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Editorial: School District needs to calm tempest, tempers

“You won’t be able to get a good replacement unless you fix this,” Chuck Young told the Sonoma Valley Unified School District board of trustees June 10. “If you can’t fix it, the voters will.”

Young’s comment came during the board’s emergency meeting last Saturday to hammer out a plan to replace school district Superintendent Louann Carlomagno, who announced her resignation June 6 – a sudden departure of a respected community leader whose alleged difficult working relationship with new trustee member John Kelly was a notable factor in her decision to accept a position as district superintendent in the City of Hillsborough.

It was the board’s first meeting called in the wake of Carlomagno’s surprise notice, and it was the first public allusion toward any potential recall of a district trustee.

Young’s not your average school-district watchdog, either. He’s a board member of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation – the district’s highly significant financial benefactor.

Oh, and he served as Chancellor at UCLA for 29 years.

Young knows a little something about running educational institutions. And he described Carlomagno at that meeting as, “the finest superintendent that I have encountered in all my years in education.”

While certainly not everyone would agree with Young’s assessment – it’s a high watermark, to be sure – among the community leaders we at the Index-Tribune encounter on a day-to-day basis, Carlomagno is among Sonoma’s most capable and dedicated. Her departure is a loss for Sonoma, it’s schools and it’s school children.

And it didn’t have to happen.

It was only last November when the District was riding high off the success of Measure B, the $120 million bond voters approved to upgrade facilities at campuses throughout the district. That’s also when Kelly won the Sassarini school area seat from former Trustee Gary DeSmet on the campaign promise he’d help raise test scores in the Sassarini neck of the woods.

While Sassarini’s rising test scores remain to be seen, what has happened is that Kelly has been accused of “workplace harassment” in a formal complaint filed by retiring Director of Curriculum and Instruction Karla Conroy. She alleges that at school district meetings Kelly has purposefully surprised her with unexpected questions in an effort to make her, as the complaint reads, “look unprepared.”

Conroy says Kelly’s conduct is “retaliatory in nature due to our previous working relationship.”

The previous working relationship about which Conroy’s complaint refers was when Kelly worked for Carlomagno and the Sonoma Valley Unified School District as a special projects manager from roughly February to May 2016. In his brief tenure at the district, Kelly developed a reputation as something of a maverick; according to sources within the district who spoke with the Index-Tribune at the time, some members of staff found him difficult to work with. Kelly’s seeming pattern of antagonism toward those with whom he disagrees played a role in the Index-Tribune’s endorsement of incumbent DeSmet for the Sassarini seat.

Soon, the district and Kelly parted ways. And, later that summer, Kelly announced his intention to challenge DeSmet for the Sassarini-area seat on the school board – essentially a bid to become one of Carlomagno’s five bosses. A bid which he resoundingly won.

Since joining the school board, Kelly has fostered a reputation for hardline questioning of district staff; the word “interrogation” has hyperbolically been used by some meeting attendees. School board President Dan Gustafson has more than once been heard to scold Kelly for his aggressive conduct on the dais. If the intention behind this off-putting strategy is to bring greater accountability to a district board that has been criticized as over-agreeable – not an entirely unfair charge, by the way – the results have been sorely lacking. An embarrassing, distracting and costly hostile workplace complaint against Kelly, and the resignation of the district’s highly respected Superintendent is its legacy thus far.

We at the I-T have followed the SVUSD closely for years, and Carlomagno has stood out among a long line of district heads. While she hasn’t been happy with every headline about the district that graces the front page of the I-T from time to time, she’s always respected the rationale behind our coverage and discussed any qualms with positivity and a smile – a smile which no doubt at times has hidden clenched, grinding teeth. She’s a warm, thoughtful, responsive, highly capable workaholic for the Sonoma Valley. And she will be missed.

In her wake, the SVUSD board has its work cut out for them. Not only do they need to make a prudent decision on the next Superintendent, but they’re also seeking to fill a new position of associate superintendent of business and assign bond revenue spending priorities at all district campuses.

If Trustee Kelly truly wants to help the district move forward we hope he reflects upon some of the more painful evaluations of his young tenure and approaches his term going forward with a greater sense of social awareness and tact.

Because, in the words of someone who knows what he’s talking about:

If you can’t fix it, the voters will.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.