There’s not much to complain about residing in San Carlos; it’s by almost every measure a great place to live, raise a family, attend school, dine at amazing restaurants, have great neighbors, and all of the other lifestyle things we value as a community. Although neighboring residents often make fun of the city’s slogan “The City of Good Living,” it is apropos in many ways. But, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum. And when there is a vacuum of real problems, we tend to elevate the little ones into big ones. This is true for both the city and the school district. Of course, the classic San Carlos story is the fact that it took eight years to decide what surface to put on a field! Regardless of one’s preference on that particular issue, it’s hard to argue that the amount of effort, work, time, and consternation that went into that debate was proportionate to its substance. This is why those who know me well know that I’ve, tongue-in-cheek, used the affectionate moniker of “City of Made-Up Problems” to describe San Carlos. I love San Carlos, but often we get wound up by the little things. This doesn’t mean we don’t have issues to address — of course we do — but compared to what goes on even in neighboring communities, let alone around the country and around the world, we don’t have a lot of big things to complain about.
Although the school district is “high performing” by all traditional measures, we certainly recognize that we need to always improve and move forward. This is why we spent most of last year completing our groundbreaking Strategic Plan to move education into the 21st Century, and we passed a bond and developed a new Facilities Master Plan to build new schools to meet these strategic goals and to serve the incredible influx of new students in the coming years.
I’ve written and spoke about many times how school board service is different from any other political body. We don’t declare a political party when running for office, we are part-time, unpaid volunteers (or little paid in some communities), and rarely is “higher” political office the goal. We have the luxury of truly representing the community and serving students without fear that folks will ascribe ulterior motives to our actions or fear that our words will be assumed to be anything other than genuine. Admittedly, the public doesn’t always appreciate this fact, and the overall dysfunction of the larger American political system is often painted on all public servants, including school board members. Despite this, I have always tried to do my best to serve the students and the community, but at the same time always tell the truth, including calling constituents on bad behavior when it (albeit rarely) happens. Not everyone will (or should) agree with me (and I love a good debate), but I know that most people don’t question my motives or my judgment. By the way, our fellow servants on the City Council have it a lot worse than we do — people give them less of the benefit of the doubt, and I have on multiple occasions been ashamed at how our community has engaged with these public servants. I of course don’t agree with everything my representatives do, but that doesn’t mean my engagement with them has to mimic the worst in what we witness in state and national politics.
This brings me to recent events. It’s been a frustrating week, not because of any substantive action or inaction done by our district, but the nonconstructive (and potentially destructive) engagement of a select few members of our community, backed up by members of the press whose interest was more about seeking a “big story” than about understanding the truth. As many of you know by now, the District agreed to give our Superintendent, Dr. Baker, a bridge loan to finance the purchase of a new home in San Carlos. This was discussed by the Board in numerous closed session board meetings (as is required by the law, compensation negotiations happen in such sessions, just like negotiations with our teacher’s union or any other specific compensation matters), and these discussions clearly led to the later public endorsement of the entire Board showing our collective enthusiasm for the Superintendent to move closer. We thought of it as a celebratory occasion to have our Superintendent have even greater ties to this community. The loan itself was purely to account for timing differences between when he could make an offer on a new home and when he could sell his old home. In reality, the loan will be paid back within one month’s time, and the district will actually make a little money off of the loan (which was just a side benefit). So, the only effect on the operating budget of the district was a positive one. As a board, the most important function we have is to hire, review, and potentially fire a superintendent. Like a corporate board, the CEO is only employee we “manage.” And having a long-term relationship with a great superintendent is the greatest gift we can give to our community. When people have asked me, “what’s been your greatest accomplishment in your time on the school board,” my answer is always that we hired this Superintendent. I believe that he has already proven himself the best Superintendent that San Carlos has ever seen, and probably the best in the entire county (and although I won’t name them, so many school board members around the county have told me that they agree)! So, this bridge loan was an opportunity to create a stronger relationship between the district and the community and make a little money in the transaction with near zero risk. What’s not to like? In fact, it was considered so obvious of an issue that it was placed on the consent agenda as a non-controversial and routine matter.
