As officials put out one fire after another — the forced resignation of the superintendent of schools, ongoing budget deficits, declining enrollments and threats of secession by one of three top communities that comprise the Pasadena Unified School District — two school board members maintain that changing the way Board of Education members are elected is not the solution to fixing the district’s many problems.
“Changing how we are elected would not change anything,” Board member Bill Bibbiani said of proposals to change the at-large voting system that is currently used to elect the district’s seven board members to district-only voting — much the way City Council members are elected — or proportional representation, a largely experimental system of voting that awards leftover ballots to the second then third top vote getters until all available seats are filled.
Although city officials have expressed concerns about the way the district is being managed, things came to a boil for a majority of council members with the ouster of controversial Superintendent Percy Clark, who agreed to leave the district last month, but only after receiving a nearly $30,000 a year raise so that he may leave with the maximum state retirement benefit available.
Clark’s higher salary was ordered in a painstakingly worded agreement offered by the district in exchange for a promise from Clark not to sue.
None of the board members seem to favor the PR voting method. As for plans to change the nonpartisan board’s voting system from at-large to district-only, “The by-district election has the implication that we are all just ombudsmen,” Bibbiani said. “I am not trying to downplay all the broad issues that the City Council deals with … but the board has broad obligations to the whole community and overarching issues of how to best educate kids, which will not be resolved by making each board member beholden to his or her own fiefdom.”
Board member Ed Honowitz agreed.
“I don’t think [district voting] would be a very workable solution given the fact that people are going to schools all over the district regardless of where they live,” said Honowitz. “It’s not going to improve anything and could have more negative impact than the system being currently used.”
Little said there’s not enough information about proportional representation to study its possible use in Pasadena. But he does favor district elections.
“In the last couple of contested school board elections here the underdogs ended up winning in the runoffs. With proportional representation [and the elimination of runoff elections] it’s unlikely it would have happened that way,” Little said.
Proportional representation allows voters to rank candidates by preference rather than select only one, and in situations where no candidate gets a majority of first choice votes, second and third choices are factored in to determine a winner.
“There is a plus to having head-to-head elections,” Little said. “Having that opportunity gives the voters a chance to decide who is better compared to having five people and saying this is my No. 1, my No. 2 and so on,” as would be the case under that voting scenario. … “I think the best solution for PUSD is to go with district elections. That gives much closer representation to geographic elections. I think these discussions about kids going to school in different areas than they live in is a bunch of smoke. Right now no one has representation.”
Not only how board members are elected, but exactly how the board negotiated its top employee’s forced retirement are some of the issues that have Councilman Steve Haderlein concerned.
“The pay increase may be defensible,” Haderlein said of Clark’s exit deal during a recent interview on the community-access television show “City Beat.” What’s not defensible, he said, “is the board getting in a position where they could be sued” by Clark.
The deal also didn’t sit well with teachers, who recently voted no-confidence in Clark.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Bethel Tor Lira, president of the 1,200-member United Teachers of Pasadena, said of the board’s deal with Clark. “He should not be rewarded with a very nice pay increase, and if he is here for the next school year he is really a lame duck,” Lira said. “The teachers don’t really want him here anymore.”
Under terms of his previous contract, Clark made $176,131 a year. He also has access to a car provided the district and has many other bills, dues, fees and fares paid for him.
Per the agreement struck with the board in closed session last week — an agreement that Bibbiani, who compared the deal to a “divorce,” and four other board members voted to approve — Clark received a 5.18 percent pay raise, or $9,124, and an additional $26,000, $20,000 from his deferred compensation benefit and $6,000 more from is annual expense account, all of which was converted into salary that now totals more than $211,000 a year.
Only Board members Esteban “Steve” Lizardo, who questioned whether it was even legal under state Public Employee Retirement System guidelines for the district to strike such a deal with Clark, and former Board president Honowitz, formally one of Clark’s staunchest supporters, opposed the deal.
“I just felt that it wasn’t the most prudent thing to do given the fact we are going to be making a change in superintendents,” said Honowitz.
“Clearly it is a divided board and anything we do is a compromise,” Bibbiani said.
Clark did not return a number of calls for comment.
Board President Prentice Deadrick did not return calls, but in an email stated he was not aware of any plans by Clark to sue the district. However, Deadrick wrote without elaborating that Clark “has expressed concern that his employee confidentiality rights have been violated by the actions of some board members.”
In May, the Weekly reported that, according to two state open-meeting law experts, the board violated the Brown Act after reaching a consensus without formally voting in closed session to not extend Clark’s contract. Deadrick did not say what Clark’s exact concerns were about his privacy rights being violated, and he did not return subsequent requests for clarification by deadline.
“The Board of Education does need governance training, just as administrators and teachers need ongoing training and professional development to do their job well,” Deadrick wrote. In the case of Clark, Deadrick said the board “worked under the advice of legal counsel on this matter, including the posting of agenda wording.”
The wording of the agreement, which seems to cover every imaginable scenario, was designed specifically to guarantee that Clark would not sue the district, as he had done previously with the school district in Lawrence Township, Kan., in 1996.
Although Clark has been a controversial figure since arriving in Pasadena in 2001 with promises to attract middle class white families back to the minority-dominant district, most board members steadfastly supported him. That is until mid-May, when Clark made national headlines by plagiarizing a column he had written for the Weekly.
Shortly after that, the board met in closed session and decided to finally dump Clark. But according to the terms his separation agreement, Clark will still get paid all the way through next July, even if the district finds a new superintendent to replace him before that time. If that happens, Clark will be placed on paid administrative leave until the end of his contract in order to collect his full salary.
The only way Clark can blow the deal is by taking another job before the end of next July, at which time, “his administrative leave status and the district’s obligations with regards to such status will cease upon the effective date of resignation” from the PUSD.
“We’ve already interviewed six search firms,” Bibbiani said. “So far it is moving along. … I don’t want this process to drag out.”