There is no trust in the trustees and no unification within the Dublin Unified school board. It is once again leaderless and divided at a very precarious moment in time.
The abrupt resignation announcement by Superintendent Dave Marken, Ed.D., last week sent shockwaves of frustration, anger and angst through the community and put into question the future of the district, which is at a crossroads in terms of growth and employee relations.
"If you find yourself in a situation where your bosses don't trust you, and you don't trust your boss, you should no longer work for your boss anymore," Marken said during a very opaque explanation of why he was leaving at the beginning of the board's Zoom meeting on June 23.
Marken was called out of retirement last year to lead the district in hopes of some stability after the equally abrupt departure (a "mutual separation") of his predecessor, Leslie Boozer, who lasted less than three years with the district. In his 14 months at the helm, Marken was able to start the process of turning the district around and instilling "a sense of hope in the community during a difficult time in which the district found itself on the brink," according to a district statement.
During Marken's tenure as superintendent, the district saw voters renew the $96 annual parcel tax under Measure E in May 2019 and pass the $290 million Measure J, a school facilities bond securing much-needed funding for the second phase of a second high school. He had recently presented and initially gained board approval of a plan to reopen the district's schools next academic year amid the pandemic.
Marken's most recent accomplishment was that DUSD and the Dublin Teachers Association had a tentative agreement that the union was happy with and that fit within the confines of a revised budget.
What exactly precipitated Marken's surprise resignation isn't certain, but the timing suggests he could have been unhappy that the district-initiated tentative agreement with DTA was rejected by the board majority on June 11 -- trustees Dan Cherrier, Gabi Blackman and Catherine Kuo.
Interestingly, the June 16 special meeting agenda and June 23 agenda listed the superintendent's performance evaluation in the closed session. (Even more interestingly, the trio reversed course and endorsed the same teachers' contract proposal this past Tuesday, after Marken's resignation, citing some updated budget news from the state.)
We don't mean to imply that the questions Cherrier, Blackman and Kuo are asking about funding for salary increases are wrong to consider. However, not working to keep a very popular superintendent who was making great strides in rebuilding trust and unity in a district sorely in need of stability, then acting very nonchalant on camera in the aftermath of his resignation, doesn't seem responsible.
The healing and the regaining of trust, confidence and unity that was slowly taking place over the past year blew up in a matter of 10 minutes at the beginning of the board's June 23 open meeting and is now replaced with animosity, distrust and division.
And the district is without a permanent leader, again, and unstable as it works to navigate educating students amid COVID-19 and the second high school project just getting underway. "Adrift" was the district's own word for the situation last week.
The Board of Trustees itself has been in disarray for the past 18 months. When Boozer walked away from the position in March 2019 (with some DTA members cheering when her exit was announced), the five-member board was down to only three trustees. Longtime trustee Dan Cunningham surprised everyone by resigning that February, only months after being re-elected to his seat, and a citizens' petition to nullify the appointment of a new trustee left the second vacancy.
The divisiveness, politicking and public display of animosity is unlike any other current school board in the Tri-Valley. There is also a clear east-west divide, which is unique to Dublin and applies to the community and to the board.
Unintended consequences of district elections could be at play here. When the DUSD board appointed Nini Natarajan in December 2018 to the Area 4 seat vacated by trustee Joe Giannini two months earlier, the appointment was overturned weeks later under a provision in state law that allows voters to challenge and demand a special election instead.
The petition that challenged the appointment needed to be signed by 1.5% of voters in the election area. In this case, because of districting, only 74 voters from Trustee Area 4 were needed to force a special election. Blackman was elected by fewer than 600 voters to represent Area 4 in the low-turnout June 2019 special election that cost taxpayers around $60,000.
Then there is the parochialism inherent in districting.
Just as in state and national politics, school board trustees and city council members have to answer to a small group of people as opposed to the entire constituency. While we would like to believe most local elected officials make decisions and base votes on what they feel is best for the entire community, it's only human to consider how decisions and votes will be viewed by the relatively few people who will re-elect you, or not.
Ironically, Kuo, Blackman and Cherrier, the three trustees who rejected Marken's tentative agreement with DTA -- and showed very little concern about Marken's resignation June 23 -- represent East Dublin, where the second high school will serve.
Trustees Kuo and Blackman and Board President Cherrier had very little to say after Marken's proverbial mic drop, other than Cherrier remarking that the timing is unfortunate and Kuo saying she appreciates her fellow board members.
Trustees Megan Rouse and Amy Miller, on the other hand, let their frustration be known.
"I do not share Trustee Kuo's feelings of appreciation for fellow board members," Rouse said, "although I do appreciate Trustee Miller."
"I am heartbroken," Miller said. "I think this board, when they get some time away and can look back, will recognize the devastation we've brought to this district. I hate even including myself in that because I don't feel I'm a part of it. I don't share your feelings, Catherine (Kuo), about the rest of this board. I'm embarrassed to be part of this board."
"I'm kind of just really sad tonight," she continued, "and concerned about what the future of DUSD looks like."
We share the concern about the future of DUSD expressed by Miller and dozens of letter writers, Town Square posters and social media commenters.
Instability and infighting between a school board and administration -- and amongst board members themselves -- is destructive in so many ways.
We encourage the DUSD trustees to remember the main stakeholders in this (the students) and start working together for the good of the district as a whole. And soon.
As now-former superintendent Marken said, leading a school district is not for the faint of heart; a knowledgeable, experienced, proven leader is needed to right this ship.
Unfortunately, with the current board -- which can graciously be described as a dysfunctional train wreck -- it will be extraordinarily difficult to find someone able to lead DUSD into the future who is actually willing to take it on.