When we recommended that voters support the election of Ken Dauber, Todd Collins, Jennifer DiBrienza and Shounak Dharap in the last two school board elections, their strong views on the importance of transparency was a major factor.
Over and over in the past, the school district has found itself in avoidable controversies because past boards and superintendents have opted to hide their actions from the public in improper or ill-advised closed sessions, behind-the-scenes communications or calculated obfuscation. These four current school board members ran against this behavior in their campaigns and promised to change the district's culture of opaque decision-making.
So it is deeply disappointing to learn this week that the board, Superintendent Don Austin and Stanford University worked in concert to circumvent the intentions of the Brown Act, limit public awareness and undermine county ground rules agreed to by Stanford when they reached a "conditional" mitigation agreement to compensate the district for the impacts of additional students from new tax-exempt housing development on Stanford lands.
In a carefully orchestrated plan revealed in a March 29 email from Austin to the school board and other emails obtained by the Weekly, the school district and Stanford developed and implemented a strategy to hide the fact they had negotiated a deal two weeks prior to April 15, the date that Stanford was technically no longer bound by ground rules established with the county about entering into side agreements relating to the university's general use permit (GUP) application. (The April 15 date was dubious enough, since it assumed the completion of a county development agreement with Stanford by then, and in fact negotiations had not even begun.)
Austin's email, provided to the Weekly in response to a Public Records Act request, also shows that Austin intended to brief each board member individually about the tentative deal with Stanford and advised them that they could not discuss it with anyone nor consider it an "agreement" because "we are prohibited from striking an agreement until April 15th."
He also alerted the board that there would be a closed session on April 10, for which the district and Stanford attorneys had reached "complete agreement about the posting language" for the agenda notice. That language, the same as had been used for five previous closed-session meetings, improperly hid from the public that the item was about the Stanford negotiations. Instead, it said the legal justification for the closed session was "anticipated litigation ... regarding Stanford University General Use Permit Environmental Impact Report." In fact, there was never any anticipated litigation against Stanford, nor even a remote rationale for it.
That deceptive posting was necessary because there is no proper exception in the Brown Act for holding a closed session on the negotiations the district and Stanford were having. The Weekly warned the board of this improper agenda notice on the morning of the April 16 meeting after learning the real purpose of the meeting and questioned the legality of both discussing and developing a consensus on the agreement outside of a public meeting.
Perhaps most revealing of all, Austin's email told the board "I suggest advertising the meeting widely, but not posting (the agenda) until close to the 24-hour notice (the afternoon of April 15) for reasons I will explain later." The reason was that he was attempting to make it appear that no agreement had been negotiated until April 15 to protect Stanford from accusations that it violated county rules.
Austin told the Weekly the reason was that there was no finished agreement as of March 29 and there was a chance the April 16 meeting wasn't going to occur. That does not explain why he wanted to give the public the minimum possible legal notice or why the board stood for this.
He declined to comment on Stanford's involvement in deciding on the agenda-posting language for the closed session on April 10, saying, "That gets into so many nuances of the law that for me to comment would be inappropriate."
It was good that the district and Stanford worked to develop an agreement on mitigating increased student enrollment from new Stanford tax-exempt housing, but in the process both engaged in conduct that disrespected and misled the public and attempted to manipulate the county's process for review of Stanford's development goals for the next 25 years.
It's now time for the three school board members who haven't been recused on the issue (DiBrienza, Baten Caswell and Dharap) to partially remediate their actions by asking Stanford to renegotiate the proposed agreement, with full public input and without it being contingent on the county's approval of a development agreement.