Nine months after an election created new dynamics on the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education, the new and old trustees are struggling to find common ground.
Tension flared up during a five-hour retreat on Saturday, when two longer-serving board members said they have felt dismissed by new leadership and left out of the district's recently launched effort to develop a long-term strategic plan.
"I'm OK with new perspectives … as long as they come with the intention of serving students well," said Trustee Ana Maria Pulido. "What I'm concerned about is people’s intentions. Are they coming here to add or subtract? Are they coming to dismantle the progress we did make and set us even further back?
"I don't think there is trust on this board," she said.
Under interim Superintendent Gina Sudaria's leadership, the district created this summer a 21-member steering committee, including two board members, administrators, parents and community leaders, to lead the work of drafting a new strategic plan before presenting a final version to the board in December. Sudaria told the Weekly that she compiled a list of possible members with Attuned Education Partners, a firm the board hired to support the strategic planning process. The firm provided her a list of other districts' steering committees membership and she selected people to represent similar groups, including board members, administrators, parents, teachers, local elected officials and faith-based leaders.
Pulido and Trustee Sharifa Wilson sharply criticized the strategic planning effort as lacking transparency and inclusion of the full board. Pulido was named to the committee at her request but has since declined to participate given her concerns. She said it was unclear how members were chosen and was concerned that all of the district's schools were not represented. She and Trustee Sharifa Wilson advocated for closer board involvement in the process than they thought had been provided for.
"The board's voice should be a priority," Wilson said. "That's what the uneasiness on my part is about — feeling like my voice is tagged on. It's like, who's driving this ship?"
Board President Tamara Sobomehin defended the process as inclusive and responsive to board feedback. Sudaria added committee members in response to Pulido's concerns, raised at the board's last meeting, including additional staff and parents to represent all schools and community partners.
Sobomehin noted she asked the consultant leading the process to add more points throughout when the full board will be involved and can provide input.
Vice President Stephanie Fitch said she thought the process should be "more tied down to where the schools actually are" rather than driven from the top down, but understood her colleagues' desire to be more involved.
The four trustees (Marielena Gaona Mendoza was absent) ultimately agreed to send the committee structure back to the drawing board. They will take formal action at their next meeting to constitute it as a board committee. Sudaria will make recommendations for members and solicit suggestions from all trustees; the final membership of the group will be subject to full board approval. Sobomehin and Pulido will also meet with the Attuned Education Partners consultants to review the process.
Earlier in the meeting, Sobomehin — who along with Fitch was elected in November — acknowledged that board members have been "openly uncivil" with each other. She urged her colleagues to come together despite any differences in opinion.
"We've got to be a stronghold together," she said.
"New ideas and perspectives aren't necessarily putting down" (what's been done before), Fitch said. "The point of having elections every few years is because you need that new perspective coming in.
"I don't think this district has moved as quickly as it needs to," she continued. "Bureaucracy makes that hard. … But we can affect this system, here, and I want to do that but I can't do that alone and I'm not supposed to do it alone."
Finding ways to work together productively as a board will be especially critical this year, as the K-8 district is looking at closing schools due to declining enrollment.
The board also agreed on Saturday to take the next step to launch a search for a permanent superintendent by formally voting to do so at its next meeting this Thursday, Aug. 22. Sudaria has led the district on a temporary basis since February, after former Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff was placed on paid administrative leave and then forced to resign.