s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 3 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to SonomaNews.com, the Sonoma Index-Tribune eEdition and our mobile app for just $5.25 per month!
Already a subscriber?
You've read 6 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to SonomaNews.com, the Sonoma Index-Tribune eEdition and our mobile app for just $5.25 per month!
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Continue reading with unlimited access to SonomaNews.com, the Sonoma Index-Tribune eEdition and our mobile app for just $5.25 per month!
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to SonomaNews.com, the Sonoma Index-Tribune eEdition and our mobile app for just $5.25 per month, and support community journalism!
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to SonomaNews.com, the Sonoma Index-Tribune eEdition and our mobile app for just $5.25 per month, and support community journalism!
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
For just $5.25 per month, you can keep reading SonomaNews.com, the Sonoma Index-Tribune eEdition and our mobile, and support community journalism!
Already a subscriber?

Jason Walsh: A school district divided

How’s this for a cold welcome as you start your new job: A 19th century legal eagle landed a plum government gig over three not-so-worthy contenders – but was so resented for beating them out he had to sneak into his new office in the dead of night disguised in a funny hat and a scarf across his face.

That was president-elect Abraham Lincoln in the winter of 1860. He wasn’t even officially Commander-in-Chief yet and already seven states had seceded from the Union under the assumption he’d be a disaster for them. And while his tenure certainly had its ups (Emancipation Proclamation) and downs (assassination at Ford’s Theater), it’s safe to say he did a pretty good job in the end.

Residents of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District might want to take that example to heart, as district officials plan to return Tuesday with a revised contract offer for its preferred Superintendent of Schools candidate Socorro Shiels.

Now, Shiels, 46, is no Abraham Lincoln, nor is anyone else in Sonoma Valley for that matter. But, like the “Illinois rail-splitter,” she hasn’t even started the job yet and for weeks has been the subject of heated criticism over her alleged contract demands and supposed chilly relationship with teachers in the Santa Rosa City Schools district, where she was superintendent from 2012 to 2016. Multiple emails have come to the Index-Tribune with mostly second-hand ad-hominem indictments of her, referencing unnamed sources from the Santa Rosa City Schools which, at the time Shiels was its superintendent, was embroiled in tough negotiations between the teachers union and district officials over an increase in teacher salaries.

The Valley of the Moon Teachers Association has been actively on the attack, last week releasing the results of an internal survey about the hiring of Shiels which found that of the 123 teachers union members who responded, 92 percent opposed her hiring.

The SVUSD school board should not take the concerns of the VMTA lightly. The teachers are the backbone of the school district and they need a leader who will support them in one of the toughest jobs going: educating the next generation in an era of rapidly evolving technologies, economies and education models.

That being said, plenty of people are chiming in without a lot of first-hand knowledge of Shiels, or of the other superintendent applicants, for that matter. She was the board of trustees’ unanimous choice, but clearly has some critics at her former job.

In a letter sent last month to the teachers union, Shiels promised to address concerns over transparency and build “a strong, collaborative relationship with all employees and bargaining units.”

Questions about Shiels’ performance as district Superintendent in Santa Rosa – which should have been vetted by the SVUSD trustees – were simmering with the VMTA up until mid-April, when the situation reached a full boil. That’s when the district released its proposed contract offer, a bounteous agreement that would have made her the highest paid district superintendent in the county, and included a $400 a month auto allowance, guaranteed annual cost of living raises, and a $10,000 reimbursement for tuition on her PhD. (Forget the actual applicants – whoever negotiated that contract on behalf of the candidate should be hired immediately as the next superintendent.)

To say the least, the terms didn’t sit well with pretty much anyone – not teachers who saw more than 20 full-time positions eliminated in the next budget; not residents who last year approved another school bond to upgrade facilities; and not parents of students whose classrooms will be hit with the bulk of a $2.5 million budget cut next year.

Facing a mounting backlash, the board of trustees tabled the contract and vowed to revise the terms. We’ll learn what the new terms are when district officials release them for public review prior to the May 8 school board meeting. But, whatever the new terms turn out to be, one has to wonder if the well hasn’t been poisoned.

Just this week, a letter signed by more than 100 community members was sent to the school board urging the district to scrap its offer to Shiels and begin the search process anew.

That’s a tall order, considering that by now the best-qualified hopefuls for a superintendent position have likely already signed a contract elsewhere for the coming school year.

And, for those who haven’t, the prospect of jumping into a hornets’ nest of public scrutiny like the one Shiels has encountered would certainly give one pause. And a higher asking price.

SVUSD school board President Britta Johnson said Shiels was the trustees’ unanimous choice among the candidates based on her “track record of organizational management, budget development… and improving student achievement.” She praised Shiels’ “humility, empathy and earnest willingness to work collaboratively and cooperatively with our unions, parents, administration and community.”

On the other hand, union President Renea Magnani, on behalf of the VMTA, says the “overwhelming opposition by educators” means “a new search is critically warranted.”

We’ll see what happens May 8. In the meantime, we’ll say this: Teaching is one of the hardest jobs one could take on – at times wonderfully rewarding, at times wholly thankless, oftentimes both at once. So, too, is being a school district superintendent.

We trust when all is said and done, the teachers and the new superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District will work as partners to ensure its 3,900 students are properly prepared to navigate the challenges of 21 century adulthood. The kids don’t care if the superintendent gets 10K for a doctorate or not; neither should the superintendent. But we should all care that the students get STEM, coding, makerspaces, humanities, social- and life-long-learning skills.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Neither can high-quality education in such a school district.

Then again, what does he know? He was supposed to be a disaster.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.