It wasn't picking who will lead the Mountain View Whisman school board for the coming year that caused controversy, but rather deciding who will be second in command.
The school board at a meeting last month unanimously selected Laura Ramirez Berman as its president, but trustees were at odds over the No. 2 position, revealing internal tensions on the board and disagreements over how leadership should be selected.
The board ultimately voted 3-2 to elect Devon Conley as vice president, with Bill Lambert and Chris Chiang dissenting. Lambert had nominated Chiang for the position.
The decision took place at the board's annual organizational meeting, held on Saturday, Dec. 10. A video recording of the meeting was supposed to be made, but power outages meant that didn't happen, district officials said. The information about the meeting in this article is based on interviews with board members and district leaders.
Mountain View Whisman's five-member board sometimes, but not always, rotates who holds its three officer positions: president, vice president and clerk. Ramirez Berman has been vice president for the past year and ascended to the presidency on Dec. 10.
"I'm looking forward to this year serving as board president and I'm so grateful to the community and my fellow board members for their vote of confidence," Ramirez Berman said.
The president is in charge of leading meetings, as well as working with the superintendent to create agendas for meetings, which gives them influence over determining the topics the board considers. The president also often acts as a spokesperson for the board.
Because Ellen Wheeler – who had been clerk – decided not to run for reelection this November, there wasn't someone immediately in line for the vice president position.
Outgoing president Laura Blakely nominated Conley to be vice president, which Ramirez Berman seconded, according to a draft of the meeting minutes. Conley previously served as president in 2021 and vice president the year before that.
In interviews, trustees said that Lambert nominated Chiang to be vice president at the Dec. 10 meeting, a decision that stemmed from Lambert's belief that the board should rotate who holds leadership positions. Chiang has not served in any leadership positions since the start of his current term in December 2020. He previously served on the board from 2012 to 2015, which included a stint as president in 2015.
If the board is not going to give a trustee the opportunity to be president, Lambert said in an interview, he believes the public deserves a well-articulated reason why. Lambert said that Chiang deserves to be president and that by making him vice president, he would have been in line for the position next year.
Chiang has similarly said that he believes the board should rotate leadership positions, so that deciding who serves in board leadership isn't a political calculation.
Blakely, Conley and Ramirez Berman, on the other hand, said the board has not always rotated its leaders over the years, and has relied on trustees to express their interest in a leadership post.
In an interview, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph pointed to times during his tenure when the board didn't follow a pattern in picking its leaders, including selecting Jose Gutierrez as president in December 2016 after he had been on the board for just over a year, and having Tamara Wilson serve as president for two consecutive years in 2019 and 2020.
"What the board has done, at least from a historical standpoint, is they've chosen the person for the time, versus followed the succession model," Rudolph said.
Hired in 2015, Rudolph has led the school district as it navigated multiple difficult periods, including board dysfunction early in his tenure surrounding former trustee Steve Nelson's conduct and more recently, navigating the coronavirus pandemic.
Chiang resigned from the board in 2015, saying that he could no longer serve with Nelson. Five years later, Chiang ran successfully in 2020 for a new term on the board.
The challenges the district faced have at times led the board to break with the rotation model. Nelson was passed over for the presidency while he was on the board from 2012-2016. Despite seeking the position, Greg Coladonato was also never president during his time on the board from 2014-2018.
Chiang pointed to the decision to skip Coladonato as president as an example of what he believes the board should avoid by rotating.
Elected bodies grapple with how to pick leadership
The Mountain View Whisman board isn't the only local elected body to recently grapple with how to pick its leaders.
The Palo Alto City Council discussed a proposal to change how it picks its mayor and vice mayor at a Dec. 19 meeting. Currently, Palo Alto's vice mayor typically becomes mayor each year, but selecting the vice mayor is generally a political calculation. The proposal, which is still under consideration, would switch the council to a rotation based on seniority.
Over in San Mateo, things got heated last month when two newly elected council members refused to support Amourence Lee for mayor, breaking from a well-established tradition of picking who fills the position based on seniority. The move drew substantial opposition and Lee was ultimately elected mayor on Dec. 12.
