Deep into Monday night's Mt. Diablo school board meeting, after the consent items, public comment and student representatives' report, President Cheryl Hansen told her fellow trustees they had arrived at a topic she felt strongly about.
Agenda item 14.3 (Consideration of two cure and correct demands) called for a response to residents' claims that the board had violated the Brown Act in approving contract extensions for Superintendent Steven Lawrence and four senior staff members without public review. In Hansen's mind, it touched on the broader subject of openness.
"I find this a defining moment for our new board," she said. "The public, with the election in November, decided it wants our board to operate with more transparency and accountability."
In case you forgot, the contracts approved in April by a 4-to-1 vote -- Hansen voted "no" -- were introduced abruptly and subjected to little debate. The public was given no opportunity to see them, much less react to them. Openly airing and discussing them now would answer that concern.
When former president Sherry Whitmarsh, who pushed for the extensions, lost her re-election bid and colleague Gary Eberhart retired, that left only Lynne Dennler and Linda Mayo among those who okayed the deal. Now joined by new board members Barbara Oaks and Brian Lawrence, Hansen hoped they'd see the advantages of transparency.
But apparently it's hard to see anything when you're wearing blinders. Mayo and Dennler seem to think any corrective action would be an admission of wrongdoing, which it would not.
Mayo insists the board acted appropriately. Her heels are dug in. Dennler contends that reopening contracts would be unfair to the affected employees. Fairness to taxpayers, who have a right to see how tax dollars are spent, apparently is of less concern.
Hansen, Mayo and Dennler kicked this can back and forth for more than an hour, carefully rephrasing their positions and resolving nothing. Oaks and Lawrence looked like spectators at a tennis match, their heads jerking back and forth as colleagues hit backhands.
At one point, Mayo made a motion that the cure and correct demands be denied, complainants sent a letter of thanks and board members allowed to move on to bigger things. Denial seemed to be her solution.
Later, she and Dennler concurred that the board should table the matter and review it with an outside attorney in closed session. The irony of addressing transparency issues behind closed doors must have escaped them. It also escaped Oaks and Lawrence, who voted with them.
The bottom line is the public has the right to see and discuss these contracts -- how they're written and why they're being awarded. The public has the right to interact with the board and voice opinions. The Brown Act is intended to guarantee above-board decision-making.
"I'm disappointed they made this into a mountain," Hansen said of her colleagues. "It should have been a tiny, put-it-on-the-agenda thing, and then we've corrected it. I thought this was a moment when we could say, 'We can do things better.'"
For now, she'll wait to see how things play out. Her hopes for school board enlightenment have been dashed, but maybe it was meant to be.
Enlightenment is hard to see when those darned blinders keep getting in the way.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org