Inside the School Board Crisis

Louann Carlomagno resigns as internal trauma fractures board.

Chuck Young—academic ‘Rock Star’— is temporary replacement.

Story David Bolling

When Louann Carlomagno announced on June 6 she was resigning as superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, it sent shockwaves through the district and exposed a rift on the school board many people interviewed laid at the feet of newly elected board member John Kelly.

And in a stunning announcement on June 29, the board sent a different kind of shock wave through the community with the announcement that, on a 5-0 vote, they offered the position of interim, part-time superintendent to Chuck Young, the distinguished former chancellor of UCLA who said he would accept the job for one year.

And during that temporary tenure, the district board will also have to resolve a complaint filed May 5 by Karla Conroy, the district’s retiring director of curriculum and instruction, against Kelly for creating a hostile work environment.

Carlomagno’s last day on the job was June 30, although she continued to organize her office affairs through the subsequent weekend to facilitate the transition for district staff.

A widely popular administrator, and a product of Sonoma Valley Schools, Carlomagno had spent the past 25 years as a school district employee—serving as a high school science teacher, a teacher at Sonoma Charter School, vice principal at Altimira Middle School, principal of El Verano Elementary School and the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. Both she and her husband, Brian Wirick, are 1980 graduates of Sonoma Valley High School. She has a degree in genetics from UC Davis, and a master’s degree from Sonoma State University.

In her letter of resignation, Carlo-magno made general allusions to a conflict on the board but did not identify Kelly by name.

“Since the school board election last November,” she wrote, “I have had to spend much of my time addressing board operations and interpersonal dynamics. The governance team has been unsuccessful in achieving any resolution to these challenges, even with the assistance of organizational consultants. As a result, I have been unable to focus on the work necessary to support our strategic educational initiatives. I have concluded that a different superintendent may be better able to address these issues and to re-unify the governance team.”

She later announced she is taking an interim superintendent position with the Hillsborough City School District, a wealthy Peninsula district that has received 26 California Distinguished School awards, seven national Blue Ribbon School awards and 29 Kent Awards for Innovative Programs.

At issue with Kelly’s behavior, according to interviews with 10 people who are associated with the district or have worked with district employees, is a relentlessly combative and accusative behavior pattern adopted by Kelly during interactions in meetings and in private.

Kelly was elected to the board last November after defeating incumbent Gary DeSmet in the election contest for the Sassarini attendance area board seat. Kelly is a Sonoma attorney with a law degree from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. He served as an independent consultant to the school district for about a year and a half before being hired by Carlomagno as a special projects manager. He had previously served on the City of Sonoma’s Community Services & Environment Commission as well as on the city’s Budget Advisory Committee.

At the time of his hiring at least one district employee counseled against offering Kelly the job after witnessing what was described as abusive or angry behavior, but Carlomagno expressed confidence that Kelly would rise to the occasion and welcomed his expertise in data analysis and education policy research.

He spent four months in the special projects position before submitting a letter of resignation to the district on May 25, 2016.

Loyal Carlon, the district’s director of human resources, officially acknowledged the resignation that same day with the succinct written response, “You have already provided me with your district key and the location of your district laptop computer …you will not need to come to the district office or attend any meetings on the district’s behalf between today and June, unless requested by me directly.”

Two sources who spoke only on the condition of anonymity reported that Kelly’s resignation wasn’t actually voluntary but followed a complaint from district staff about his confrontational, sometimes angry and intimidating behavior, including direct confrontations with staff at whom he yelled, and loud yelling incidents over his office phone. According to these sources he was informed that he would have to leave the district’s employ, but that he was given the opportunity of resigning. A letter of complaint was reportedly added to his personnel file.

After resigning from the district job, Kelly announced his candidacy for the school board seat held by DeSmet, launching a well-funded campaign and lining up an impressive list of supporters, including three former Sonoma mayors.

That September he told the Sonoma Index-Tribune, “For the last four years, I’ve been very engaged in the district, and worked closely with the staff. Over this time, I’ve also built strong, trusting relationships with our teachers. I feel I have an intimate understanding of the issues, and how a stronger trustee presence can support our teachers more effectively. I’d like to develop these relationships further, in order to continue the district’s forward progress, in particular at Sassarini Elementary. I have an intense drive, and hold myself to high expectations. Serving is genuinely about making a difference for our kids and our community, and the office is a means to that end, not the objective itself.”

DeSmet, a retired teacher with “literally 10,000 hours of classroom experience” in elementary, middle school and high school classrooms, and eight years on the school board, won the Index-Tribune’s endorsement, but lost the election to Kelly.

According to one district source, problems with Kelly began as early as the November of his election, and came to a boil later when, according to a source, Kelly insisted on presenting so-called “dashboard” data to a board meeting that was not ready for review and that “drove the meeting off track,” the source said, despite requests to delay the presentation.

A later example of his board meeting behavior is available for public review on YouTube, which has video records of school district board meetings. During a meeting on May 9 of this year, Kelly began grilling district business manager John Bartolome about suspicions he, Kelly, apparently harbored that the district was secretly planning to cut $1.1 million from its special education budget, thus depriving students with disabilities the level of education attention they now receive.

Bartolome, caught off guard by Kelly’s unexpected line of questions, attempted to assure him such cuts weren’t planned, but Kelly persisted, even after board chair Dan Gustafson gaveled him to silence. Only when Nicarre Redcoff, the special education director, flatly told Kelly there was no plan to reduce service to special education students to save money did he drop the line of aggressive questioning that had consumed some 15 to 20 minutes of board time.

