Deep in the Mt. Diablo school board's lengthy agenda Monday night, buried beneath student expulsions, contract approvals and budget transfers, was a topic that was arguably the most important of all.
The 29th "action" item of the evening, inserted at the behest of board President Sherry Whitmarsh, was a proposed contract extension through June 2015 for Superintendent Steven Lawrence and four senior staff members.
The issue didn't come up for discussion until the clock ticked toward 11 p.m., an hour when the crowd typically has begun to thin, but if the timing was meant to curtail public reaction, it didn't work.
Twelve speakers lined up for turns at the microphone, and nine were adamantly opposed. One called the extension premature, noting the current contract doesn't expire for 14 months. Another said that teachers, who have been two years without a contract, should be taken care of first. Then came a challenge bathed in logic: Why not wait until after November elections, when a new board is installed?
None of those opponents, however, was as outspoken as trustee Cheryl Hansen, who chastised her colleagues for their rush to action.
"I think it's noteworthy that this board has never discussed any contract extensions, nor has this appeared on any previous agenda," she said. "I think it's irresponsible to even contemplate extensions without a full discussion."
Hansen will not win any popularity contests among board members. She is strong of will and unflinching in principle. Opponents would find it easier to silence an air horn.
You could sense the hairs on the back of Whitmarsh's neck stand on end as Hansen hammered home several hard-to-argue points.
First, there's little reason to extend costly contracts that aren't expiring when the district has no guarantee of the funding it will get. Second, the next school board deserves a voice in hiring management if it is to be responsible for its performance. Finally, Lawrence's two years in office haven't exactly been berries and cream.
You may be aware of teachers' no-confidence vote over leadership at Mt. Diablo High School. Or the dissatisfaction at Clayton Valley that prompted its petition for charter status. Or the ill-advised secret meetings the superintendent had with Chevron Energy Solutions while discussing a no-bid solar contract.
The board spent five months laboring over Lawrence's evaluation, so it's a good bet he didn't get straight A's.
"What I have witnessed from this superintendent in the last year is a lack of leadership," said Hansen, "and a lack of planning, transparency and sensitivity to community, student and employee concerns."
Strangely, none of the board members who were willing to extend his contract were as eager to publicly commend his performance. They seemed to treat the employment extension not so much as a reward for administrative excellence as scheduled maintenance -- like an oil change after 3,000 miles.
A fair verdict on Lawrence's tenure is not necessarily thumbs-down. He probably rates thumbs sideways. But it would be nice to see him clear more hurdles than he knocks down before the district agrees to shell out $250,000 annually for the next three years.
Trustee Gary Eberhart played the compromise card -- proposing an extension only through 2014 -- to get a motion passed. He insisted that senior staffers might go job hunting if their continued employment was in doubt.
Job hunting instead will be left to the 90 district teachers who received pink slips last month -- and must wait to see if enough funding is available for them to be rehired.
They know exactly what it's like to have their employment in doubt.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.