NEWARK UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD DYSFUNCTIONAL CULTURE OF INTERFERENCE

This is the Executive Summary, Conclusion, Findings and Recommendations only. For the entire report go to : Grand Jury 2014 -2015 Report

Executive Summary

 Based on a citizen’s complaint, the Grand Jury investigated allegations of improper conduct by members of the governing board of the Newark Unified School District (NUSD) during the 2013-2014 academic year. The investigation focused on alleged violations of the Brown Act, California Government Code section 54952.2, NUSD bylaws, and the board’s responsibilities under its own Governance Team Handbook.

The Grand Jury found that some board members displayed wanton disregard for rules and regulations governing their behavior and how they conduct the public’s business. This disregard manifested itself as a dysfunctional culture of interference in administrative affairs that poisoned interpersonal relationships and created a crisis in district leadership.

During an era when NUSD continues to suffer from fiscal challenges year after year, the board and administration need to come together to lead the district rather than engaging in painful power struggles. These sustained battles have caused long-term damage to the reputation of the district at the expense of its mission

Conclusion

 The Grand Jury concludes that the board of the Newark Unified School District routinely and continuously violated its own rules of governance and behavior during the 2013-2014 school year. Such misconduct had escalated over several years. Some trustees regularly bypassed, and therefore undermined, the superintendent by directly interacting with and directing administrators and staff. Board members also violated terms of the Brown Act.  Although the board in 2012 adopted a revised Governance Team Handbook that is a model for board behavior, some trustees habitually ignored its guidelines and policies.

The Grand Jury believes that both sides share responsibility for the breakdown in leadership, but most of it resides with school trustees. They intruded into administrative affairs, fueling the crisis. Trustees have the ultimate power – they hire and can fire the superintendent. Voters can remove trustees, but usually  only when they are up for election.

The Grand Jury believes that it behooves the board to be conscious of and to respect the separation of powers implicit in school governance. To intrude into the administrator’s domain is to weaken and, in the worst circumstances, usurp the powers of its chosen chief executive. Such impositions inject confusion and division into the governing equation and can create leadership crises akin to what occurred in Newark.

Trustees must avoid undermining the chief executive. When the superintendent was hired, Newark’s trustees led him to believe that they didn’t want to micromanage the district and intervene in daily affairs. He tried to call the board on its interference a year or so later, but without success. Some board members were unable – or unwilling – to curb such behavior. A witness testified that efforts to rein in rogue conduct were like “blowin’ in the wind.”

It all amounted to petty power politics. And, the outcome is a culture of interference that creates a dysfunctional working environment that is churlish, hostile, immature, anxiety-ridden, disruptive, and ultimately destructive.

While the district’s governance handbook was designed to foster teamwork and cooperation, day-to-day operations were governed by conflict and disagreement. As a result, the Grand Jury believes NUSD must take it upon itself to establish – and abide by – clearer, firmer boundaries of separation between the board and superintendent. Governing team members are supposed to heed the guidance written  into the               handbook.   Instead,  trustee  interference with the superintendent’s authority as district administrator prompted him to resign, and spawned a summer of turmoil.

The atmosphere became so toxic that one member of the board resigned under public pressure and another decided not to run for re-election. Three members  of the old board remain in place and the superintendent has resumed his duties, but tensions clearly remain.

Extra measures are needed to keep NUSD board members – future and present – from interfering in administrative affairs. False assumptions, intervention, usurpation of power, mistrust, and dysfunction have been key ingredients in the district’s board/superintendent relationships during the tenure of at least three administrators.

The Newark Unified School District’s governing team needs to treat its handbook as a guide for day-to-day operations. The Grand Jury believes more needs to be done.

 

  1. The district needs to be much more explicit about the separation of powers between the board and superintendent. Being vague hasn’t worked. Board members have erased well-defined lines of separation and intruded into the superintendent’s domain far too often. The bylaws and handbook must be amended to erect stronger boundaries between NUSD’s legislative and executive branches. We recommend that the board adopt a policy similar to the city of Oakland’s section 218, “Non-interference in Administrative Affairs.” It would require that board members not get involved in executive affairs without first going through the superintendent. That includes contacting the superintendent before visiting campuses and interacting with members of the district staff and faculty on school

 

  1. The board needs to follow its recently adopted policy enabling a majority of board members to censure members when they violate laws, rules, or regulations.

 

  1. Both the school board and superintendent need to abide by the roles and responsibilities outlined in the governance

Rather than addressing educational issues and ongoing financial problems, the board and superintendent became bogged down in petty politics. It didn’t help when the superintendent gave trustees permission to discuss school affairs directly with district employees, even executive cabinet members, whenever they wanted. That act amounted to a forfeiture of administrative power in the eyes of some trustees, encouraging misconduct.

The Grand Jury believes that the citizens of Newark need to pay close attention to the governance and management of their school district. The same people who formulated, wrote, and approved the governance handbook were also the foremost offenders of its rules, regulations, and guidelines. Four of the five members of the 2013-2014 school board were also trustees when the handbook was passed in 2005 and amended in 2012. They ignored their own rules.

FINDINGS

 Finding 15-4:            Members of the Newark Unified School District Board of Education, with alarming regularity, ignored and violated the rules, regulations, guidelines – and sometimes even the laws – created to govern how they conduct the public’s business, which negatively affected the public’s confidence in the governance and management of the school district.

Finding 15-5:             Individual members of the Newark Unified School District Board of Education frequently intruded into the duties and responsibilities of the superintendent, to the detriment of the district, by causing confusion about the leadership of the district.

Finding 15-6:            The distinction between the lines of authority of the Newark Unified School District Board of Education and the office of the superintendent became muddled, fostering conflict and taking time and resources away from the business of educating students and managing the district. The Grand Jury found that the infighting within the board and with the superintendent took time away from conducting the district business during board meetings.

Finding 15-7:             The Newark Unified School District Board of Education’s

intervention into executive affairs has gone on for years.

Finding 15-8:            Previous efforts by the Newark Unified School District Board of Education to self-police its own misconduct have been unsuccessful.

RECOMMENDATIONS

 Recommendation 15-6:

The Newark Unified School District Board of Education must abide by state laws, including the Brown Act and the California Education Code.

Recommendation 15-7:

 The Newark Unified School District Board of Education must follow its own bylaws and its Governance Team Handbook when members perform their duties and interact with the superintendent, staff, teachers, parents, and community members.

Recommendation 15-8:

The Newark Unified School District Board of Education must amend its bylaws and handbook by adding a formal policy that does not allow individual board members to interfere with faculty and staff on school issues, or visit school sites, without permission from the superintendent or from the board as a whole. The city of Oakland has a model that might be helpful.

Recommendation 15-9:

The Newark Unified School District Board of Education must follow the recently adopted formal policy allowing a majority of its board members to censure or otherwise sanction trustees when they violate laws, as well as their own rules and regulations.