The five remaining members of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education got an earful Tuesday night at a special meeting of the school board. A standing room only crowd of approximately 60 people attended the meeting. Judging from the applause various speakers received, the crowd was overwhelmingly supportive of Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis.
Last week, two of Sharma-Lewis’s strongest supporters on the school board, Lisa Gaynor and David Kodama, abruptly resigned little more than a week after the board took a straw vote in closed session, which favored, by a 4 to 3 count, beginning the process of negotiating Sharma-Lewis’s departure.
But Sharma-Lewis emerged from Tuesday night’s meeting in a much stronger position as the steam appears to have gone out of the movement to get rid of her. Ten out of 12 speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting strongly defended Sharma-Lewis and criticized those school board members who reportedly wanted to push Sharma-Lewis out.
Bill Howes, the president of the Riverside Education Council, the union that represents teachers and some other staff in the district, set the tone for the meeting by expressing support for Sharma-Lewis and her efforts to address education issues left undone by the prior administration.
“The commitment Dr. Sharma-Lewis and this administration have shown in proactively attending to issues that previously languished is worthy of praise,” Howes said. “While the union and administration may not always see eye to eye on the path to solving these issues, it is clear that together we are focused on the goal of maintaining high achieving schools.”
Others were blunter, criticizing the board for not supporting Sharma-Lewis and questioning the judgment of school board members.
“It’s time for the community to hold the remaining board of education members accountable,” said Kathleen Meade. “You all need to start focusing on the kids and stop talking to the paper about your lack of confidence in our superintendent.”
Gretchen Lupfer rapped what she perceived as the school board’s second-guessing Sharma-Lewis’ actions and not allowing her newly formed administrative team to operate without interference.
“From where I stand I have seen this board spend much of its time and energy questioning every single action the new administration attempts to make,” Lupfer said. “Sometimes we need to give someone a chance before we immediately question every move they make, because constant questioning simply impedes progress.”
Meanwhile, Karen Magee harshly criticized whoever talked to the Landmark about the straw vote held during a closed session in August, saying it undermined the public’s confidence in the board’s ability to handle sensitive matters.
“Every single one of you are now compromised,” Magee said during a nearly 10-minute long impassioned plea. “Your integrity is compromised.”
Only two speakers were not critical of the board, with Joanne Rogers thanking the board their service during a difficult transition from one administration to another.
“This has been a very difficult year,” Rogers said. “There are so many people in this town who are critics. I’m not a critic. I trust you.”
But a clear majority of those in the room were supportive of Sharma-Lewis. While the comments appeared heartfelt, the big crowd was no accident.
Former school board member Jennifer Leimberer, who was defeated when she ran for re-election in 2013, sent out an email Sunday encouraging people to attend the board meeting to send the message “we are here to hold you accountable.”
Leimberer, who spoke at the meeting, was part of the board that hired Sharma-Lewis. She said that Gaynor and Kodama sent a message to the board by resigning and called upon the board to compromise and reach consensus.
Rory Dominick, a regular attendee at board meetings, told the board that they needed to run more efficient meetings and warned the board that the community would not support getting rid of Sharma-Lewis, paying her severance and going through another expensive, lengthy search process.
“I think I speak for everybody here. That’s not going to happen,” Dominick said.
After the public comment and some talk about the process of filling the school board vacancies, the board and Sharma-Lewis met in what was described as a frank and unusually tense closed session for almost two hours.
After emerging from closed session Sharma-Lewis said that she appreciated the comments made during public comment.
“It’s very nice and reaffirming to hear that our work and direction has been supported by the community,” Sharma-Lewis said.