Wednesday, September 08, 2010

School board gathers before convening, then goes on to cast mostly-unanimous votes

It's quite a surprise to learn that CVESD board members were chomping down on chicken and steak kabobs from Daphne's Greek Cafe at taxpayer expense at the same time that they were humiliating children in school cafeterias with the notorious "cheese sandwich, a modern day version of the scarlet letter (see Los Angeles Times story at bottom of this post).

It took a great deal of effort by parents and community members to end to the policy of humiliating children who didn't have lunch money by presenting them with the much-dreaded "cheese sandwich." (Cheese sandwiches are terrific, it's just that kids came to associate them with punishment.)

I think it's long past time for board members to bring their own lunch money.

Chula Vista sessions raise open-meetings issues
School board gathers before convening, then goes on to cast mostly-unanimous votes
San Diego Union-Tribune
September 2, 2010
By Ashly McGlone

Chula Vista Elementary school board members have been gathering in the superintendent’s office before their public meetings, asking questions about agenda items and eating restaurant take-out food paid for by taxpayers.

State law generally requires elected officials to post public notices so citizens can attend when public business is discussed with three or more board members. But district officials say the pre-meeting sessions are not subject to those requirements.

The practice raises the possibility that a consensus could be reached in private, depriving the public of the right to know what went into board decisions.

The Watchdog reviewed minutes of all board meetings from December 2008 to the present. Of 130 motions, 129 passed unanimously. The one split vote, in February, concerned the order of agenda items.

Records obtained by The Watchdog under the California Public Records Act reveal $2,035 in meals have been billed to the district’s general fund since December 2008.

According to board vice president Larry Cunningham, food is “always there. If we have a board meeting, it’s there.” He said the meals have been standard practice since he joined the school board more than 16 years ago and no one has ever raised a concern.

The informal gatherings give board members a chance to grab a bite to eat and get their questions answered by staff members, Cunningham said.

“If you have a question to ask staff, you have a chance to go ask staff about that. It is nothing. We don’t meet with closed doors. The doors are always open,” Cunningham said. “We find it is easier to do that than ask a lot of questions at board meetings. We feel the board meetings are there for input for the public.”

Max Batangan, assistant to the school board and the superintendent, distributes meeting agendas and notifies members of any changes, according to the superintendent and board members.

Superintendent Lowell Billings, who is set to retire in December after nine years as superintendent, said, “It is a staging for the main board meeting which is held in open session. Meaning, you gotta have a place to show up, and I hold it in my office, so I am the gatekeeper.”

Generally, board members said the meeting allows them to ask one-on-one questions of staff members for clarification.

“I read the packet myself. The protocol is to take any questions to the superintendent or other district staff for more verification or information,” board member Douglas Luffborough said.

The idea of one-on-one questions may be a key distinction, experts said, as any group discussion of issues in the pre-meeting would be forbidden under the state’s open-meetings law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.

Dan Hentschke, a former Oceanside, San Marcos and Solana Beach city attorney and current general counsel for the San Diego County Water Authority, conducts trainings for elected officials on open-meetings law. Briefings on changes to the night’s agenda could be an issue, he said.

“Updating collectively, that’s a problem,” Hentschke said. “If they are hearing collectively information, that should be held in an open meeting.”

“These kinds of meetings are ones that we use as an example of ones that can be very problematic,” Hentschke said. “The law is very clear that gatherings of a majority of a legislative body have to be open-noticed and public if there is any discussion among the board members of public business. Gatherings of this nature can be held in compliance, but it is very difficult because they cannot talk about matters of agency business.”

Attorney Michael Jenkins, chair of Brown Act Committee for the League of California Cities, also said that a notification of agenda changes would be considered school business.

“Under the Brown Act they are not allowed to hear, discuss or deliberate on any matter of district business. That’s a problem because that’s business that pertains to the school district. It’s just not a good idea to have them all together,” he said. “I can’t say if their particular practice is a violation. I will say it could be under certain circumstances that they need to avoid.”

Theresa Acerro, president of the Southwest Chula Vista Civic Association and a retired teacher, said, “I would be really concerned about that. I think those questions should be asked in a public meeting because it is likely that members of the public would have those same questions.”

Former district board member and retired economics professor Peter Watry, 79, also expressed concern over the board dinners. Watry — who said the meals were not present when he served on the board from 1976 to 1980 — currently serves as vice president and acting president of the nonprofit Crossroads II, aimed primarily at monitoring land use decisions by the Chula Vista City Council...

Cheese sandwich stigma is biting

Calif. district cracks down on lunch debts
June 23, 2007
By Richard Marosi
Chicago Tribune reprint of Los Angeles Times story

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — When too many parents fell behind on paying for school lunches, the Chula Vista Elementary School District decided to get tough -- on the children.

They told students with deadbeat parents that they had only one lunch choice: a cheese sandwich.

The sandwich, served on whole wheat bread, came with a clear message: Tell your parents to pay up, or no more pizza and burgers for you.

Cheese sandwiches and other "alternate meals" have been added to menus in school districts across the country as they try to deal with lunch debts.

The strategy worked in Chula Vista: Lunch debts in the district fell from about $300,000 in 2004 to $67,000 in 2006. Some angry parents say success came at too high a cost, however.

The cheese sandwich, parents say, has become a badge of shame for children, who get teased about it by their classmates. One student cried when her macaroni and cheese was replaced with a sandwich. A little girl hid in a restroom to avoid getting one. Many of the sandwiches end up untouched or tossed in the garbage.

"I think it's an infamous cheese sandwich," said Frank Luna, whose son, Christopher, just finished 6th grade.

A year ago, Luna said, a cafeteria worker took away Christopher's pizza and forced him in front of his friends to pick up a sandwich instead. A similar incident occurred when Christopher was in 3rd grade.

"The kid was humiliated," said his father, who added that he did not realize he owed less than $10.

In Chula Vista, the largest elementary school district in California, administrators said they had to control the ballooning debt before it forced them to make cuts in such areas as classroom equipment and books.

"When we did nothing, there was no incentive to pay," said Dennis Doyle, assistant superintendent of the district, which serves about 18,000 meals daily, including about 400 alternate meals...

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