This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.
Pleasant Hill resident Wendy Lack has been watching the Mt. Diablo school district for years in dismay, frustrated by what she believes is a serious lack of transparency.
"I'm of an opinion that we need to clean house," she said Thursday, during a phone interview regarding her recent allegation that the board may have violated the Brown Act in its handling of contract extensions for five top-level district administrators. "The executive staff have failed the organization. They've failed the kids of this district."
After she made her allegations during Monday's board meeting, she learned that some staff members may also believe the executive team is failing them.
"As I was standing out in the hallway chatting with people, I had individuals that identified themselves as employees of the district come up and shake my hand and thank me with tears in their eyes," she said. "It was an emotional outpouring that indicated, 'You have no idea how bad things here are. Working here is just like a genuine hell.'
"That human response told me volumes about the depths of the problems in the district. These are good, hardworking people. It was inferred that what they see is incompetence and dishonesty, and they were grateful that this citizen is going to help. That surprised me. That was a very powerful anecdote for me just to experience that. I'm still blown away by that staff reaction."
Lack said this response mirrored what she has experienced when she has requested public records from the district.
"I'm an organizational development kind of person, and I see a very dysfunctional, troubled organization," said Lack, who has worked as a city human resources manager. "All I know is honest people don't act the way these people do. Honest people don't play games with contracts. When honest people respond to records requests such as I made for MOUs (memorandums of understanding), people don't get jerked around. They don't get this off-putting response."
Lack said she told the board before a closed session meeting several months ago about her dissatisfaction after she requested to see MOUs with all of the district's unions. She was forced to pay $52 for a stack of expired contracts that she believes should be available for free on the district's website. Since the documents weren't online, she said the district should have provided her with electronic copies at no cost.
"I said with incredulity, 'There's no electronic document here? This was typed on a typewriter? I don't believe that,'" she recalled. "And they answered me with a blank stare." Lack said she has asked other agencies to post their MOUs online, and they have done so.
"This school district doesn't do that," she said. "Is it incompetence or is it deliberately obfuscating records or concealing records? They treat the public like crap. It's like there's no obligation at all to be responsive to you."
Lack said she has heard many parents air similar complaints. And after voters ousted former board President Sherry Whitmarsh in the November election, Lack said she decided it was time to challenge the district to change its ways.
"I hear enough pain and disappointment among parents throughout the district that it actually hurts," she said. "It's time to shape up. With the election results as they were, I wanted to send a very strong signal. I'd like to have them reform their practices regarding how they place items on the agenda and how they provide them to the public in advance. I want to make them aware they are functioning in a fish bowl as regards to transparency issues."
Lack said she doesn't know if her Brown Act allegations are true or not.
"I don't have the facts," she said. "That's the point. Do your business in the public, and you won't have this kind of uncomfortableness happening. It's not tough. But it's attitudinal. The superintendent sets the tone for good faith, fair dealing and open and honest communication with staff and the public, and I don't get a sense from him that he has a genuine commitment to openness."
Public officials, she said, should accept personal accountability.
"They should do their best," Lack said. "And I don't know that we're really getting our best out of this district."