Tension fills the room during superintendent’s contract renewal | SierraSun.com

Tension fills the room during superintendent’s contract renewal

Katherine Morris

Tempers continued to flare between Prosser Creek Charter School and the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District at a school board meeting last week.

This time the issue of contention was not the FCMAT report on Prosser Creek’s finances, but rather School Superintendent Pat Gemma’s contract, which was renewed by a 4-1 vote at the Nov. 6 meeting.

Relations between the two parties have been increasingly strained with the recent release of an audit report that questions both the charter school’s financial practices and viability.

As Prosser Creek’s charter agreement with TTUSD approaches its own renewal date in June, many of the school’s supporters have expressed growing concern with what they believe to be Gemma’s “anti-charter” sentiments.

“We’ve had several requests by members of the public to pull this particular item from the consent agenda to allow for public comment,” TTUSD Board President Mel Cone told the 25 or so people in the audience. “We’ve agreed to do that tonight.”

The renewal of the four-year contract, which extends through 2006, follows an extensive evaluation process of Gemma’s performance by the Board of Trustees.

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“I’ve heard that the superintendent is not favorable to charter schools and that he would not like them to exist in this district,” one audience member stated. “I was hoping he could respond to those rumors.”

After the board members conferred for a moment, Trustee Cindy Gustafson responded instead.

“I’m sure that Pat would be happy to respond to any of your questions at the appropriate time, but I think that tonight is not the appropriate place for that,” Gustafson said. “If people want to ask the board questions about the contract itself, we are happy answer those questions.”

“Where is the spirit of wanting to make the charter system work in this district?” the woman continued. “Does the board care?”

“Yes, this board is the one that adopted the original charter with Prosser Creek,” Gustafson said. “We’ve all spent countless hours working on this issue and continue to work on, and we’ve told people that we do support charter schools in this district.”

“I think that we’ve already addressed some of these issues and the FCMAT report,” Cone said. “We’re here tonight to hear comments specifically on this contract.”

Prosser Creek Charter School Advisory Board member Christopher Handel expressed concern over the lack of opportunities for public comment during the process of evaluating Gemma’s performance.

“The board hasn’t asked the community to participate in this process, which is why I requested that this item be pulled from the meeting’s agenda,” Handel said.

“Your comments are well-taken,” Gustafson responded. “However, we did go out and survey many administrators and staff about the superintendent’s performance. Let’s be clear on this – evaluating the superintendent is our job. If you or anyone has a concern about him, we encourage people to call us, anytime, all year long. He is our only employee and we are evaluating him 365 days a year.”

“We receive calls from the public all of the time and definitely take those comments into account when completing our evaluations,” she added.

Handel asked why PCCS administrators hadn’t been asked for their input during the evaluation process.

“We didn’t include Prosser because we decided to stay directly within the district,” said Gustafson, whose comments drew sighs, groans and shaking heads from the PCCS crowd in attendance. “We are the charter school’s oversight body. The charter school does not answer to the Superintendent.”

Several speakers came forward in support of Gemma.

“When Pat came to the district four years ago, we were in an extreme crisis and even called in the FCMAT team to help us out,” said Roger Kahn. “During the last four years, this superintendent has worked to get the district back in line and restore financial health.”

“I’ve spent a great deal of time with Pat,” he added. “While we may not have always agreed on things, but we are very fortunate to have a man of this caliber here in the district – especially now, when we’re seeing the crises at the state level. I recommend you approve this contract post haste.”

When it came time for board members to vote on the contract, Trustee Karen Van Epps made a motion to table the item until the board had more time to review it.

“I think there are certain aspects of the contract that need to be revisited,” Van Epps said. “I think we need an opportunity for more dialogue before we vote on it. I really feel that we need to have our legal council review the contract carefully.”

“We are now entering into a very different four-year period and make sure that we are taking the necessary steps to protect the district,” she added.

Van Epps stressed that her concerns were in no way related to the Superintendent’s evaluation or performance.

“This is an issue of due diligence and accountability for the district,” she said.

Other board members did not agree.

“This contract is basically the same except for some of the dates,” Gustafson said.

“Pat received a very favorable evaluation,” Cone added. “Approving this [extension of his contract] is simply a matter of routine. I see no problem here because the contract is more or less the same. He’s even agreed to take less of a cost of living adjustment than the original contract specified.”

“I think he’s done an outstanding job,” said Patricia Gibbons-Johnson. “The teachers support him. The administrators support him. I like the things he’s been doing with the district.”

Gibbons-Johnson also addressed the audience members.

“Trying to go after the superintendent because you feel that your needs aren’t being met is not appropriate,” she said. “It’s time that someone stood up and supported Pat.”

In the end, the board voted 4-1 in favor of approving the contract. Van Epps was the only opposing vote.

“The original contract was created four years ago and I tend to wonder if some of the information it contains is outdated at this point,” Van Epps said. “We should make sure that we have a contract with the most current information.”