But Kelly’s behavior made an impression on at least one member of the audience, a district parent named Anne Ching, who rose to address the board. Ching echoed a concern expressed by Kelly that the district should find ways to present its budget to the public in more transparent form, but then she questioned why the process she just witnessed had “to be so hostile. I don’t understand the hostility,” she said. “This is not a courtroom.”

According to Conroy, whose two-page complaint against Kelly is public information, she felt he “created a hostile, aggressive, and confrontational environment while I was presenting agenda items … I felt Mr. Kelly was particularly confrontational toward me and retaliatory in nature due to our previous working relationship; Mr. Kelly worked for our district in 2016. Since Mr. Kelly’s term on the SVUSD Board of Trustees in December 2016, I have felt like I am being cross-examined in a courtroom of law on numerous occasions. I believe Mr. Kelly’s questions during public meetings are not to gain information or understanding, but instead to make me look unprepared. At one point he even asked me to disclose embargoed data at the public board meeting. When I spoke with him after the meeting I pointed out that I can’t disclose that information. His reply indicated that he was aware the information could not be disclosed, (but he said) ‘I thought I could get you to bite.’ These behaviors and actions are degrading, confrontational and inappropriate. Mr. Kelly’s actions are causing undue stress creating a hostile work environment, especially when I present information publicly.”

Conroy goes on to list the district norms that are supposed to guide meeting behavior. They include, “being kind and respectful, open and honest, and assuming best intentions. Our Board Norms and Operations include keeping the district focused on learning for all students, conducting our discussions professionally, exhibiting attentive listening, using appropriate language, demonstrating mutual respect, politeness and calm despite different opinions. Mr. Kelly does not adhere to many of these norms.”

And Conroy adds, “Throughout my 30 years in SVUSD serving as a teacher, vice principal, principal and currently director, I have never experienced hostile behavior directed toward me as I have with Mr. Kelly. After many occasions where others witnessed his aggressiveness toward me publicly (Board Meetings and DELAC), several people have asked me if I was doing all right and stated his behavior was inappropriate.”

In an effort to address these tensions, the board contacted a noted educational consultant and former school superintendent named Walter Buster, who agreed to undertake some initial counseling with the board on the condition that all five members agree to meet individually with him and Carlomagno. According to board chair Gustafson, four board members agreed, but Kelly refused.

This reporter asked Kelly for an interview to provide his response to the charges and to explain his behavior from his point of view, emphasizing that otherwise the story would be unbalanced. Kelly declined to comment, explaining that he had asked Gustafson to request a legal opinion from district attorneys on the question of whether he, Kelly, was free to talk to the press.

Gustafson reported that the district’s legal counsel “was unable to provide legal advice to John Kelly regarding whether Mr. Kelly could or should talk to the press because the district’s legal counsel represents the district’s interests and not those of an individual board member, particularly in relation to an investigation pertaining to that board member.”

Kelly’s final comment came in an email stating, “I asked the attorneys for the district for an opinion on this interview request, and after seeing what they had to say, no comment.”

Meanwhile, pressure was building in the community for some kind of intervention to refocus the school board and move the district beyond the current level of internal conflict. After Young addressed the board during a quickly convened Saturday morning meeting on June 10, he became the de facto focus of whatever action might be taken by concerned community members. Young is a career educator of national prominence who moved to Sonoma with his wife, Judy, in 2010, quickly becoming involved in the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation. Besides spending 29 years as UCLA chancellor, and five years as president of the University of Florida, among a variety of other prestigious positions, he has served on the American Council of Education and a variety of other national and international educational commissions.

Charles E. Young Annual Lecture

In his forceful advice to the school board at the June 10 meeting he said, “You have to understand what a good board is like and what a bad board is like. You have to worry about what has transpired that has brought you to this point. You have lost the finest superintendent that I have ever met … You need, first of all, to understand what happened, and you are the people who made it happen. You have to reform the board, and you are the only people that can make that happen.”

The push for Young to lead that effort gathered steam over the ensuing two weeks and on the evening of June 27 the district board went into closed session to consider the proposal. They emerged with the unanimous decision to offer Young the one-year, 40 percent position, with the understanding, as Young later put it, to help “bring the board out of its dysfunctional demeanor and do what it’s supposed to do. I hope to cut down the agenda and see that they are working with board and staff, helping instead of hindering. I’m looking forward to it.”

Day-to-day administrative responsibility will fall to Loyal Carlon while Young focuses on “board cohesiveness and on sustaining the current positive trajectory of district schools,” according to a press release from the district.

In the same release, a clearly relieved Gustafson states, “Chuck will be able to address the concerns of major donors who have allowed the district to enhance its programs far beyond what would be possible from government funds alone. Those donors need assurances that the district will continue to move forward despite Louann’s departure.”

Separately Gustafson, added, “He’s such a game changer. We’ve gone from the outhouse to the penthouse. I’m so grateful.”

Board member Nicolé Abaté-Ducarroz offered, “We’ve come around to the other side. He’s the Steve Jobs of education.”

And, concluded the departing Carlomagno, “I think Chuck will bring incredible expertise with him to make the board members the best board members they can be. He’s going to call things like he sees them. I’m excited by that.”

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