DAILY PILOT EDITORIAL ABOUT THE BOARD
It's time for the school board to take a new tack
Two surprising pieces of news came out of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board of trustees last week.
The first was trustee Linda Sneen's announcement that she will not seek a second term on the board, defying the usual trend of board members getting elected and then staying on the board for years and years -- unless they are a conservative Christian or run afoul of the law.
The second was that any surprising news would come from this school board, which seemingly does so little in the way of major policy programs that it is difficult to think of any recent accomplishments other than the passage of two bond measures. And opponents probably could argue convincingly that those bonds represent the board's failure to plan adequately for the district's growth and needs.
Besides the bonds, can anyone name a significant policy change or plan this board has produced? Proposed changes to attendance boundaries? Expanding some science programs? How about avoiding the tense debate over the expansion of St. Andrew's Church last year?
When the board does seem to make significant changes or decisions, often it seems to be in reaction to events -- notably charges of discrimination at TeWinkle Elementary School and the ongoing debate about the use of sports fields in the community.
The district's 2005 through 2010 strategic plan, approved in late 2004, arguably is the board's biggest accomplishment of the past few years. Can anyone recall one specific item from it?
How about this question: How many people can name all the school board members? How many know how many members there are? (The answer: seven.)
More seriously, school performances on state testing -- the current gold standard by which districts and schools are judged -- is hit-and-miss, with most of the misses coming in Costa Mesa, especially on the Westside. Twelve of the district's 32 campuses did not meet the mandated performance progress last year. In as rich an area as Newport-Mesa -- even accounting for the disparate economic climates that exist just miles apart -- and where parents are so involved in their children's education, such poor performance borders on the criminal.
What all this adds up to is a sad fact: This board has accomplished little of lasting significance. The school district is not a dramatically better place than when the board members were first elected. Judging by test scores, many of the district's worst schools are even worse.
And yet, judging by the past few elections, no one in the community is all that upset about the district's own lack of performance. In 2004, there were no challengers. In 2002, trustee Tom Egan narrowly defeated then-incumbent Wendy Leece, who was the only board member who ever stirred the pot. (At the time, we wrote, "Make no mistake, we disagree often with Leece and her views. We disagree with her stand on creationism being taught in public schools. We disagree with her move to ban high school reading that she finds uncomfortable. The list goes on. But what Leece does bring to the table is courage in her convictions and a voice for those who don't otherwise have one in the local schools debate." Leece is now one of two weekly Forum page columnists addressing parent and school issues for the Pilot.) Trustees Judy Franco and Serene Stokes both washed over their opponents.
We have, over the years, called for new people to join the board, for new ideas to become part of the board's debate. That has not happened. Instead, the board members have preached a doctrine of "team" that, rather than creating a group that works effectively for the good of this community, has spawned a body that never seriously questions itself or the staff members who bring issues and proposals before it. There is too much rubber-stamping, too little real questioning.
And now, it appears, there is little chance of any change happening any time soon.
"Because we're going to have a new superintendent, we need to have as much stability on the board as we can," Stokes, a trustee for 11 years now, told the Pilot, making reference to Supt. Robert Barbot's retirement that comes at the end of this school year and suggesting that she would be running for another term. "I think it would be very difficult to have a new superintendent and three or four new board members."
Sadly, such thinking will ensure that the opportunity to bring in new ideas that naturally comes with hiring a new superintendent will be lost. Can Newport-Mesa truly afford to miss this chance?
We don't think so. And so it is time once again to call on members of the community who aren't happy with how the district is being managed to run for the school board. At the very least, serious opposition to the incumbents will force much-needed debate about the job the trustees are doing. It also will give the incumbents an opportunity to tell us about the things they have accomplished during their tenure. If there are policies and plans we've forgotten about, if there are trends in test scores we're discounting, we'd be more than happy to be reminded of them.