When it comes to controversial San Diego County school districts, San Diego City Schools grabs most of the headlines, what with the district board's frequent 3-2 voting pattern, well-documented rancor and often rowdy meetings.
But East County's Grossmont Union High School District is far behind in the acrimony race. In the latest flare-up, GUHSD trustees voted 4-1 this summer to strip the district governing board's student representative's power to make motions during board meetings and second other board member's motions.
That's significant because a board member who finds himself on the wrong end of a 4-1 split of opinion can't move his agenda without a second. In the case of GUHSD, student representative Jamie Crooks could have seconded motions made by Tom Page, the board's odd-man-out in the current ideological paradigm and the lone dissenting
Crooks was eagerly anticipating the power to make sure students' interests were well represented, but now that power is purely advisory and his concerns can be easily dismissed.
"Before I got on the board I thought something like this would happen," Crooks said. "We still have the power to talk to the board-the difference is, they don't have to listen."
GUHSD Board President Jim Kelly is unapologetic about the vote. "Students should not have that power. These are minors," said Kelly, who won election to the board last fall. "Only board members who have been elected by voters should have the right to make and second motions."
"It is a bad policy," agreed board member Gary Cass. Our policy is now in line with 99 percent of school boards around the state. I've been on the board for five years. The board voted it in when I was first here. I didn't agree with it, and when I had the chance to change it, I did.
"The powers to make motions and seconds are powers reserved for elected officials. [Students] could hinder the work."
The student-rep flap probably wouldn't be seen as that significant in most school districts, but this is the Grossmont Union High School District. This is the district whose board refused to extend gay and lesbian students the right to protection against harassment because, board members said, those students are covered in a district anti-discrimination policy-even though gay and lesbian students are not specifically mentioned in that policy. That issue boiled over into ugly public confrontations at school board meetings.
The is the district where attempts have been made by an unidentified "concerned parents group" to ban books like Cold Mountain and Snow Falling on Cedars from student reading lists. This is the district whose attorneys were asked last summer "whether the district may control" the student press.
And this is the district that hasn't passed a school bond in more than 35 years
GUHSD serves roughly 25,000 students. There are 206,811 registered voters living in the district, but only 49 percent voted in the last election, according to figures from the San Diego County Registrar of voters. Voters chose three candidates from a field of nine. The winning three candidates were Kelly, Cass and Eve Wills. Cass came in third, just 557 votes ahead of the fourth-place finisher. None of the candidates were selected by more than 16 percent of registered voters.
Kelly, Cass, Wills and Priscilla Schreiber often vote in a block on matters before the board. Critics say the group is holding fast to conservative principles even when it costs the district, as it did last fall when the board refused to take advantage of the statewide voter-approved Proposition 39, which allowed school bond measures to pass with a 55 percent majority vote, rather than the two-thirds majority required under Proposition 13. Many school bond efforts around the state have failed recently because, though favored by a majority of the voters, they haven't reached the two-thirds threshold.
GUHSD board members say they want to pass a bond, but they're not going to give up the two-thirds requirement. "We have made it clear we are voting for traditional Prop 13 bond," Kelly said. "We will not go for the lower approval threshold that Prop 39 allows. We believe in taxpayer accountability."
Kelly said that if the lower approval rate is used, people who rent, and don't pay property taxes, could decide the fate of a bond measure. "In El Cajon, 61 percent of residents are renters," he said. "Renters could saddle homeowners with 30 years of tax obligation."
Board critics and some students charge that Kelly, Cass Schreiber and Wills care more about property owners than they do about students.
Eve Stine ran for the district board last fall. She lost, finishing fifth out of nine candidates, a little more than 1,600 votes out of the third and final slot. She said many of the existing district facilities need improvement and new schools need to be built.
"Most people in East County don't have kids in high school and they don't want to pay more taxes," said Stine. "They have the attitude of What's in it for me?, and that is just human nature."
Stine said the rundown condition of the facilities, including inadequate bathrooms and classrooms sorely in need of painting, sends a message to kids she doesn't consider particularly positive. "Most [voters] don't know what the condition of the high schools are," said Stine. "The kids see this, [and] they think that is how the community values them."
Some students at Grossmont High School agree the facilities are in bad shape. People are pretty frustrated," said Mark Nicholson, a Grossmont High senior. Board members "say they want the bond, but it takes more than a paint job to cover up the problem. The bathrooms are terrible."
Nicholson said he knows adults are worried about high taxes, but he's worried about something else. "We understand," he said, "but you can't put a price tag on our education."
"Let's face it-I'm a conservative guy," said Kelly. "I've always been a conservative guy. These are my principles."
Those conservative principles are a reflection of a narrow majority of voters in the district that Kelly, Cass, Schreiber and Wells represent. Critics of the four have said their conservative principles are not serving the students or the community.
Board member Schreiber told CityBeat that a "concerned parents group" contacted her with a list of books they say are inappropriate. The titles included The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Toni Morrison and Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Schreiber said she just wanted to make sure parents knew all their options when it came to approving reading materials.
"Just because [a book] is recommended by the state doesn't mean it's appropriate for all families," Schreiber said.
CityBeat has obtained a copy of a letter sent to the district by the Los Angeles law firm of Parham and Rajcic. The letter, dated Aug. 13, 2003, is addressed to district Superintendent Dr. Terry Ryan.
In its first paragraph, the letter states, "You have requested our office provide general legal guidance regarding school sponsored publications. Specifically, you asked for an overview of student rights to free speech in school newspapers, and whether the district may control the content of those publications"
The letter continues: "Student free speech rights are well-established under both federal and California law." Furthermore, it notes, "Freedom of speech rights for students under California law far exceed federal standards...."
The letter does note that districts may censor obscene material, and student publications must follow good journalistic practices.
Kelly said he didn't know about the letter or the inquiry.
"I know there were some complaints we got from some parents about one article," Kelly said. But "the one thing a good superintendent will always do-they will get legal opinions before they react."
So far, no action has been taken by the board to assert more control over student publications. Ryan did not respond to phone calls for this article.
Student representative Crooks said students have formed the SUV (Students United for a Voice) Club to protest the board's decision to strip him of his motion and seconding powers. Students aren't happy about the board's decision, he said.
But what's happening really shouldn't come as any surprise to Crooks. His dad is Ted Crooks, the former school board president who became the target of a nasty 1999 recall effort by some voters who accused him of promoting a "homosexual agenda" and advocating special rights for gay and lesbian students. The recall failed because many of the signatures collected were duplicates, and because many people who signed it weren't registered voters.
Ted Crooks lost his bid for re-election last fall, finishing sixth in a field of nine.
Schreiber said that had no bearing on the board's action regarding the student rep issue. "This has nothing to do with who his dad is," she said. "It just does make it more interesting, don't you think?