The debate on the attempted removal of three Board of Education members over school reopenings has kicked into gear in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, with recall petitioners beginning to collect signatures throughout the affected trustee areas.
Initiated over the district's decision to postpone the restart in-person learning earlier this school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and alleged Brown Act violations, petitioners are attempting to recall Board President Susanna Ordway, Board Member Rachel Hurd and Board Member Ken Mintz. Hybrid in-person learning has since returned for some students in the district; however, recall proponents remain steadfast in their desire to oust the local leaders.
"I'm sure some parents feel better about kids being back in school but they shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we are the first district back to school because we launched this recall effort. Many other districts are now following suit," said Rachel Bailey, a SRVUSD mother of three and member of Parent Power SRV -- a local group dedicated to the recall effort.
"We are fighting for full-time in-person for all children in all grades. Not just hybrid. The six-foot social distancing 'requirement' that our (Board of Education) is stating has to be lifted before we can go back full time in person is a CDC, state and county recommendation not a requirement. The teachers union has made it clear they won't go back to school full-time in the fall. This is unrealistic and unacceptable," she added.
In order to force a special election asking voters if these board members should be recalled, Contra Costa County Clerk-Recorder Debi Cooper said petitioners would need to acquire at least 20% of signatures from registered voters in each of the board member's home trustee area.
Petitioners will have 120 days to receive the minimum number of valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot according to Bailey, who added that the county allowed the group to begin collecting signatures on Feb. 2.
Mintz, who has served more than 15 years on the board, said he remains "disappointed" that some members of the community have resorted to the threat of recall as a tactic, but said he remains steadfast in returning students to in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so.
"There seems to be a general misunderstanding of what decisions are directly within the school board's purview as opposed to the parameters that must be met to move forward," Mintz told DanvilleSanRamon.com. "SRVUSD is fully prepared to bring 7th-12th graders back however we can't do so until Contra Costa County case counts meet California Department of Public Health 'red tier' requirements, hopefully sometime in March given current trends."
"My objective has always been to provide families with options and then ultimately to have all of our students back to school as soon as it is safe to do so according to the requirements placed on us. My hope is that we as a community can work together to make sure we are putting our children's health and safety first," he added.
Ordway also stated that her focus was on helping prepare the district for when secondary students are allowed to return to the physical classroom.
"I have been focusing my attention on my ongoing work on behalf of the students in our District. I have been monitoring the recent successful re-opening of in-person hybrid classes for our TK-6 and special education students," she said.
"We are also ensuring that our quality online program meets our students' needs for those families who are continuing with remote learning. Our student athletes are back on the field and we are planning end of year activities. My time is full with this work and that is where my focus remains," Ordway added.
Hurd had not responded to a new request for comment as of Monday morning. The board member with the longest consecutive tenure on the current board, Hurd told DanvilleSanRamon.com in January she was "surprised" by the recall effort and stood by her decision-making during the winter COVID-19 surge -- when board paused SRVUSD's initial plan to reopen schools Jan. 5.
As a result of future public debates and changing COVID-19 conditions, Feb 10 marked the first day back to in-person learning for transitional kindergarten (TK) through second-grade students in the SRVUSD, while students in third through fifth grade and special day classes (SDC) returned on Feb. 17.
Secondary school students, however, may not return to in-person learning until the county moves out of the most-restrictive purple tier into the less-restrictive red tier -- which is achieved when the county averages no more than seven new cases a day per 100,000 residents for five consecutive days -- according to state guidelines.
Recall proponents have continued with the petition process after elementary school students have returned to the classroom, arguing that the board's decision making throughout the pandemic has been detrimental enough to validate the trio's removal. The petitioners said in January they would have pursued removal of new board members Laura Bratt and Shelley Clark too, but state law prohibited it since those two were just elected in November.
Bailey said the group had its first petition signing event on Feb. 20 at locations throughout the SRVUSD, and at a few of the signings were greeted by protesters holding "No Recall" signs and handing out a "Summary of Facts" sheet created by the San Ramon Valley Council of Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) -- a fact sheet that has since been removed from the PTA Council website.
Alleging perceived interference in the recall process, the petitioners claim it was improper for the PTAs to publish the fact sheet, saying the parent-teacher group should not put "its thumb on the scale in connection with election activities."
"The report offers only one side of the political dispute over the continued tenure of the three board members subject to recall, focusing on the expense ... without any regard for the other side of the story, including the genesis of the recall effort, the expense of keeping an incompetent and/or conflicted board in place, the growing list of reasons warranting the recall, or any other information which could be construed as supportive. It is a one sided document clearly evidencing the bias that is forbidden by IRS regulations," Parent Power SRV said in a letter to PTA Council president Lisa Gross.
For their part, PTAs members say they published the sheet in order to simply help residents make an informed decision. The document was originally posted online, but it has since been removed from their website.
"The San Ramon Valley Council of PTAs advocates for all students. We engaged in a study to investigate the recall petition and its impact on students in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. The study did not advocate for or against the recall. It only provided facts and information to community members to evaluate for themselves the impact of signing the petition to hold a special recall election," Gross said to DanvilleSanRamon.com
"It came to the attention of the SRV Council of PTAs that the study was being perceived in a political manner. While the council did not take a position, and the intention was only to provide information so that voters could make their own informed decision, the PTA does not want the study to be politicized or detract from the important work of the PTAs in this district," she added.
Prior to being taken down, the detailed report created by a study work group to investigate the recall petition and its impact on students and the district reviewed the reasons cited by petitioners for launching the recall effort as well as the requirements needed to launch a special recall election.
It also gave a price tag to the recall election, which according to the report would "directly impact the district's ability to fund programs, staff, and facilities for students."
A special election costs about $10 per registered voter -- mail-in-only voting is not applicable to recall elections -- coming out to a total of approximately $652,310 if a recall election is triggered, according to the PTA Council.
Calling into question the desire of district parents to return to full time in-person learning, the report also cited the district's most recent survey, which found that as of December the majority of residents preferred to keep their kids home.
According to the declaration response asked of all district families, as of Dec. 15, 65.01% of elementary school families and 75.85% of secondary school families stated that they would be holding their students out of in-person learning in favor of remote learning. The remaining families opted to have their children return for hybrid in-person instruction.
Additionally, during the board's meeting on Dec. 15, the San Ramon Valley Education Association presented the results of its most recent member survey and found that out of 1,644 respondents, only 6% felt safe to return in person learning while the county was still in the purple tier.
The PTA Council has since removed the report due to it being "perceived in a political manner."