BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
In the last five months, the Bakersfield City School District board has changed assembly speaker and sexual harassment policies, asked for information about consultant hiring and demanded a task force look into discipline issues.
It's obvious to community members, trustees and school officials: the board is more vocal, active and transparent than those of years past.
The result has parents and teachers feeling a renewed sense of belonging, and board members a sense of accomplishment.
"There's been a dramatic change -- a dynamic change," said Trustee Bill McDougle, who has been on the board since 2008.
Much of it is attributed to new blood. In November, voters booted two incumbents with 16 years of board experience each and replaced them with a retired teacher and a community activist.
The activist, Andrae Gonzales, has been among the most vocal. He said he believes board members -- who oversee 40 schools with 28,000 students and a $250 million budget -- must ask questions.
"It's important we do our due diligence," said Gonzales, executive director of Stewards Inc., a nonprofit that helps individuals unable to manage their own finances. "I want to make sure we're as transparent as possible."
But the changes have also created somewhat of a distraction for the district as it copes with drastic state budget cuts, said board President Rick Van Horne.
Van Horne and other school officials including Superintendent Michael Lingo also said much of the board's questioning, while good, is due to lack of board experience and new members trying to learn the process.
"Our job is to oversee," Van Horne, a high school teacher and coach, said. "But there's a fine line between overseeing and interfering. I just don't want to see ourselves interfering with what the (administrators) are doing for a living."
STANDING ROOM ONLY
Whether overseeing or interfering, the public has taken notice. Earlier this week, the monthly board meeting was moved from its regular boardroom, which fits a few hundred, to an auditorium that can accommodate thousands. It was at the request of Trustee Lillian Tafoya, first elected in 1996.
Recent meetings have been standing-room only, likely attributed to high-interest topics brought forth by trustees. Kern County Supervisor Karen Goh has at times been unable to find a seat.
She has noticed the board's deep involvement in issues.
"I'm encouraged that the public is getting more involved," said Goh, whose district includes BCSD territory.
While speaking to the board Tuesday, BCSD parent Jesus Garcia thanked members for being more transparent and listening more to parents.
"It's a refreshing change," he told them.
Garcia, a parent of four BCSD students and two currently at Chavez Elementary, said he has been attending board meetings for 10 years.
"What I'm impressed with is this board's general awareness on issues, and its concern of needs that come up," Garcia told The Californian. "The board is working in the best interest of everybody."
Teachers, too, believe the board is "implementing the priorities of the community," said Brad Barnes, president of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association.
The association endorsed Gonzales and the other newbie, retired BCSD teacher Pamela Baugher, during last year's election. BETA had hoped for more board activism.
"It's exceeding the expectations of the teachers given the tough budget circumstances," Barnes said.
In fact, trustees are becoming so involved in the community they must take care not to violate the Brown Act, the state's open meetings law. Trustees must figure out who is attending school functions so as not to have a board majority there. Three constitute a quorum.
Meetings are now more involved, said Trustee Baugher. During her 40 years of teaching in BCSD, she's attended many meetings. Some past ones have lasted 15 minutes held once a month.
"Everything isn't all perfect in the school district where you can meet for only 15 minutes," she said. "We need to get busy, but not just meet for the sake of meeting. It's good we have an active force."
Numbers account for much of the change, said Trustee Tafoya, a former BCSD administrator. When a majority of trustees are like-minded, their actions will pass.
On past boards, she said, there were times she saved her breath when she knew her view wouldn't prevail.
"You learn to count to three really fast," she said, referring to the three trustee votes required to get an action passed. "Otherwise, you're spinning your wheels."
Tafoya's demands recently included calling for a discipline task force and a breakdown of budget cuts made. New trustees' energy has spread to others, she said. In all, "everybody's heart is in the right place," she said.
"It's important we try to work together for the betterment of children."
Changes are obvious already, and more are expected. Superintendent Lingo recently announced he will retire at the end of the year. The board will have to hire an interim and then permanent replacement.
Lingo said while he's there, he welcomes the board's questions and comments. Every board is different, he said.
Likewise, Van Horne said, "it's not a battle between an old board and a new board. Each is different and this one is going to take time to adjust to."
Gonzales is happy with recent board actions. At the last meeting, trustees asked BCSD to look into the cost savings of using solar panels and debated tough cuts to programs and staffing, among other things.
"I'm very excited about the direction we're going in," he said.