Chiang said that he knows people may wonder if Mountain View Whisman's decision to pick Conley over him is similar to what happened in San Mateo, but said that he believes the distinction is that in the case of Mountain View Whisman, board members have a difference of opinion over what system to use to pick leaders.
"I don't think there's any desire to do harm through that," Chiang said.
Lambert, on the other hand, pointed to San Mateo as an example of what can go wrong when elected boards don't rotate their leaders. He argued that the public has put trust in all the elected board members to represent them and therefore the board should rotate its leaders.
The Mountain View City Council follows this type of rotation, picking its leaders based on seniority and using who received the most votes to differentiate between council members elected in the same year.
Trustees question whether Chiang wants the position
In the case of the Mountain View Whisman vice presidential vote, a more basic question emerged in interviews with the Voice: did Chiang want the job in the first place?
Blakely, Conley, Ramirez Berman and Superintendent Rudolph all questioned whether Chiang was interested in serving in board leadership, noting that he hasn't affirmatively said he wants the top post.
Ramirez Berman and Rudolph both claimed Chiang had publicly said that he didn't want to be president during a December 2020 board meeting. However, footage of that meeting doesn't show Chiang making any such statement. Instead he advocates for a predictable process, where leadership roles rotate.
When the Voice followed up with Ramirez Berman and Rudolph, they said that they would look for video of a meeting where Chiang publicly said he didn't want the presidency, but never provided it to the Voice. Rudolph suggested that Chiang might have said it during a board retreat that wasn't recorded.
Chiang denied ever stating that he didn't want the presidency since returning to the board in 2020.
"In the past what I've said is that I don't personally believe people should be aspiring to be president. I find it distasteful, so I don't seek the position," he said.
Chiang added that it's possible his board colleagues interpreted his not seeking the position as not wanting it, but he said that his interest is in having a rotation model that doesn't take into account personal preferences and obviates the need for trustees to seek leadership spots.
He also said that he is qualified to be president, having previously served in the position in 2015. He left the role when he resigned from the board.
Blakely noted in an email that Chiang has previously proposed that other trustees serve in officer positions. At a November board meeting, Chiang suggested that Lambert would make a good vice president. Conley then said that she was interested in the vice president position and proposed having Lambert be the clerk.
The discussion came during a portion of the Nov. 17 meeting set aside to talk about succession and officer positions. According to Rudolph, that discussion is placed annually on the agenda of the meeting before the formal organizational meeting to give trustees a chance to express interest in leadership roles.
Because newly elected board members aren't sworn in until December, Lambert didn't take part in the November meeting. However, a few weeks later, Lambert sent a letter to board members noting that he had watched the video and urging them to adopt a rotation model.
"Each MVWSD trustee is elected. If the majority of the board is to then treat individual trustees differently, then there needs to be good reasons, and those reasons need to be clearly expressed to the public," Lambert wrote, according to a copy of the email that he shared with the Voice.
Ramirez Berman maintained in an interview that if Chiang wants to serve as president, he should express that directly.
"I believe that if Trustee Chiang is interested in these roles, he needs to make that statement," Ramirez Berman said.
Chiang questions his treatment on the board
The Dec. 10 board meeting, where Conley was selected over Chiang for vice president, also brought up deeper issues of how board members interact with each other.
Lambert told the Voice that Chiang gave a "very emotional and very impassioned" statement about how he felt that he wasn't being treated as an equal on the board.
When asked, Chiang confirmed that he raised the question at the meeting of whether he is treated differently than other board members. He also said that he spoke about his experiences as a person of color and brought up how his treatment on the board can feel like he is encountering microaggressions.
At the same time, Chiang stressed to the Voice that he doesn't believe the other board members intend any harm or discrimination, and noted that microaggressions are about the impact of someone's actions, rather than the intent. He also said that he respects and enjoys working with his fellow trustees.
"I'm noticing things, but I don't want to put labels on why this is happening," Chiang said.
Conley told the Voice that she believes everyone cares about making sure all board members feel heard, included and welcome.
"As a member of a multi-racial family – my husband and son and this baby that I'm carrying are of Asian descent – I care a great deal about hearing that he felt that way," Conley said.
