CONCORD — A new majority of elected leaders is bringing promised change to the Mt. Diablo school district, prompting cheers from supporters and causing others to wonder where the new direction will lead.
After assuming leadership of the school board in December, President Gary Eberhart, Vice President Paul Strange and recently elected trustee Sherry Whitmarsh have acted decisively, fulfilling what they believe is the voters' desire to clean house. Eberhart and Strange call it a mandate.
The trio has a hands-on style, making tough budget-cutting choices and wresting away some of Superintendent Gary McHenry's power by pushing through initiatives over the objections of trustees Richard Allen and Linda Mayo, now in the minority.
"I think it's a night and day difference right now," Eberhart said. "Board members aren't at each others' throats. I also think you've seen the board come up with its own priorities and not just accept everything the superintendent hands to us."
Since Whitmarsh joined the board Dec. 9, the trustees have responded to state budget cuts by slashing about $4.4 million from the district's 2009-10 budget of nearly $297.7 million, on their way toward cutting $6.6 million by Feb. 10. The board so far has eliminated more than 30 teachers, three district administrators and several maintenance workers.
The board majority has also reorganized the district's legal office, adding another staff attorney and removing its top lawyer from the superintendent's direct chain of command. Now, the general counsel reports primarily to the board and supervises all legal contracts, which were previously under McHenry's control.
Allen and Mayo voted against the reorganization, saying they weren't comfortable moving so quickly.
"There were still some items I wanted to discuss," Mayo said in a phone interview. "But it was obvious the board was ready to make it's decision. And they did."
The pace of change has alarmed some in the district, who worry the majority wielding its newfound power may act rashly.
"It may be the combination of the new membership and the changes in the state budget and economy that are driving these really rapid decisions," said Gina Hale, the parent of three children in district schools, including a daughter in special education. "There is an enormous amount of deep, irreparable harm that can be done from top-down change movements that don't take into account every stakeholder."
Whitmarsh said one of her top priorities is to overcome the mistrust that has developed among different groups in the district.
Dorothy Englund, a parent and district watchdog, characterizes the board as "the young and the restless versus the old and the cautious."
"For too long we've had a board majority with rose-colored glasses on," said Englund, who has criticized the district for fiscal blunders including late payroll tax payments. "It's good to recognize the successes of the district, but we also have to understand the failures. If they just gloss over these problems, then they just happen again and again."
She and others who voted for Eberhart and Whitmarsh are hoping the new majority will follow through on promises to make the district's business more open. Eberhart and Strange, who called for the superintendent's resignation last year, viewed the election as a referendum on McHenry's performance.
"The superintendent is going to have to deal with a board that's going to be more active and willing to hold him accountable for the errors he makes," Strange said. "We're having to get more involved than if we just simply had a superintendent who understood the importance of strategic planning."
In the past few months, the board has held several closed session meetings to discuss McHenry's responsibilities. Neither he nor trustees would comment on whether they expect him to retain his position until his contract expires in June 2010.
"With a change on the board, I need to know what I should work on first, so that I am working with the board in terms of their priorities," McHenry said. "I'm not opposed to strategic planning. Whatever they establish as a priority, that's what I'll do."
Allen, who was in line for the board presidency after serving as vice president last year, stepped aside to allow the new majority to take the reins.
"I really feel that the board has to get together," Allen said. "We've got two big things on our plate. One is balancing our budget. The other is the possibility of a parcel tax. If we appear to be split, I don't think it will help the trust within the community toward the board of education.
"I think the split board that we've had has not been positive for the school district."
Reach Theresa Harrington at 925-945-4764 or firstname.lastname@example.org.