The Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) Board of Trustees held a regular meeting on Wednesday, December 14th following public accusations that they planned to fire Superintendent Dr. Darnise Williams. They began by reading a press release commending her work and thanking her for her service: “Dr. Darnise Williams, after leading the high school district through pandemic recovery, decides to move on. The District thanks her for her service… the parties [have] entered into an amicable agreement. Under [her] stewardship, Sequoia became a statewide leader in equity awareness.” (For the full press release, scroll to the bottom of this article.) 

Celebratory inauguration cake

Without explanation from Board members, the meeting quickly moved to an inauguration ceremony for new trustees Sathvik Nori and Amy Koo, though they were officially sworn in on December 9th. They each recited their oath, took family photos, and gave short speeches thanking their supporters and outlining their goals for the future. Koo said, “As a school board, we’re setting the direction and vision of the school district, and people are watching us. We’re role models. Make sure we bring in the community and bring everyone along with what we are doing.” DuBois prefaced the ceremony, saying, “We also have cake, and we have fruit.” The Board took a break to celebrate the new trustees, a move deemed inappropriate by multiple members of the audience still shocked by Dr. Williams’ abrupt and mysterious departure.

Later, during public comments, M-A English teacher Abbie Korman said, “How tasteless to have cake on the day that the Superintendent was kicked out by you [the Board].” 

Sequoia teacher Karol-Ann Coleman said, “I was thinking, ‘Dr. Williams must’ve done something really devastating to make this mutually agreed-upon thing happen.’ What I’ve noticed traditionally in the past is that when someone retires or someone moves on, there’s usually some kind of celebration wishing them success. And they probably have cake too.” 

Dr. Williams herself was not present at the meeting despite the Board claiming that they maintain an “amicable agreement,” which community members were quick to point out.

For many, Dr. Williams’ resignation confirmed rumors that the Board planned to fire the Superintendent, yet community members remain frustrated with the Board’s secrecy regarding the reason for her perceived expulsion. The Board also has yet to release how each member voted in Friday’s vote to hire attorney Eugene Whitlock, and they have not explained why an attorney would be needed for a resignation. 

Bargaining Chair of the Sequoia District Teachers Association Greg Gruszynski said, “We are demanding that the Board provide the basis of this vote in a public session so that we can know who voted for this counsel.”

Korman criticized the new Board’s lack of transparency, stating, “100 people more than usual signed on [on Friday] to listen to the Board share their thoughts, yet the board chose to report out nothing after their closed session. What possibly could have warranted this push-out? If this is warranted, the public deserves to know what happened.”

To community members, Korman said, “No staff of SUHSD was aware of a part of this decision. Many of our colleagues are texting us right now, shocked and worried.” 

Several commenters mentioned that Nori and Koo made transparency cornerstones of their recent campaigns.

Koo said in an interview in September, “I want to have that open, honest, transparent discussion. Only then can people trust you and know that you have their best interests in mind. Even if we don’t agree on the final solution, at least people feel heard.” 

In a separate interview in November, Nori said, “I intend to bring a fresh perspective that is accountable to parents, teachers and community members, and students.”

Since the previous Board gave Dr. Williams uniformly positive evaluations and DuBois praised her strides towards increased equity and pandemic recovery, their actions from the last week took the public by surprise. Many saw Williams’ resignation as proof that the Board plans to reverse many of her equity initiatives.

Former Board Trustee Alan Sarver speaks during public comment.

Ravenswood City School District Board of Education President Jenny Varghese Bloom said, “Dr. Williams brought in equity. She brought that conversation here, and all I can think about is that the reason she is not here is because she was doing that work.” Moreover, commenters noted that Dr. Williams’ resignation leaves her push for equity unfinished. Jeremy Arey said, “[the Board] removed Dr. Williams with many District equity projects left in limbo.” 

East Palo Alto Academy Principal Amika Guillaume praised Dr. Williams’ work and said, “I have been working with superintendents since 1995. I have lost count of how many superintendents I’ve worked for, and I do want to publicly state that Dr. Darnise Williams has coached me in ways that were far superior to anything I’ve experienced before.”

