This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.
There's a shift in the mood at Mt. Diablo school board meetings. The acrimony of the past has given way to a more collegial and optimistic spirit as trustees work together to improve the district.
At Wednesday's meeting, board President Cheryl Hansen attributed much of the change to Interim Superintendent John Bernard, who was hired in May to work through September, while trustees searched for a permanent superintendent to replace Steven Lawrence. Before Bernard was hired, the board was rarely united, and it was divided in its decisions to fire Lawrence and the general counsel.
But since Bernard took over, Hansen has been downright bubbly as she leads meetings, sometimes cracking jokes and often complimenting Bernard as a "problem solver" who has helped direct the board's focus. Recently elected trustees Barbara Oaks and Brian Lawrence have grown into their positions, asking thoughtful questions and considering items carefully and deliberately.
Trustees Linda Mayo and Lynne Dennler, who were often at odds with Hansen before Oaks and Lawrence joined the board, now appear to be getting used to Hansen's leadership and to working alongside two new board members.
Although this is just the beginning of the leadership transition in the district, it is a hopeful sign to some who were frustrated by the old way of doing things, which included staff giving some board members more information than others.
One change being pushed by Lawrence is more transparency about who will be appointed to administrative positions in the district. Currently, the public gets no advance notice of the candidate's name, and the board has often received little information about prospective employees before voting on their appointments.
"I'm aware there has been inconsistency, and we are going to remedy that," Bernard assured trustees on Wednesday.
After listening to each board member's concerns, he promised to bring back a recommendation at the next board meeting. Later, Bernard showed his sense of humor when he proudly announced that the district would soon be providing PSA tests to every sophomore.
He then realized he had mistakenly referred to a Prostate-Specific Antigen, or PSA test for prostate cancer. So, he corrected himself by saying the district would offer the PSAT, or Preliminary SAT.
He then looked directly at me and said, "I already know what you're going to write tomorrow. Bernard can't read."
Later, when he made an announcement highlighting the district's after-school programs, Lawrence quipped: "Do they get PSA tests there?"
Bernard quickly replied: "Only the adults."
At the end of the meeting, Lawrence pointed out that it was Bernard's last night to sit on the dais with trustees, since newly appointed Superintendent Nellie Meyer will start Sept. 23.
"I just wanted to say thank you and it has certainly been an educational and enjoyable few months," Lawrence said. "I appreciate you stepping in and helping us out and really helping accentuate some of the really good things going on in the district and helping fix some of the things that weren't."
Hansen presented Bernard with a Tommy Bahama gift card, saying she wanted him to enjoy some rest and relaxation after he leaves at the end of the month.
"He's been an amazing trooper," Hansen told the audience. "The way we went through this transition was just really amazing to me -- that we went into a mode of actual really strong leadership grounded on solid values, constantly focusing on our schools and our students, constantly focusing on how to break down some of the walls and rebuild some of the trust."
She said Meyer has also expressed appreciation for the tone that Bernard has been set.
"We couldn't have asked for anything more, because it could have been an extremely tumultuous, bumpy road," Hansen said. "Dr. Bernard came in and hit the ground running, brought a sense of calm, a sense of purpose and a knowledge base. To me, that's called leadership. And it's just been impressive and really, really nice."