Ramirez Berman told the Voice that she thinks it's important for Chiang to "share his truth," as well as to build relationships with other board members and said that the trustees try to support one another.
According to Chiang, other board members have expressed that they feel their work style and priorities differ from his. He said that he is the most frequent dissenting vote on the board.
While many of the board's decisions are unanimous, Chiang has cast the lone dissenting vote on certain issues, such as the 2021 decision to hire a consultant to redesign Monta Loma Elementary School's outdoor space.
According to Lambert, both Conley and Blakely said at the meeting that they didn't feel Chiang was ready to be president.
Blakely told the Voice that she didn't recall making that statement, noting that Chiang had already been president in his prior term on the board. At the same time, she said that the board's practice has been to pick officers "whom we believe are the best leaders at the time to help keep the board and district on track" and added that Chiang hadn't expressed interest in an officer role.
Conley also denied directly saying that Chiang wasn't ready to be president.
"I did not say he was not qualified to be president, no, I did not outright say that," Conley said, adding that if Chiang wants to be president "he has plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that that's the position that he wants and build trust with the board around representing the board in that role."
Picking Conley to be vice president
When it came to why she voted for Conley to be vice president, Ramirez Berman said that the two share similar priorities, including a focus on social-emotional learning, mental health and working on the district's strategic plan.
For her part, Conley said that she is excited to serve as vice president under Ramirez Berman. Conley added that when she was president in 2021, the district was in the midst of grappling with the pandemic, which took up much of the board's focus.
Whether Conley will ascend to the presidency next year is still to be seen. Conley said that since the board doesn't automatically rotate, she has no expectation of being selected, but that she would be honored to fill it. Ramirez Berman spoke positively about the potential for Conley to succeed her as president.
Chiang said that because he believes in a rotation system, even though he didn't vote for Conley to be vice president this year, he'll back her for the presidency next year.
"I'm going to support the process, so when Trustee Conley is the vice president, I will vote for her to be president, there's no question," Chiang said.
Lambert, on the other hand, said that because the board passed over Chiang this year for the vice presidency in favor of Conley, he doesn't think that she should be assumed to be president next. Instead, he said that he plans to say next year that it is Chiang's turn to be president.
"I will be more emphatic, because it's absolutely wrong," Lambert said. "It's just completely undemocratic. We're not following the will of the public, the voters."
on Jan 7, 2023 at 3:51 pm
on Jan 7, 2023 at 3:51 pm
It seems that in many of these (and past) leadership choice issues it is Trustee Blakely that is taking the lead / nominate first even if it will not follow any decipherable 'rotation'. I don't know if this is orchestrated by the Superintendent - who makes it clear to her (and Conley) who he wants to work with as Bd. President. That would make sense for the Coladonato exclusion-from-succession also. Who knows?
He said she said? Why is the Board not recording their now non-public meetings? Why is this ALWAYS the case recently for Board Organization meetings? Is staff in charge of them? Or is Board in charge of their meeting protocol? Why is this government agency not recording their meetings?
Blakely - micro aggression - 'look at yourself' on public recordings. You do really really NOT need to chide Chiang for not remembering things exactly as you remember them! You have lapses in both memory and good sense - as everyone does! [Portion removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2023 at 11:22 am
on Jan 9, 2023 at 11:22 am
Like Trustee Conley, I am also someone in an interracial relationship with a multiracial child. That relationship does not erase my white privilege nor exonerate me from confronting my own biases and listening carefully when a person of color speaks to their experience, especially if their experience is negative in a space I share with them. The members of this board who are white need to avoid being defensive and instead do the work. I suggest starting with Layla Saad's "Me and White Supremacy."
Political bodies work well when there are different ideas present. If those ideas are shared in the appropriate manner, there is no reason to silence them. How is the board working to hear all sides to issues? It sounds, instead, like there is a voting bloc that ices out other views. As long as poor students of color continue to struggle in our community, no one on this board should be patting themselves on the back.
on Jan 12, 2023 at 8:41 pm
on Jan 12, 2023 at 8:41 pm