Unpacking political contrition

On the evening of Sep. 20, 2012, the Los Altos United Methodist Church held a facilitated “listening” and “healing” event in a well-meaning attempt to bring together reasonable minds on both sides of the increasingly bitter BCS-vs-LASD battle.

This worthwhile peacemaking event was promoted by, among others, BCS Foundation Board Member Gil Ahrens, as a way to “lower the level of hostility”:

“There will be an opportunity for everyone to speak and be heard on the question of: “How have you experienced the BCS-LASD conflict?” I am very hopeful that this can be a constructive element in the process of community healing. PLEASE share this others you think would have interest.” [sic]

I showed up late, as did a number of other people I’m sure we would agree are pro-LASD. When I arrived, facilitators had already begun inviting the assembled group of 50 or so people to share their personal feelings and perspectives. I didn’t speak, but I took notes of what quite a number of others said.

Since the testimonials I heard that evening (after my late arrival) seemed to run 3-to-1 pro-BCS and anti-LASD, the crowd seemed to be mostly charter proponents. I heard later from friends who were there from the start that the microphone was passed among mostly charter parents during the first part of the meeting before I arrived. Pro-BCS speakers quite often expressed feeling stigmatized, ostracized—even threatened—due to their affiliation with the charter school. Members of the local media had been invited and were present, of course.

Recall that over the summer the community’s fever had spiked from the collapse of the “mediated framework,” BCS’ continuing demand that courts award it an LASD campus of its own and a run-up to the November elections. Some members of the SCCBOE had even accused the pro-LASD community of phony outrage over the BCS issue. This Sep 20 “healing” meeting was emotionally charged and I commend the church for hosting it.

One of the first people to rise and address the crowd after my late arrival was SCCBOE President Joe Di Salvo. He was seated on the far left side of the hall with a group of prominent BCS parents and board members. Di Salvo had heard all the first community voices, and it seemed to me then that he felt compelled to respond as President of SCCBOE, the issuer of BCS’ charter:

“I feel a personal sense of failure over this whole issue. I’ve always prided myself on being a peacemaker, on trying to be bold, on moving in a different direction. Thinking back on the charter renewal decision, I’ve played it over and over in my mind. The whole county board has struggled with its role in this situation for some time. I want you to know that the county board is “all-in” in any way to further the healing because we’ve been part of the non-healing. I’m pleased that we are here today to heal. We’ve discussed holding a community forum, but it didn’t take place due to timing issues, but this process is better, more appropriate. This is going to be a long and difficult journey, but the county board is “all-in” to do whatever we can as partial creators of this issue.”

These comments really surprised me. I scribbled them down as fast as I could. Concluding his comments, Di Salvo apologized that he needed to leave immediately for home.

A couple months later, I was reading over my notes and was once again struck by what Di Salvo had said. I also had an epiphany: Who did Di Salvo think he was addressing? What Di Salvo said could mean different things depending on who he meant to address, whether a general audience, a pro-BCS audience or a pro-LASD audience.

My next thought was to confirm that my notes accurately captured Di Salvo’s comments. I drafted an email to Di Salvo, included my notes, and asked him to confirm their accuracy, which he promptly did. According to Di Salvo himself, my notes from that night did capture what he said. (See the email thread below.)

Unfortunately, our email exchange quickly died when I sought more details on a few things he expressed that September night at LAUMC. 

On the night of Sep. 20, I imagined Di Salvo was speaking as a non-partisan addressing a general audience. Upon reflection, I think that was terribly naive. With the benefit of more information and understanding, I grew to think Di Salvo spoke from a distinctly pro-BCS position, playing politics to appease the crowd by expressing remorse and admitting some responsibility, but ‘threading the needle” with an apology that could be taken a couple different ways.

Read Di Salvo’s comments from that night (below) imagining that he’s addressing a pro-BCS crowd. The thrust of his contrition changes dramatically.

Keep in mind that, based on testimonials from the audience, a preponderance of the crowd that night was pro-BCS, Di Salvo physically situated himself in the hall alongside BCS leadership, and he certainly had a well-chronicled deference to—or preference for—BCS versus LASD. (Due in part, I’m guessing, to SCCBOE campaign contributions.)

My most urgent question for Di Salvo remains unanswered even now,

“Given the opportunity to replicate the LASD-BCS situation in/for another community similarly situated, you would – or would not – make the same decisions? Knowing what you know about the LASD-BCS situation, would you establish another similar program elsewhere?”

