In Santa Clara County, school board races are ordinarily slumber fests. So it was more than a little unusual to see an ad in the Santa Clara Weekly recently that pleaded with voters not to choose a candidate for the Santa Clara Unified School board, Christopher Stampolis.
Stampolis, 46, long has been an outspoken and abrasive figure in educational and political circles. (For a story about how he allegedly lost his patience at a Los Angeles storage company, go to www.tmz.com/2008/08/26/delegate-whacked-in-assault-case-against-lady.)
But the Weekly ad, which said Stampolis's behavior had been harmful to students and disrespectful to educators, was signed by four ex-superintendents, two ex-community college chancellors, and all six of his current colleagues on the West Valley-Mission Community college board. If politics is an artillery blast, these were the big guns (see the ad at www.savescusd.com).
Last week I tracked down a man who was a key organizer for that effort, a retired principal in the Santa Clara schools, Buck Polk, who has served on the West Valley-Mission board with Stampolis for the past seven years.
Polk is a ruddy, silver-haired man of 76 who taught and coached at Santa Clara High School and served 25 years as a principal at two elementary schools.
"The first impression I had of him (Stampolis) was that he was terrific -- passionate about education, he just seemed so into it," Polk said. "He really seems like the brightest, smartest guy in the room until you get to know him."
Selection of chancellor
Saying that Stampolis is "entirely abusive" to people, Polk tells a couple stories. Once, when the West Valley board voted 5-2 to pick John Hendrickson as the new chancellor, Polk had asked his fellow trustees to make it unanimous for the public session. As a dissenter, Stampolis refused, prompting Polk to say publicly that he was disappointed at the lack of unity.
"The meeting was over, and I'm in the bathroom when I heard him say, 'I'm gonna get you,' " Polk says. "That's where it started."
In a more recent case, Stampolis beat the majority of the West Valley-Mission board to the registrar's office to submit a ballot statement on behalf of a planned bond measure. His fellow trustees were surprised when they arrived with their own wording.
"The point of the story is that it's all about him, and not about the administration or the school," Polk says.
Stampolis' reaction? He contends that he never used the words "I'm gonna get you," though he thought Polk's scolding was unfair. He says he never paid any money in the Los Angeles case. And he says he was unaware the rest of the West Valley board planned a ballot statement -- an explanation his colleagues reject.
"I think I ask tough questions, but I'm respectful," Stampolis told me. "When I find there's been an impropriety with money, I point it out." He added that he found it "outrageous" that the Santa Clara Weekly ad could say he obstructed education.
In truth, Stampolis has been a vocal advocate for the needy. "He sometimes is the only person in the room to stand up for students, particularly the ill-advantaged," says an ex-West Valley trustee, Jeff Schwartz.
But this is an extraordinary public rebuke by a wide cadre of respected educators. It's hard to dismiss their charges as just politics.
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