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Days after the inauguration of two new school board members, Dr. Darnise Williams resigned from her role as superintendent halfway through her three-year contract. In a span of two weeks, the Board held several secretive meetings, hired attorney Eugene Whitlock as legal counsel behind closed doors, and failed to respond to accusations and concerns about Dr. Williams’ resignation, irresponsibly inflaming rumors and eroding the democratic conventions of the District.

2022

These actions are the public’s first impression of the new Board, which some parents and staff already feared would reverse progressive policies and equity initiatives the previous board implemented. As such, stakeholders were left shocked, angry, and nervous about what’s next. 

Due to the timing of the new Board’s election and Dr. Williams’ subsequent departure, several community members reasonably assumed that the new Board was responsible for her resignation. As a democratically elected body, the Board owes the public an explanation for their actions or, at the very least, for why some information must remain private. 

On the Board’s secrecy, former Board President Allen Weiner, who retired two years ago, said, “I think what happened is a policy decision, which unquestionably should be the subject of public deliberation, and debate was structured as a personnel decision.” 

Weiner added, “Personnel matters are appropriate for closed session deliberation, but had there been issues that were accumulating over this time, presumably former trustees [Alan] Sarver and [Chris] Thomsen would have known about them.” Sarver and Thomsen both voiced frustrations about the Board’s actions at the December 12th meeting. If they had known about preexisting disapproval of Dr. Williams’ work before their terms ended on December 7th, their comments likely wouldn’t have been so critical of the Board.

In an anonymous survey of 39 M-A teachers, 87% said they “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove” of how the Board handled Dr. Williams’ resignation. 64% suspect that “Dr. Williams resigned for reasons that the public does not know.” 44% believe that “new board members were planning on firing Dr. Williams when they campaigned.”

Here are some of the comments from survey respondents: 

  • “As a Black teacher, I feel concerned for my own standing after seeing how her resignation was handled.”
  • “I feel so disheartened with this behavior, I don’t feel supported by the higher ups in the District and it is making me reconsider working in this District.”
  • “The Board was manipulative and coercive. I do not have any trust in the Board. As a result of the Board’s actions, I am considering whether or not I want to remain an employee of this District.”

Many saw Dr. Williams, the District’s first Black female superintendent, as a leader in diversity and equity initiatives. During the December 14th meeting, 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.”

Not knowing why Dr. Williams resigned makes it easy to assume the worst. Returning Board members should have anticipated this, yet they were complicit in the circulation of rumors. 

As one teacher said, “It’s really easy to just assume they’re being racist.” 

Our District already struggles with attracting BIPOC teachers and BIPOC students remain underrepresented in higher-level courses. Questions of race and equity are often at the forefront of disagreements about school policy, from pandemic reopening to bell schedule changes. As such, it’s particularly important for the Board to provide an explanation. Otherwise, it’s easy to believe that the sudden resignation of a leader championing equity policies is the Board’s change of heart. The public’s reaction should surprise no one. 

As one teacher said, “We don’t know anything about what’s going on, so we are left to draw our own inferences, which are not positive—if the Board’s intentions were honorable, why wouldn’t they make them public?”

The Board’s silence fuels false information and uninformed accusations. It’s possible that the Board may be under some form of non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that prevents them from disclosing information. However, in that case, or if Dr. Williams had resigned for personal reasons, it would have been easy for them to tell a frustrated public that they legally couldn’t share the details. The Board should have done everything in their power to squash rumors and clarify their communications. Moreover, the timeline of the Board’s actions heavily suggest that Dr. Williams’ resignation was a result of policy views that conflicted with those of the new Board, not poor performance.

People have speculated both in our survey and online that Dr. Williams’ resignation was related to recent gun incidents. Others also accused the Board of violating the Ralph M. Brown Act, a California law concerning the transparency of legislative meetings and when certain information must be released to the public. Some also worried it had to do with the equity training initiatives that Dr. Williams introduced to the District—while some teachers were disappointed with the training earlier this year, others voiced concerns about where the District and the Board now stand on equity work.

While not all equity initiatives or policies are perfect, it’s important that we have an honest and open conversation about the best way to move forward and continue what Dr. Williams left unfinished. If unpopular initiatives were a factor in Dr. Williams’ resignation, that wouldn’t have been fair ground for pushing out a public official without discussion and providing her a $299,000 severance package—the same package she would have received under her contract had she been fired. A teacher said, “I was very pleased with the intentional time and effort she dedicated to equity and inclusion work. Our District was, and is, long overdue for an equity and inclusion overhaul.”

At the December 14th meeting, Taja Henderson, District Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Coach, said, “I am now left wondering, ‘What are this board’s commitments to equity?’ With the pushing out of Dr. Williams—but it honestly feels like a termination—I have never been so disgusted, I have never been so sick to my stomach about the state of our District.”

Whether or not Dr. Williams was or should have been pushed out, how the Board handled her resignation shows an indifference towards their obligations to the public. 

Koo and Nori both openly championed transparency in their campaigns and expressed positive feedback about Dr. Williams in the past. When asked to speak about her during the PTA’s Board Candidates’ Forum on September 29th, 2022, Koo said, “As a new superintendent, Dr. Williams has been doing really well. She’s been able to really hit the ground running and gotten to know the community and put an action plan together, and is following that plan.” Nori said, “Like all other candidates, I’ve not had the opportunity to actually work with Dr. Williams. I’ve heard great things about her, and I do think she brings a fresh and diverse perspective that this district could really benefit from.”

These comments, combined with the entire Board’s praise of Dr. Williams’ work, makes her abrupt departure from the District all the more unexpected and confusing. The recent press release stated, “Under Superintendent Williams’ stewardship, Sequoia became a statewide leader in equity awareness.…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.” 

Dr. Williams’ resignation is so troubling not only because it happened within days of the new Board’s inauguration but also because it contrasts with how the Board handled previous resignations.

The Board hired Dr. Williams after former superintendent Mary Streshly resigned in 2020 following tension between her and the Sequoia District Teachers Association (SDTA). During Streshly’s resignation, the Board listened to—and acted upon—faculty frustrations. This time, however, it seems that Dr. Williams’ resignation was organized behind closed doors with little public support.

An anonymous teacher said, “It took us over a year and SDTA and administrative support to remove a superintendent within the past five years. The new Board did this after a positive review of our superintendent, in one week. I have not heard one public comment in support of how the Board handled this.”

Another teacher said, “With all of this chaos coming from the Board, I fear that our District has lost sight of what matters most—fair, equal, and authentic educational opportunities for all students.”

When the Board fails to communicate with those they serve, rumors abound and chaos ensues. They may not be able to talk about closed meetings or information protected by NDAs, but it was their decision to hold closed meetings or possibly enter into NDAs at all, and these decisions show us that the Board is disinterested in making a public case. Just because they can keep their proceedings secret doesn’t mean they should. The Board provoked misinformation and frustration when they could have curbed them with a few simple statements. Regardless of the rationale behind Dr. Williams’ resignation, the Board’s secrecy is a clear violation of their responsibilities and a powerful signal that they don’t value the public’s trust. 

The Editorial Board is made up of Editors-in-Chief Ella Bohmann Farrell, Emily Buck, Sheryl Chen, and Katie Doran. It represents the general consensus of the staff.

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