At a sometimes contentious meeting on Jan. 4, the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District Board of Trustees litigated the reelection of Casey Powers to her third consecutive term as board president on Dec. 14, 2022. Trustee Dan Kerbs argued that the district’s governing rules dictated he should have been installed in that position.
Ultimately, the board voted to modify the provision of the rules to allow for the election of the president rather than by automatic appointment, with trustees Powers, Kristen Schaefer and Anissa Dizon voting yes, and trustees Kerbs and Monica Martinez-Guaracha voting no. The motion to reconsider the election via the renomination of Kerbs as president failed along the same lines.
At question was section 9100 of the board bylaws, which states that the board will “each year elect its entire slate of officers. The clerk of the board shall advance to the position of president after completing the term for the position of clerk.” The vote to modify that clause changed the word “shall” to “may.”
Kerbs, who had served as board clerk in 2022, cited this section to support his claim that the reelection of Powers was not valid and that he should have received the position instead.
Interim superintendent Barbara Dill-Varga began the meeting by introducing three documents that were part of the agenda packet: a FAQ she had compiled and run past the district’s legal counsel concerning questions she had about the matter; a copy of the Board Governance Handbook; and a list of previous presidents and clerks going back to 2010 that showed the clerk succeeding the president in only seven of the previous 14 elections.
Dill-Varga then introduced two speakers, Fred Van Vleck, who worked with the trustees on the handbook, and Lou Lozano, the school district’s attorney.
Van Vleck reminded the board that under the previous superintendent, Michelle Huntoon, several trustees had no interest in becoming president, which made an automatic succession rule impractical. He also said the handbook requires every member to support majority decisions.
Lozano said the board was “all here to serve the students and create the best educational experience for every student in the district.” He addressed section 9100 directly, saying that the board bylaws are not legally enforceable.
“They are not legally binding,” he said. “The bylaws you’ve adopted are protocols for how you want to conduct yourself and how you want to conduct your meetings and your relationships and expectations of each other as board members. They’re your choice of how you want to behave. So there isn’t a court that’s going to step in and say you must follow by law section 9100.”
After these comments, the board moved to consider the first item on the agenda, changing the wording of section 9100 to read that “the clerk of the board may advance to the position of president” rather than “the clerk of the board shall advance to the position of president.”
The floor was open to public comment before discussion among the trustees. Will Chapman, Anthony Hernandez, and Hannah Marquez spoke in support of Kerbs, saying that the rules must have been put in place for a reason and should be obeyed.
Hernandez, who also wrote a community opinion piece on this issue in BenitoLink, said “The interim superintendent proposed that violating our school district election procedures is justified simply because it is not criminally illegal. Does this raise any red flags or ethical concerns for you?”
Robert Huneywell, a 10th grade history teacher, spoke in favor of changing the rule, saying there were probably other sections of the bylaws that could be problematic. He also said that the vote of the trustees to elect Powers should be respected. “I cannot speak as to the reasons why board members chose not to support trustee Kerbs,” he said. “But it is clear that they put more faith in president Powers.”
There was also a mailed-in comment from Tyler Wilken, who said, “It is important to set an example in the district and our schools of accepting and affirming democratic outcomes with grace and dignity rather than looking for technicalities with which to overturn or undo them.”
After the public comment, Kerbs opened the board discussion by complimenting Dill-Varga on her “fair and unbiased handling of this situation,” and that his interest had never been about who was going to be board president but whether the board will follow documented policies and by-laws.
“What kind of life lesson in civics are we teaching our young scholars when we show them that rules of governance on the books are only to be followed when convenient?” he said. “I have said before if we as trustees can’t be counted on to follow our own rules, how can we ask the students we oversee and the community that we represent to follow the rules we lay out?”
Powers said her reelection helped to maintain continuity at a time when there was still an active search for a superintendent and as the district was awaiting a decision about whether San Juan School would have to be relocated.
During Schaefer’s remarks, she pointed out that the rules for electing a president in the bylaws are inconsistent, as section 9121 of the board laws, which were passed seven years after section 9100, specify that “the Board of Trustees shall elect a president from among its members to provide leadership on behalf of the governance team and the educational community it serves.” Powers said this does not mention the clerk at all.
After the meeting, Powers and Kerbs declined to comment on the proceeding beyond both saying they considered the matter closed.
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