I never received any further response from Di Salvo (or Hover-Smoot or De La Torre or Aminsadeh or anyone else at SCCOE) after Dec. 4, 2012:


Date: December 4, 2012, 10:03:13 PM PST
To: “josephsds1@aol.com” <josephsds1@aol.com>
Cc: Julia <juliaghs@aol.com>,  Xavier De La Torre <Xavier_DeLaTorre@sccoe.org>,  Carmen Aminzadeh <Carmen_Aminzadeh@sccoe.org>
Subject: Re: Seeking clarity on your comments

Thanks Joe – I really appreciate it. You seemed to speak from your heart, and I took you at your word.
Your individual opinion is fine, but where the board’s perspective is clear, please provide that too. (Julia, you can chime in any time)
I’m all for straight talk – let it fly – politics be damned:
 – What were you implying is/was your failure?
 – What is the board struggling with vis-a-vis the LASD-BCS situation?
 – What would you say lead to “non-healing”?
 – Given an opportunity to replicate the LASD-BCS situation in/for another community similarly situated, would you?
I agree a community-based peace is superior to a court-enforced detente, but we can’t allow lawsuits to be a barrier. (The parties have probably been in litigation the majority of the last decade, the ‘governance’ show must go on.) SCCBOE oversight responsibilities aren’t hindered or pre-empted by legal disputes over facilities – Prop 39 is entirely orthogonal to your obligations, as best I can tell. Make no mistake – this community divide is NOT just about facilities.
If you’ve read the recent LASD cross-complaint in the suit brought by BCS this fall, you know there are quite a number of non-facilities-related issues (that do fall within your purview as BCS’ charter authority) that contribute significantly to the totality of this community “un-healing.” Technically, facilities issues may be outside the scope of your responsibilities, but seriously questionable operational matters, habits, policies, habits and practices have raised doubts about BCS’ legitimacy – which casts a long shadow across Prop 39 facilities claims.
To summarize: as a Santa Clara County charter school operated under your authority, BCS operates so far outside the normal definition of “public” school (and legislative intent for charter schools) that LASD is seeking judicial guidance on whether (or to what extent) it owes BCS facilities at all.
This is where the question of replication becomes urgent: Knowing what you know about the LASD-BCS situation, would you establish another similar program elsewhere?
Thanks in advance for the clarifying straight talk.

From: “josephsds1@aol.com” <josephsds1@aol.com>
Cc: Julia <juliaghs@aol.com>
Sent: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 4:57 PM
Subject: Re: Seeking clarity on your comments

I think your memory and notes are accurate. I would stand behind what you have written as essentially my sentiments.

I agree our role as county board authorizer is important to the healing. However, that is my belief as one Board member.

That said the leaders of LASD and Bullis have the ultimate role in the necessary solution set to move forward on behalf of the children of your community.

I have prided myself on straight talk even if not politically wise. I feel the same today. Having the courts involved makes my current participation in the healing difficult at best.My hope is the new year will bring a renewed focus on healing a situation that calls for an egoless approach by all.

Respectfully,

Joseph Di Salvo

Completing my position as chair on 12/12/12.
Sent from my iPhone
On Dec 4, 2012, at 4:37 PM, you wrote:
Hi Joe,
I attended the Sep 20 meeting at the Los Altos United Methodist Church as was impressed by the heartfelt emotion expressed that evening. Below are the notes I jotted down as you spoke, and while these probably aren’t perfectly verbatim, I did consult with another person present who confirmed it matches her notes and her memory of what you shared.
“I feel a personal sense of failure over this whole issue. I’ve always prided myself on being a peacemaker, on trying to be bold, on moving in a different direction. Thinking back on the charter renewal decision, I’ve played it over and over in my mind. The whole county board has struggled with its role in this situation for some time. I want you to know that the county board is “all-in” in any way to further the healing because we’ve been part of the non-healing. I’m pleased that we are here today to heal. We’ve discussed holding a community forum, but it didn’t take place due to timing issues, but this process is better, more appropriate. This is going to be a long and difficult journey, but the county board is “all-in” to do whatever we can as partial creators of this issue.”
I’m hoping you can provide some additional clarity:
 – What are you implying is your failure?
 – What is the board struggling with vis-a-vis the LASD-BCS situation?
 – What would you and the board say lead to “non-healing”?
Perhaps most importantly, would you now say that, given the opportunity to replicate the LASD-BCS situation in/for another community similarly situated, you would – or would not – make the same decisions?
A crucial part of the “community healing” process is straight talk and clarity about the history, decisions made and roles & responsibilities of various parties. You and the SCCBOE most definitely occupy a central role in the history – and current circumstances.
Thanks in advance for clarification.
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