Flight to Capistrano Hard to "Swallow"

Jeffrey R Smith

When a trusted colleague sent a link to the initial news release announcing that Superintendent Kirsten Vital was "heading south:" leaving for a greener sinecure in Capistrano, many teachers thought it was a hoax or just a ruse to get them to return in the fall.

Like most stories that are too good to be true, the Capistrano story was hard to "swallow."

Redolent puns aside; the critics were wrong — at least on one count.

At the last Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) board meeting, then-superintendent Kirsten Vital made her tepid farewell address to trustees and the sparsely scattered, summer crowd of community members who were atomized amongst the pews.

Safely relying on the trite and tautological, Vital said it was "the right time to leave."

Given the inability to travel back in time, few AUSD teachers would disagree with her proposed timeline.

Strange, it seems like less than a year ago that the over-reaching Board of Trustees, ever poised with rubber stamps, was extending her contract through 2016, dictating the future well beyond their own mandates.

Sadly the overweening extension to 2016 suspended bonus pay for Vital and would have cut her deluxe health care benefits, replacing them with the paltry ones received by commoners, the hoi poloi and district employees. Contract, schmontract, smogtrack!

According to one refractory Trustee, any time District B offers you a $100,000 over what you are currently shaking down District A for, it’s "the right time to leave."

Public education for many is about ratcheting up your CalPERS entitlements — there’s the future to think about.

While the contract handed to Vital, by her reliable bevy of ovine bobbleheads, would have obligated the district to pay her through 2016, if AUSD decided to cashier her; Vital’s only obligation to the district was a 60-day notice; now that’s reciprocity.

If only divorces were that easy.

Following a "closed session meeting" on June 14, 2014, the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees "made the selection of Vital."

Hmm: "closed session meeting."

Given the threat conditions, Capistrano was right to have a "closed session;" after all, would they want the North Koreans, ISIS, KAOS or SMERSH to know that they were hand picking Vital?

It seems that Vital’s predilection for transparency and penchant for openness have already pre-positioned themselves in Capistrano; their selection is a match made in heaven.

Capistrano trustees claimed to have conducted a nationwide search, "guided by a detailed list of leadership criteria."

Was this "leadership criteria" distilled from the Florentine treatise on management principles as codified in The Prince?

Did any Capistrano trustee solicit recommendation letters from anyone north of Orange County?

The Capistrano board president expressed confidence that he "had the right person for this … ‘critical time’ in the District."

How does their board president define what "critical time" is?

Capistrano’s fiscal position was certified as "positive" by the Orange County Department of Education.

A "positive" fiscal position means that Capistrano can afford Vital — for now.

Meanwhile, back in Mudville, we are looking at a $3.3 million deficit in the General Fund, within three years. This is our "critical time."

Given that a District Court of Appeals upheld a decision striking down Measure H’s business hostile rate structure, some property owners are entitled to receive refunds checks, written against the District’s underwater general fund; if justice prevails this will be added to the $3.3 million deficit.

Wake up and smell the kimchee.

To those of us staying in Alameda, it is a "critical time;" to those departing "it’s the right time" to be standing on the boarding platform with carpet bag in hand.

Additionally, one recalcitrant Trustee points out that AUSD has identified $85 million in deferred infrastructure maintenance costs; another liability to be heaped onto the conservative $3.3 million deficit estimate.

Is it "the right time" to be leaving?

Absolutely: before AUSD infrastructure begins to look like the excavations of Pompeii, and the feculence really hits the rotary ventilator.

Alameda may soon be paying on a parcel tax, a bond issue, jury-rigging its infrastructure and tackling a fiscal deficit; a triple decker debt sandwich without the mayo.

And don’t forget Jerry Brown’s fix for the underfunded teachers retirement system: by 2020 "School districts will see their annual contribution to the pension fund double to 19.1 percent of payrolls from 8.25 percent;" this ratcheting is imminent.

Yes, "It is the right time" to be leaving Dodge City.

If all goes as planned, the Alameda school board will review (a.k.a. rubber stamp) Vital’s departure and scout for an interim superintendent.

Not every Alameda denizen has lacrimous eyes; as stated by a local reporter, "not all have been pleased with her leadership."

Trustee Barbara Kahn said she could not support a $180 million bond measure because "she did not trust Vital and other district staff."

"Vital and other administrators routinely withhold information from the board," Kahn said, casting doubt on Vital’s drumbeat claim to transparency.

Vital’s predilection for transparency seems to orbit the twin planets of gossamer prevarication and diaphanous obfuscation.

If a board member has doubts as to "whether they (administrators) would spend bond money the way that trustees would intend," what about we, the rubes, poised to pay for these nine digit bond measures?

Don’t expect AUSD teachers to be daubing their eyes at the Greyhound Station; AUSD, under Vital’s pale, reached a contract only after 10 months of talks that twice stalled when teachers declared an impasse; within earshot of the press Vital alleged that AUSD teachers were "overpaid."

"Overpaid!"

This from an apparatchik that annually knocks down nearly a quarter of a million in "wages, tips and other compensation?"

While some voard members gushed to thank Vital "for her tremendous work" such accolades seemed to emanate more from noblesse oblige amongst plutocrats rather than objective measures. Did the Iron Mountain and Southern Railways remember to thank Jesse James?

Some of the kudos bordered on oxymoronic hyperbole, for example, Vital was credited with students "exceeding their potential."

Is this Lake Wobegon or Alameda?

Capistrano trustees are expected to ratify Vital’s contract during their next meeting.

"We want to ensure that we have the right person for this very important role," says Capistrano board President John Alpay.

Now John, if you are reading this column—and am I speaking for the teachers of Alameda—"You have the right person and you have the necessary budget surplus; so go for it. Ratify! Ratify! Ratify!"

In her adieu Vital humbly unwittingly acknowledged, "I feel I am truly leaving this district a better place;" this time she is spot on: it will be.

Jeffrey R Smith teaches math at Encinal High School.