As the school year comes to an end today in Riverside Elementary School District 96, the relationship between first-year Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis and the school board, specifically with school board President Mary Rose Mangia, continues to evolve.
A few months ago their relationship hit a low when Sharma-Lewis reportedly accused Mangia of creating a hostile work environment for her.
Neither Mangia nor Sharma-Lewis would confirm or deny the “hostile work environment” comment, but the accusation reportedly came during a heated telephone conversation this winter between the two and was later discussed by the school board, according to a person in a position to know, but who has asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“I’m not going to comment about that one way or the other,” Mangia said.
Sharma-Lewis would only say said that she and Mangia have a “professional relationship.”
But Mangia acknowledges there has been tension with Sharma-Lewis since she was hired in 2013, although she says that things have improved in recent months. Mangia said that, until recently, it has been difficult to get questions answered and that Sharma-Lewis kept a tight lid on information.
“It’s almost like her view is that the board reports to her,” Mangia said.
Sharma-Lewis feels that Mangia and some other board members have, at times, overstepped their roles and tried to get too involved in day-to-day operations of the school district.
She has also complained that she can’t get her work done, because Mangia in particular constantly asked questions or demanded more information. Mangia and Sharma-Lewis held weekly meetings until November, when Sharma-Lewis requested that they stop.
“She said she didn’t want to do it, so I said OK,” Mangia said.
In a Freedom of Information request, the Landmark requested copies of all written requests for information between District 96 board members and Sharma-Lewis as well as responses Sharma-Lewis sent to board members between Jan. 1 and April 21.
The FOIA was denied, because it was deemed “unduly burdensome.” There were, according to the denial letter, more than 1,900 records fitting that description. That request didn’t include phone calls.
Mangia, who was elected to the school board in April 2013, acknowledges that she has asked a lot of questions as she had tried to learn about the district and about educational and financial issues.
She says that it is her role to ask questions, although she acknowledges she has pulled back a little in recent months.
“I’m not sitting around there telling her what to do,” Mangia said. “I ask questions about it. I ask for insight about things.”
Mangia said she wants Sharma-Lewis to understand that the superintendent works for the school board, not the other way around. She says that Sharma-Lewis can be difficult if she doesn’t get her way.
“Even her strongest supporters on the board say she’s got to have what she wants, she’s got to have it now,” Mangia said. “She doesn’t approach it in steps.”
The school board has met twice in recent months with consultant Steve Humphrey — once with Sharma-Lewis and once without her — to try to improve board dynamics and the board-superintendent relationship.
Those meetings have helped, according to Mangia, who said Sharma-Lewis has been more responsive to information requests.
“I think that she now understands that it’s part of her function to answer questions and we’ll all work together to make sure we’re not being unreasonable,” Mangia said. “You don’t have to give me exactly what I ask for. You just need to provide the insight that I’m looking for.”
Board member Randy Brockway says that in recent months Sharma-Lewis has been doing a good job and has been very responsive to his questions recently.
“So we had a little rough patch a while back, but I’m feeling better,” said Brockway. “I can’t speak for the rest of the board. I think she’s trying hard right now to, you know, work with the board.”
Brockway gives Sharma-Lewis credit for getting rid of administrators many believed to be ineffective. Among those cut loose during the school year were Hauser Junior High Principal Leslie Berman, Technology Director Vern Bettis and Special Education Director Mary Polk.
“She’s has forced a lot of change and it’s been needed change as far as I’m concerned,” Brockway said. “If it wasn’t for her initiative we would probably be sitting right now with the same people in place. She’s made a few enemies along the way, and maybe her style is a little rough.”
Board members David Kodama, Lisa Gaynor, and Art Perry have been very supportive of Sharma-Lewis.
“I think she has performed extremely well,” Kodama says.
Board Vice President Rachel Marrello, however, has a frosty relationship with Sharma-Lewis and shows her the least amount of deference. At a school board meeting last month, Marrello called on the district’s law firm to investigate whether Sharma-Lewis misled the board about the number of school districts having early release programs.
Marrello declined to comment when asked about her relationship with Sharma-Lewis.
Board member Michael O’Brien also is not close to Sharma-Lewis. O’Brien’s wife Meg, a teacher at Central School, applied for a principal position in the district during the 2012-13 school year but was not chosen. Michael O’Brien didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story.
For her part Sharma-Lewis says it has been difficult working with an inexperienced and often divided school board.
“We spend a lot of time focusing on past problems and that, to me, is not beneficial to our children’s future,” Sharma-Lewis told the Landmark. “Most of the boards I’ve worked with have been together and aligned in the direction of where they want to go, and have a clear vision and path of how to get there.”
Sharma-Lewis says that all her decisions are based on what’s good for kids, and she wishes that the school board would trust her more. The board has not always responded positively to her recommendations, and it has been a struggle to get decisions made on a host of issues.
“Sometimes a little trust and confidence would go a long way,” Sharma-Lewis says.
Some parents also wish the school board would trust the administration more. Central School PTO co-president Lynda Murphy acknowledged that the school board’s attitudes might have been colored by the experience of the past two years, but that they needed to be more open to trusting the new administration.
“I’ve had the pleasure to work with some of the administration, and I’m very excited when I’m with them,” Murphy told the school board at its March 19 meeting. “I just urge you guys to maybe give a little more trust. … I know that’s difficult, but I feel it’s necessary to move forward.”
Some of the difficulties in the relationship between Sharma-Lewis and Mangia are perhaps the result of having a newly elected school board member thrust into the role of school board president working with a still relatively inexperienced, but hard-charging, superintendent.
“Like all superintendents and new board presidents they’re working through their relationship,” said Kodama, who was defeated by Mangia when the school board selected a new president last year.
Mangia said that she wants to focus on the future and not the past.
“Working with Bhavna, I see a lot of improvement. Whatever happened prior to January, I try not to take personally,” Mangia said. “I’m in the business of making sure she succeeds, but she’s got to help the board succeed too.
“She’s got a lot more at stake in her career as to how she manages her various relationships than I do.”