The mood was somber when the Sonoma Valley School Board convened on Tuesday afternoon for a master plan information session, with the hundred plus gathered having just heard news of Superintendent Louann Carlomagno’s resignation.
Those who stuck around for the seven-plus hours of meetings that followed would likely agree that it appears to be a particularly challenging time for the district to be without strong leadership in place. The district faces difficult budget decisions, as well as what has turned out to be a contentious process in rolling out its school “master plans.”
Further roiling the waters was the filing last month of a hostile-workplace complaint against school board member John Kelly by retiring director of curriculum and instruction Karla Conroy. The school board on Tuesday voted unanimously – with Kelly recusing himself – to hire an external legal consultant to investigate the complaint against Kelly.
Carlomagno, who would have been the point person for much of the decision making that lies ahead this summer, is packing up her office to leave at the end of the month. (See related story on A1.)
Without a superintendent, these tough decisions will fall heavily on the shoulders of what some have recently described as a “dysfunctional” school board.
The board will have no time to enjoy the start of summer as a series of unplanned, emergency sessions are set for this week and next.
On Thursday, the board met in a closed session to accept Carlomagno’s resignation and to discuss next steps. Board President Dan Gustafson expects the board to lean toward finding an interim superintendent.
“It would be a tough time to do a full-scale search right now for a permanent hire,” he said.
On Saturday, the board will meet in an open session at 9.a.m. to discuss the search process timeline.
There have been more than a typical number of senior staff changes across the district this summer.
Beyond seeking an interim superintendent, the board expects to begin looking at resumes this week to fill the newly created position of associate superintendent of finance. The staffer in this new position could take the lead in what most expect will be a difficult budget process, with the district needing to make significant budget cuts over the course of the next 12 months.
Smaller openings across the District abound, but notably include the director of Sonoma Charter School, in light of Kevin Kassebaum’s resignation the same day as Carlomagno. And some spots have just recently been filled: Dunbar and Sassarini elementary schools are welcoming new principals this summer, and Sonoma Valley High School will welcome two new vice principals.
The District’s $49 million budget for the 2017-2018 must be approved in June. Budget talks will continue, however, as the board is slated to adopt a broadscale budget reduction plan that includes more than $2 million additional cuts.
“We’ve had to make bigger cuts than this over the past decade,” said Carlomagno. “But because we want to be fiscally conservative, a number of hard decisions will need to be made.”
Board Trustee Kelly voiced concern over the budget at the June 6 meeting.
“We are deficit spending and it is dangerous,” he said. “We’re not in a recession so it is really worrisome to me that we are spending down our reserves.”
“It’s serious,” said Gustafson about the cuts. “But it’s nothing new.”
Multi-million dollar construction decisions need to be made this month as well.
Most controversial is the dedicating of close to 10 percent of the $120 million bond proceeds to new athletic facilties on the grounds of SVHS.
Before its regularly scheduled board meeting on June 6, the trustees heard presentations on 11 school campus Master Plans, but most of the 100 plus community members who lined up speak were there to voice their opinions on the proposed athletic complex at Sonoma Valley High.
On June 20, the board will vote on which campus projects are priorities, which will proceed – and when.
“We’ve had many, many public meetings on the topic of priorities,” said Gustafson. “Now we need to attach costs to them and move forward.”
The June 6 meeting went from somber to awkward midway through when Trustee Kelly left the room while the remaining four board members discussed hiring an external investigator to look into the hostile-workplace complaint against him.
“When we realized that legally we had to investigate, either by appointing someone internally or hiring someone, we agreed that having an objective expert trained in workplace legal issues was important,” said Gustafson after the meeting. “It takes away the possibility that there will be claims of bias.”
Kelly declined to comment for this story.
Partly at issue is Kelly’s tone and style when directing questions at district staff, according to Gustafson. Right on the heels of returning to the meeting room on June 6, Kelly began repeatedly questioning Chief Business Officer John Bartolome in an episode that went on for about 15 minutes until Gustafson admonished Kelly for “ambushing” the staffer and breaking the board norm of “no gotchas.”
“The purpose of board meetings is to publicly present information,” Gustafson told the Index-Tribune after the meeting. “We typically get our questions answered by staff before meetings.”
Gustafson says there seems to be confusion about the board’s role.
“We are there to set strategic direction for the superintendent, to develop metrics by which to measure progress, and then to get out of the way,” said Gustafson.
Gustafson further elaborated in an email to the Index-Tribune: “For months now the spirit of a collaborative, problem-solving board that assumes best intentions has been supplanted at our meetings by a confrontational, accusative tone and the presentation of ‘surprise’ information that creates confusion and innuendo. On a daily basis, the district office has been subjected to an unprecedented level of attempts to micromanage, often by demand rather than request.”
Emotions across the district seemed to be running high on the dias and in the audience. Andrea Deely, president of the local California State Employees Association chapter, came to the podium at the meeting on Tuesday night visibility upset.
“I am saddened and disappointed at the news of Louann (Carlomagno’s) resignation and might I say disgusted at the reason why,” she said, in reference to a statement Carlomagno issued citing her frustrations with the board as her primary reason for taking another job. “I find it hard to understand how in five short months [since the election] we have come to this point.”
Deely said the job of the school board member is to do what’s best for the students.
“All agendas, vendettas, prejudices and personal issues need to be left at the door when you sit in those seats,” Deely said. “Your purpose is to advise the district on how to do the best job, not to get your name in the paper, make a name for yourself or make other people on this team look small or foolish. I hope that everyone of you sitting in those seats can find a way to work harmoniously with each other and the new superintendent because this mess has already cost this district too much – and that is Louann.”
Determined to finish before midnight, the trustees kept their board reports brief at end of the June 6 meeting. Trustee Britta Johnson said she was shocked by Carlomagno’s resignation.
“There’s now a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “The people in the community need to rally and stay focused on the kids. We need to work together going forward. Collaboration is going to be key.”
Email Lorna at firstname.lastname@example.org.