Emotions ran high at the Mountain View Whisman School District board meeting Thursday night, after a discussion about a board member holding impromptu meetings on teacher housing turned into a heated argument between trustee Steve Nelson and the superintendent.
The board was scheduled to discuss its bylaws at the Sept. 1 meeting, but it quickly became clear that the agenda item was about Nelson's actions over the last month. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph revealed at the meeting that Nelson had, on his own, set up three community meetings and a survey with residents living near Cooper Park, designed to gauge whether the community would accept a below-market rate housing project in the neighborhood.
Earlier this year, the district began exploring options for a teacher housing project that could improve faculty retention. Because land acquisition comes with a big price tag in the Bay Area, district officials said they would start by looking at district-owned land for a housing project. The district owns "excess" land at the former Whisman and Slater Elementary sites, Sylvan Park and just under 10 acres at Cooper Park.
No official plan has been announced by the school district, and the board hasn't given direction on where to consider teacher housing, but that didn't stop Nelson from starting his own community outreach to see if residents around Cooper Park would be happy with an affordable housing project.
That didn't sit too well with board president Ellen Wheeler or with Rudolph. After the trustees received a letter from a Waverly Park resident voicing "extreme opposition" to plans for a below-market rate housing development, Wheeler requested that Nelson cease what she called "personal canvassing."
Rudolph announced at the Sept. 1 meeting that postcards would be sent out to residents in the area clarifying that there has been no board direction on what to do with land at Cooper Park.
Rudolph argued it was misleading and inappropriate for Nelson to host multiple community meetings on teacher housing using his title as a Mountain View Whisman School District trustee, and that district staff had to deal with inquiries from confused residents about a project that isn't even in the works. It is fine for board members to host "coffees" and other general outreach events, he said, but setting up surveys and organizing meetings on specific issues facing the district like land use decisions and labor negotiations crosses the line.
"Talking is fine, however, when it's going to impact a potential issue that is going to be brought to the board, that's when I think you're starting to cross the line."
Nelson fired back at the meeting, saying Wheeler's "edict" to cease his outreach activities constrains his right to free speech and prevents him from reaching his constituents. Following the meeting, Nelson told the Voice in an email that it would be irresponsible for the district to impose rules whereby every topic-specific meeting with the public had to be sanctioned by the superintendent.
"To expect pre-approval by a mayor, city manager, board president or superintendent is ludicrous, stupid, dumb and entirely inappropriate," he said.
Nelson argued that Rudolph also broke his own rule on representing the district on personal business. Rudolph included his title as superintendent when he signed the argument in favor of Measure V, a Mountain View ballot measure that would restrict annual rent increases to between 2 and 5 percent.
"If you want to write that you are supporting a ballot member, and you put as a designation MVWSD superintendent, that gives the impression that our school district, that you represent, is endorsing a particular measure that is on our ballot," Nelson said.
The argument led to a tense situation whereby both Nelson and Rudolph spoke over each other several times, forcing Wheeler to call a break.
Board member Jose Gutierrez agreed with Rudolph's stance, and said the board could easily work through the superintendent to send out surveys, set up outreach meetings and get a better understanding of where district residents stand on any topic they please. Board member Bill Lambert said it's hard to separate a board's members role as a trustee and as a private citizen, and that all the board members need to be mindful of how they act in the community, no matter in what capacity they claim to be acting.
"The rest of the community looks to you as a public official," Lambert said. "You need to take that responsibility very seriously, and understand when you are out there, you are acting on behalf of the school district."
The reason for the arguably premature outreach was because of past mistakes by the district, Nelson said. Back in 2000, the district had done extensive planning to have the Morgan Center, an autistic children's program in Los Altos, move to Cooper Park without first informing the public of the plans. Hundreds of residents showed up and claimed that the Morgan Center would not be a good fit for the residential area surrounding the park.
Nelson said he set out to avoid repeating the same mistake as the district considers its options for teacher housing. Through his own personal survey and meetings, he said, it appears there's very little interest in a housing development on Cooper Park, with one resident suggesting that the Cuesta Park Annex might even be preferable to sacrificing open space at Cooper Park.