Members of the public voiced concerns about where each current trustee stands on issues regarding equity and race. Bloom continued, expanding on her comment from Monday’s special meeting, “I want to hear from every trustee why our first Black female superintendent is no longer in this District. I will not move forward with people who will not speak to us publicly about what they did and why they did it. What you [the Board] have shown me about pushing out Dr. Williams is that you do not care about equality.” 

East Palo Alto City Council member Antonio Lopez said, “I feel disappointed because I look at this Board, and I look at the promise it has—the range of experiences—and this is the first impression you’re making on this community?” 

East Palo Alto Academy teacher Eva Tang spoke on the importance of Dr. Williams’ presence to students of color, and said, “When you have retention of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] staff and BIPOC teachers, positive outcomes increase for BIPOC students and also for white students. I’m tired of seeing my BIPOC colleagues leave year after year. And if you can’t retain and hire teachers of color and staff of color, what does that mean for our BIPOC students? When you say that you want positive outcomes for all your students, how much do you really mean that?”

At Monday’s meeting, former Board Trustees Alan Sarver and Chris Thomsen condemned the board’s secrecy and evaluation of Williams. However, at Wednesday’s meeting, Sarver, on behalf of both him and Thomsen, walked back on their earlier comments. He said, “I think both of us spoke with more passion and a radiation of anger than has been either of our style over the years, and I wanted to begin by apologizing to the Board for bringing that kind of a tone.” 

Sarver concluded, “All of my interest is in doing everything we can for the best operation of this District, for the best outcome of the students, for the best working environment for our staff, and for the best service to our community. And the Board has all of that responsibility, that authority, that power, and opportunity. I very much wish the Board, the governance team, and the District the very best of luck moving forward.”

However, Woodside history teacher Jenny Ortez remarked, “I will leave you with a well-known quote heard around the world: ‘Let them eat cake.’ Board members, I hope you enjoyed the cake just minutes after you gave the public such devastating news.”

The full press release stated:

Sequoia Union High School District and Superintendent, Dr. Darnise Williams have mutually agreed to part ways and today, the Board announced that the parties entered into an amicable agreement. “The Board and Superintendent Williams have reached an arrangement. “As Board members we thank Superintendent Williams for her grace, dedication, and leadership during this unprecedented time. We worked together during labor negotiations with the result of a multi-year contract reaching the long-standing effort of transitioning health benefits that resulted in on-going savings to the district, reopening of schools and advancing educational outcomes and equitable access for all students. We could not have done it without her,” Du Bois continued.

Under Superintendent Williams’ stewardship, Sequoia became a statewide leader in equity awareness. As well as being recognized as an exemplary district acknowledged by Pivot Learning District Ready Index. Dr. Williams met difficult issues head-on engaging in productive conversations and training about the manifestations of systemic racism in public schools and implicit bias. “As a Board we were proud to stand side-by-side with Superintendent Williams to raise community awareness,” stated Vice President Richard Ginn. 

School safety and security was another focus of Dr. Williams’ administration. The District created and introduced a COVID-19 Dashboard and an automated Informed K-12 Incident Reporting System. Also, the District passed Measure W, a $591.5 million bond used to improve security systems and remove hazardous materials from District campuses. “Our students must be safe to learn,” Dr. Williams humbly offered. “I believe we met our many challenges by remaining focused on students and in ensuring the continuity of teaching and learning,” stated Dr. Williams. “I would like to express my most heartfelt appreciation to the staff, board, and community for supporting our programs, services and initiatives during my time in Sequoia.” 

As a champion of post-secondary opportunities for all students, Dr. Williams spearheaded the College Promise Initiative in partnership with Canada College’s President, Kim Lopez to provide expanded opportunities for students and families to achieve the goal of civic, instructional and career post-secondary opportunities. The collaboration was extended to include Ravenswood City Schools, Cañada College, San Francisco State University and Cal State University East Bay.

Dr. Williams, with over 28 years of service in public education, was hired by the Board of Education in 2021. She earned a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Southern California and a Masters of Arts in educational administration from California State University, Dominguez Hills. Dr. Williams’ leadership has been recognized at the local, regional and state levels for her focus on “disrupting educational inequities.

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