I suppose given that I will have served seventeen and a half years on the board when I leave next December, one could ask why I stayed so long rather than why this is my last term. I stayed long because it was worth the battles to support the good service of district staff and its families and students. It was worth it to try to do right by all of them for as long as possible.
I am glad that I did stay long enough to see a negative trend in PUSD reverse itself. When I became board president in 2014, I was concerned that the previous three PUSD superintendencies had lasted five years, four years and three years. We were going in the wrong direction. PUSD had used search firms and wide searches for each one of those superintendents. I was disenchanted with search firms, so I decided to support a promotion from within. Dr. McDonald was our Chief Academic Officer at the time, and he was promoted by the board to superintendent. I am happy to say that the decline in the tenures of superintendents has been reversed, as he is now in the 8th year of his tenure. This is the longest since Dr. Vignes served as superintendent from 1992 to 2000. Stability in a district administration is important for all involved, and so this is a positive accomplishment in my opinion. It wasn’t easy, as holding a majority together to support district staff is not an easy thing in the face of the district’s critics including those on the board. As a majority, we managed to do this and also to do the difficult job of fending off the push by some to close schools that a higher number of families have chosen for their children. As many in the general public said at the time, it defied common sense, especially as these were schools that have desirable integration, but the ideologues are strong so it took quite an effort.
The PUSD Board’s Bylaw 9271, called our Code of Ethics, includes the following admonition to board members:
“A Governing Board Member should honor the high responsibility which Board members demand, by refusing to “play politics” in either the traditional partisan or in any petty sense.”
As a career educator, I loathe party politics and its priorities of promoting fear and a herd mentality, point-scoring, virtue-signaling, pandering, etc. in order to get votes. None of those things help with the education of students, and teaching them to work hard, to strive, to apply themselves, to learn responsibility, nor with the necessity of getting parents and community members to support the schools’ efforts. In fact these things detract from the work of educating students and fostering parental and community support of the schools. Sadly, with the 2020 alignment of PUSD elections with the general election as mandated by the state, party politics is already the norm in determining board members. This fact and the application of our nanny state politics to the schools does not bode well for the district.
With the continued departure of career educators from the board, I believe that the forces that have long treated PUSD as a political football—including many of the city’s elite and policy makers who score points by constantly criticizing the district while sending their children to private school—will be able to help ideologues try to direct the school site staff and the district’s central administrative staff and indeed direct other parents because they believe they know better. They can both virtue-signal and support each other, but I would warn against such an arrangement, as there are no successful districts where parents and advocates direct the school site services nor the centralized administrative services. I very much doubt that professional staff will even want to work in a PUSD where that is the case.
I hope I am wrong, and the professional staff can continue to manage the schools and the district. But I don’t know if the moderate center can hold.
My children have had the great benefit of a PUSD education, and I have made many great friends along the way. I encourage anyone who wants to support PUSD’s efforts to run for the District 7 seat in November of this year.
Scott Phelps is the school board member in Pasadena Unified’s District 7.