When the Mt. Diablo school board approved one-year contract extensions for Superintendent Steven Lawrence and General Counsel Greg Rolen by 3-2 votes Monday night, you knew all you needed to know about the harmony washing over the district.
Even residents who addressed trustees stood on opposite sides of a ravine in characterizing the district's top two administrators. They are either: a) doing a bang-up job, enhancing education and sprinkling feel-good dust everywhere they skip, or b) making flawed decisions, embarrassing the community and cloaking their actions to avoid accountability.
Because policy flows from the top down, Lawrence commanded the spotlight. It's fascinating how different sets of eyeballs perceive the same person.
Some see Lawrence engaged in the community, interacting with parents and teachers. Others remember him fanning the flames of division during Clayton Valley High's charter petition, pitting school against school by recklessly railing about budget impacts that by law could not be considered in the approval process.
Some see Lawrence as the catalyst to the 2010 bond issue that funded a well received solar project. Others remember him partaking in questionable private meetings involving free drinks and discounted golf with prospective vendor Chevron.
One man at the meeting saw Lawrence as the savior of sports programs for budget-strapped high schools. Others remember community members, led by teacher Pat Middendorf and parent Mark Lloyd, rescuing sports by forming the United Mount Diablo Athletic Foundation months before Lawrence was hired.
The foremost issue was transparency. Lawrence often acts as if he'd like to manage the district from a secret location with the blinds drawn. Coincidentally, he had to apologize Monday for failing to inform board members of a parents meeting to discuss new Bay Point school boundaries.
The superintendent likes his secrecy. He denied trustee Cheryl Hansen access to a meeting between staff and Clayton Valley representatives. He commissioned a financial analysis of charter costs and kept it secret from four current board members. Rolen is no more forthcoming, dragging his feet on public records requests.
Hansen touched on that and more before joining first-year board member Barbara Oaks in voting against the contract extensions: "We need to get a superintendent with vision, one who can inspire others ... somebody who's transparent and proactive."
Trustees Linda Mayo and Lynne Dennler seemed less concerned about transparency than validating their decision to join former board members Sherry Whitmarsh and Gary Eberhart in approving extensions in April before contracts were even drawn up.
That was the reason for Monday's vote: to affirm or reject contract terms after actually reading them. Hansen and Oaks saw it as a chance to part ways with problem employees. Mayo and Dennler saw it as housework, clarifying details of a decision rendered. (Or, as Mayo put it in shedding blame: "A ministerial action has been used to create an unnecessary firestorm of controversy.")
The swing vote belonged to first-year board member Brian Lawrence, a transparency advocate caught in the middle. "For me, this is a question of were the contracts legal," he said. "Whether we agree or not, do the ends justify the means?"
He voted for the extensions, but misgiving was written on his face. It's a fitting image for the state of the Mt. Diablo district.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.