district would add an important perspective, he said, and it wouldn't hurt to have board members who are still young and working as well.
"I think what happens too often is people who run for public office run because they don't have anything else to do, and that can lead to too much micromanagement," he said. "If that's all you do in life, it's overwhelming and its hard to give that up."
Despite the troubles on the school board, Lambert said he is optimistic for the future. He said the school district finally has a comprehensive plan for constructing and financing new facilities at all of its school campuses, and the new superintendent, Ayinde Rudolph, has been a good leader and has done a lot to bring back a "positive attitude" into the school district.