A power struggle between Mt. Diablo school board President Gary Eberhart and Trustee Cheryl Hansen appears to be unfolding as tensions related to the Clayton Valley High School charter proposal continue to rise.
Hansen said earlier this week that she believed Eberhart had tried to block her from attending an Oct. 18 meeting between the charter committee and district staff. Eberhart said he felt it would be inappropriate for any trustee to attend the meeting without a board discussion about it, since the meeting involved legal negotiations.
Superintendent Steven Lawrence said in an e-mail that he relayed this message to all trustees.
“I left a voice mail for all board members requesting that they allow staff to continue without observers the collaborative and productive work in meetings with the charter organizers,” Lawrence wrote. “As is the case with all forms of negotiations, staff feels meetings are more productive and efficient when they work without observation and then report back to the board and me. Before the Oct. 18 meeting, I asked Ms. Hansen if she would have a conversation with me rather than observing staff’s meeting with the charter organizers. She agreed. Our conversation was positive and enlightening.”
Hansen, however, disputed Lawrence’s description. She replayed Lawrence’s voice-mail message for me, stressing that the superintendent said he was acting on direction from the board president. Here’s what the voice mail said:
“….I’m just following up (on) Gary’s e-mail last night. He sent me a follow-up as board president requesting that if a board member does show up for the staff meeting with the Clayton Valley Charter this afternoon that the meeting be postponed to another date after the board meeting next week so that the board as a whole can meet and determine whether or not a board member needs to be appointed to these meetings. He’s just concerned that if two or three board members showed up that, you know, which one, you know, could be there and which one can’t and so forth because it’s a staff meeting. So I just wanted to let you know that’s the direction that I’ve been given from the board president and, if you have any questions, please feel free to give me a call.”
Hansen told me Eberhart does not have the authority to give such direction to the superintendent and that Lawrence should not act on Eberhart’s direction.
“Unfortunately, the superintendent and the board president do not want an open sharing of information around the charter school petition,” Hansen said in an e-mail. “The superintendent’s voice mail that he left me just before the Oct. 18 meeting taking place conveys the following:
1. In his determination to hinder the progress of the charter school issue and keep it out of the public eye, the board president is willing to far exceed his very limited authority as defined in Board Bylaw 9121. To this end, he is even willing to go so far as to obstruct another board member from attending a meeting as an observer or block her agenda item from being placed on the agenda without any authority. The superintendent’s voice mail acknowledges that the board president clearly knew he did not have this authority when he stated, ‘…the board as a whole’ would have to meet to determine if the board wanted to establish a policy, thus acknowledging that there is no policy.
2. To prevent the flow of information, the superintendent took unauthorized direction from one board member rather than meet his duty to represent the board as a whole. He opted to conspire with the board president to prevent another board member from attending a district meeting in which the charter school conditions were the topic. As the CSBA Superintendent Governance Standards state, the superintendent must understand ‘…that authority rests with the board as a whole’ and provide “…leadership based on the direction of the board as a whole.’ Apparently, this standard is not to be followed when the superintendent disagrees with a board member around an issue such as the charter school.
Sadly, these efforts on the part of the board president and the superintendent show the degree to which they will go to prohibit open discussion on the charter school petition. In an attempt to block the charter school from progressing, they have now determined that obstructing a board member who has tried to bring the decision to an earlier closure is their best weapon. Now they are in damage control mode and seem to think that the way out is through misinformation.
This type of obstruction has become a destructive pattern. At every board meeting, the public has observed the board president’s ongoing attempts to interrupt and silence a board member who has disagreed with his viewpoint and political agenda. The public has expressed concerns that they have experienced the same obstructions and frustrations in their attempts to place items on the agenda or to access public information. As I have repeatedly stated, the board and district, as public entities, are accountable to the public, must conduct their business in public, must not misinform or withhold public information, and must ensure that all opinions, whether in agreement or disagreement, be heard. I believe it is only through open discussion and actions, through civil discourse, that we build public trust and fulfill our ethical responsibility to serve the public.
I believe it is critical that these concerns be brought forward to the public to protect the right to have access to public information and discussion.”
When I asked Eberhart and Lawrence about these allegations, they disagreed with Hansen.
“I was provided direction by the board president,” Lawrence wrote in an e-mail, “but his direction was based on staff’s input that like all other forms of negotiations the staff engages in, it would be distracting and therefore, less efficient if a board member were present.”
Eberhart’s recollection was similar.
“The direction that we came up together — staff and myself — was in consultation,” he told me today. “It was really staff’s direction, but it was in consultation with me.”
Hansen forwarded me an e-mail exchange with Deb Cooksey, the district’s attorney who met with the charter committee, which did not express concerns about Hansen’s plans to attend the meeting.
Here’s a portion of the exchange:
“FROM: Cheryl Hansen
TO: Deborah Cooksey
SENT: Oct. 17
SUBJECT: Meeting with charter organizers
Deb, I’m planning on attending this meeting just to observe and listen. Where will it be held?
FROM: Deborah Cooksey
TO: Cheryl Hansen
SENT: Oct. 17
SUBJECT: Meeting with charter organizers
Room 6 from 4-6. See you there.”
I was unable to reach Cooksey to find out whether or not she was uncomfortable with the idea of Hansen attending the meeting.
Eberhart said he did not overstep his role as board president.
“At the end of the day, nobody got refused admittance to a meeting,” he said. “The way this whole thing was structured was that if the board member — whomever that might be — insisted on attending the meeting, the meeting would be rescheduled so we could discuss it as a board. Board members do a have a right to be in any meeting they want to be in, providing that the board gives that direction. So by waiting, it would preserve the board member’s right to attend the meeting and it preserved staff’s right to meet and be unfettered by the attendance of board members. So, it switched the decision from being made by a single board member, to a decision that would be made by the board as a whole, which is where that decision belongs.”
Eberhart said the board had previously discussed trustees “inserting themselves in the middle of what staff was trying to do relative to these negotiations meetings and it was decided a while back that we were not going to.”
In the 16 years that he’s been on the board, Eberhart said he has never before encountered such issues with board members.
“Typically, common sense, professional courtesy and collegiality — that’s what should govern what we do as a board,” he said. “We do have bylaws that discuss roles and authorities and so forth and apparently there is going to be a need to make that much thicker.”
Hansen said she didn’t consider the charter and staff meetings to be “negotiations.” But Eberhart disagreed.
“Our staff is in these meetings to negotiate with the charter school staff to try to find compromise that achieves the conditions we were looking for,” he said. “These are legal negotiations. When the board finally approves this charter, that agreement that we are approving is legally binding.”
Do you think Hansen’s concerns are justified?
OCT. 31 UPDATE: I just received a phone call from Deb Cooksey in response to a message I left her last week, asking whether district staff was uncomfortable with the idea of a board member attending the meeting between the charter committee and district staff.
She said she did send an email saying, “See you there,” to Trustee Cheryl Hansen, because she assumed she would see her there and she was in no position to tell her otherwise.
However, Cooksey said there were people on the review team who preferred that trustees and Superintendent Steven Lawrence not attend the meetings because they wouldn’t feel as free in their discussions and might feel as though someone was looking over their shoulders.
“It made several people uncomfortable,” she said.
But, she added that she has a wonderful relationship with Hansen and that the concerns had nothing to do with Hansen personally.
“I also asked the superintendent if he would refrain from coming, because he wanted to come to the first meeting,” Cooksey said. “I said, ‘Please trust us.’”