Toxic – that is how several administrators described the culture at Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD). The numbers speak for themselves: 15 administrators will have left the district between November 2012 and the end of the school year. That’s roughly 20 percent of the 70-person administrator workforce in the district.
One of those administrators is Dave Grissom, the principal at Santa Clara High School. Grissom told NBC Bay Area he’s been in the district for 18 years on-and-off. Sami Elamad, a 17-year-old, is a junior at Santa Clara High. He said it was devastating to learn of Grissom’s departure and then heard talk of problems plaguing the district, especially when it came to the seven-member school board, so he began to dig.
“I found there was something really fishy going on in the district,” said Elamad.
He added he then began to listen to audio recordings of board meetings posted up on the district website; on them, he said he heard constant arguing.
“You’re arguing at a meeting with other board members, that’s very juvenile,” Elamad said, “That’s something I would call a Neanderthal, for adults to argue in public in open session with other members, that’s very, very immature.”
Elamad used that very word in a letter he read in part during the May 23 school board meeting. In the letter, he used words like “Neanderthals,” “misfits,” and “corrupt” to describe board member, also writing that they were “behaving inappropriately at meetings.”
Dr. Christine Koltermann, school board president, kept her response to Elamad’s words limited, only saying, “What we’re really trying to do is teach students to express themselves, but with sensitivity.”
Dr. Koltermann added that the board is focused on getting work done, not politics, especially since SCUSD has failed to meet state academic progress standards every year since 2008, putting it into a “program improvement” status with the California Department of Education. The state sent down an intervention team to pinpoint and analyze problems at the district last fall.
Michele Ryan, a board member elected in November, told NBC Bay Area over the phone Thursday afternoon that she was warned before the elections that SCUSD could get very political, but Ryan said it’s not the board that’s to blame for the politics: it’s the staff and administration setting that tone. Ryan, who said she teachers outside the district but has a child in SCUSD, added that it’s time to turn the attention to students and bettering performance.
Andrew Ratermann, a nine-year board member who has served as both board president and vice president, wrote in an email, in part, “The new composition of the school board has raised concerns from the public, which has been shared at many of our recent meetings. My hope is that with my fellow board members, we can work together to heal the district and return the focus it belongs, the students.”
“Our board has robust discussions of every issue we deliberate before we vote,” said Dr. Koltermann. “We listen to all points-of-view and we’re very thoughtful before coming to a decision, but we get the work of the board done.”
As for the turnover of administrators this year, Dr. Koltermann said it was a “normal number.” She added that those who were either leaving or retiring were doing so for reasons other than politics.
“Some people have gotten big pay raises to go to other districts. Some of our people are retiring and after very long careers in public service, I wish them well. I hope they really enjoy their retirements.”
On the phone with NBC Bay Area, six administrators, some who are leaving or retiring, said the culture was a toxic one and that leaving was a direct result of the uncomfortable work conditions. Dave Grissom, Santa Clara High School’s principal who is headed to become principal at Mountain View High School next year, said in part, “I adore the staff I work with on a daily basis and the kids are just great kids. For someone to say that I am leaving because of the money – that is wrong.”
Grissom continued by saying it was painful to have to look outside the district he’s been with for 18 years, on-and-off. “It was not something that I was taking lightly. I had to do a lot of soul searching. I was looking for a district that valued a lot of the same things I valued – and I’m happy to say I have found that in Mountain View-Los Altos.”
Tracy Pope, president of Santa Clara Teachers United, said trust has disintegrated between the board and the community. Pope said it was board members who had become “micromanagers” and argued too much amongst one another that caused a bad environment, leading to the exodus of the 15 administrators.
“Caustic, toxic, lack of trust,” Pope began. “There’s a lot of disrespect going both ways in the room. It’s difficult to trust their actions at this point because they’re seen as so focused, laser-focused on individuals or small groups rather than, ‘We’ve got a big job ahead of us.’”
For Elamad, the 17-year-old has already looked beyond finals that are happening this week and next. He’s got his mind on a recall.
“Someone needs to put them back in their place. They can’t go all over the place and make themselves bosses of whatever they want.”