Enter in San Carlos Patch. Patch has turned itself into a self-parody of everything that is wrong with journalism — it doesn’t act a true local source of information and has become a sandbox for non-constructive engagement. In most towns, including ours, it’s become somewhat of a joke, and it’s no coincidence that their business is failing — the San Carlos edition in particular is slated to be shut down or consolidated with another one. Without even doing the minimum amount of research, Patch sees an agenda item on a board meeting and writes a sensationalistic article implying some wrongdoing without understanding any of the background or context. Now enter in one man with an agenda. One man who has never paid attention to any school district activities or attended any school board meetings. But this man is running for San Carlos City Council and saw an opportunity to paint himself as a “government watchdog,” so he posted all over Patch, other social media sites, and e-mailed a bunch of people to take a stand. So, imagine our surprise when all of these folks showed up at the board meeting on 9/12 to express their consternation at the loan. It was sad that few had done even the slightest bit of research (or spoke to any board or staff members) before speaking. It is of course their right to speak (and we encourage folks to show up at board members and express their views, including ones that don’t agree with ours), but this meeting in particular was an unfortunate example of the type of unconstructive engagement and lack of critical thinking that we usually attribute to the comments made to “higher” political officials. Even after such input, the Board re-iterated its position and unanimously affirmed its decision to support the loan.
It was later learned there was a timing problem in the administration of the loan. The loan was originally meant to close escrow the day after the board meeting, but it closed a day before. It had to do with a request by the title company to move the date. Of course, in hindsight, the district should have told the title company we couldn’t have accommodated the change, but it didn’t. Having to do it over again, I’m sure it would be done differently, but given the context of this being perceived as so obvious and routine (with full board support), it probably didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time. And as we are trying to teach our students, it’s ok to make mistakes — you learn from them, and move on. And given that this “mistake” didn’t have any real ramifications (except for a marginal increase in District revenue by having interest earned for two more days), we should model that same behavior.
So, there’s the big crime. Effectively an administrative error with no actual consequences. No deceit or ill intent on anyone’s part. But guess who decided he — being completely rebuked at the board meeting on the substance of the issue — now had a horse to ride and cry “government corruption”? Efforts to make a big deal of this nothing caught the idea of both the Daily News and the local ABC news affiliate. I spoke to both of them during their “research”, and although The Daily News included some of my comments (although it left out a ton of context), ABC didn’t use anything I said because the substance of the issue didn’t fit into its pre-determined story arc. The ABC report was comical in its quality, and the reporter was particularly rude, cutting me off mid sentence and refusing to acknowledge that there was even another side to this story. So, in addition to being disappointed by the poor approach taken by this vocal minority in our community, I was sad to see up-close how badly our media outlets behave. Being a public official for the last six years, I realize how often media outlets get their facts wrong (it’s a bit of a running joke among many), but this was way beyond. It demonstrated a collective disregard for critical thinking that I heretofore assumed was only prevalent in national debates. What a scary notion — will it be hard for me to believe almost anything I read or see anymore?
I hesitated to write this post at all because I thought the issue was so nonsensical that it didn’t even deserve my time. But this “made up problem” can have real ramifications. It’s already had a devastating toll on our amazing district office staff who had to spend so much of their time last week dealing with this silliness rather than serving children. The Superintendent is being harassed — the ABC news folks hid near his house so they can ambush him when he got home! If he or other members of his staff decide it’s not worth the hassle anymore, it will be this community that loses out. But here’s the good news — the far majority of San Carlans are hugely supportive of the district. I have been flooded with calls, e-mails, texts, and in-person conversations by folks who are shocked at this nonsense, and many have been trying to counter the ignorant comments on social media sites, but unfortunately social media sites often favor the ignorant. I thank all of those who reached out and for your dedication to making this district the best it can be. Ironically, not a single person with concerns has sent me an e-mail or called me to discuss those concerns or to learn more. The distance (and often anonymity) of social media posts is far too easy than talking to someone who may actually have a different perspective than you. As I have always said, I’m happy to talk to anyone anytime about any issue. I couldn’t address every single question that people have brought up on social media sites, but I’m happy to talk anytime…just reach out.
I’m confident that my colleagues on the San Carlos School Board understand — and I urge all school board members everywhere to understand — the lesson of why we’re different than other “politicians” and to stand by their principles and continue to focus on what’s best for students. As a community, we must demonstrate that we will not allow San Carlos to devolve into a place where the loud and ill informed (let alone those with a personal agenda) can take us off track from the amazing work we are doing (and real problems we need to solve) in public education. We have an amazing staff too, and they need to get back to their day job tackling real issues.