A split Antioch School Board votes against promoting V.P. Sawyer-White to president

The new Antioch Unified School District Board of Trustees at their first meeting together on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. From left to right, Diane Gibson-Gray, Ellie Householder, Board President Gary Hack, then Vice President Crystal Sawyer-White, Mary Rocha and Superintendent Stephanie Anello.

Speaker, new Trustee Householder decry it being the second time an African American female board vice president bypassed for president; Hack re-elected

Crystal Sawyer-White. Photo courtesy of AUSD.

By Allen Payton

During their meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018 the Antioch School Board on a 3-2 split vote, chose to not elect Crystal Sawyer-White to be president of the board for the next year. Instead they voted to have Board President Gary Hack to serve for another year. Hack initially said he was abstaining from the vote stating, “yeah, I know it’s a cop-out” but then changed his vote to a “no”. He was joined by Trustee Diane Gibson Gray and new Trustee Mary Rocha in opposition, while the other new trustee, Ellie Householder joined Sawyer-White in support of her appointment.

Members of the public, school district staff and Gibson Gray gave their reasons why Sawyer-White should not be president, that she “was not ready”. One public speaker decried it as racism, pointing out the fact that it was the second time in a row that an African American female board vice president was not elevated to serve as president of the board. Former trustee Debra Vinson was denied the presidency last year, at the end of her year as vice president. Householder shared some of the concerns expressed by Mims. Rocha didn’t speak on the item.

During public comments Mission Elementary School Principal Monte Gregg was first to speak on the matter. She asked the board to “Look at the board meeting of Oct. 24, 2018 starting at 2 hours 33 minutes and you can hear the direct quote of board Vice President Crystal Sawyer-White and facts speak for themselves.”

Velma Wilson, who has been at odds with Sawyer-White in the past, said, “When we have leadership you really must learn how to follow before you can be an effective leader. I have been at these board meetings and I have sat here and have endured disrespect. I was actually even told by board trustee Crystal Sawyer-White that I committed a Brown Act violation. So, everyone in this room knows that Velma Wilson can’t commit a Brown Act violation. Oh, but Crystal you won’t know that, because you just missed the Brown Act training that this district had available for you and you didn’t attend.”

Sawyer-White attempted to say something, but Wilson said, “No. Don’t cut me off, sister. Not, tonight.”

“You do not know Brown Act, you do not know Roberts Rules of Order…you will not be suitable to sit in the role of president. Crystal Sawyer-White is not ready.”

The next speaker was Amy Betterncourt, a coordinator in the district’s educational services department, who provided some statistics about Sawyer-White’s tenure on the board. “She has arrived late 68% of all meetings…the board as a collective whole has been tardy 13% of that time. I have concerns with Trustee Sawyer-White’s ability to vote independently. For example, there were seven occasions of 373 action items in which she did not align her votes with former trustee (Debra) Vinson. There were 11 occasions in the last year in which Ms. Stephanie Anello had to remind her that the information she claimed to have no knowledge of were discussed at a previous meeting or shared in a Friday board update. Furthermore, Trustee Crystal Sawyer-White has participated on discussion items which totaled 86 minutes collectively. Of that time 73 minutes were spent on her personal growth as a board member and her desire to have a conference and travel budget.”

Willie Mims, a frequent critic of the school district, was next to speak claiming the decision was race related.

“I’m sitting back there listening to this, an egregious assault upon a board member. I didn’t hear one positive thing that came out of these people’s mouths of what this lady has done since she has been on this board. No one is entitled to anything. But when it comes to fairness and equality then she deserves an opportunity like everybody else. I know that last year, two years ago, there was another African American woman who was slated to become board president. They found all kinds of excuses not to appoint her. Now we’re sitting here and the same thing. So, I’m looking at the issue of race coming into play here. Regardless of what these people are saying the elephant in the room is race. You had one in Debra Vinson. You found some kind of way to get rid of her, not to promote her. Now you have one, here scheduled to become the next board president. You’re supposed to be operating on a rotation basis. The board president does not belong in the hands of one or two people, every year a recycle center. Everybody should get an opportunity to serve regardless of what you think about them. I stand here in support of Crystal Sawyer-White. I think that you as a board you need to operate beyond the racial lens from which you see, which you view the world. See this person as a human being who has served this board, who served her community as no one else has. Regardless of what they said, she does support children.”

Several in the audience applauded Mims’ comments.

Jason Murphy was the last public speaker, stating he is “Dr. Jason Robert Murphy, I’m actually a director of educational services.”

“When I came to this community along with my late wife who also had the opportunity to serve the community as a teacher…we both had the opportunity to continue work in the spirit of putting students first. I wanted to thank you for the opportunity for the learning experiences. All I would ask is that we continue to make decisions in the interest of students. That is why we are here.”

Board Discussion and Votes

The board then took up the matter, with Hack speaking first.

“Knowing full well that there is a precedence of presidents being elected for two-year terms. But I have developed a philosophy. Let me share those five things.”

“I think the president needs to understand…that the task is to facilitate not dominate. Second one is being president is not a personal agenda, it’s a district wide agenda. The president needs to be out and about in the district seeing what’s happening. And to be prepared to attend and give speeches at community events…including the graduation ceremonies, and to put the district’s business high on their agenda. I think those are things we need to think about whoever the president is going to be.”

Householder was next to speak, asking questions about the history of the position.

“I was under…the idea that it was under a rotation basis,” she said.

Anello asked Gibson-Gray to share the background of the presidency.

“We have had board members take the position in two years, when the vice president may or may not have been ready,” she said. “Part of the problem is, too not everyone jumps up and says I want to be president or vice president. So, a lot of times it’s looking around and seeing who is best equipped and qualified for the position. It’s not an actual rotation. We have never set that kind of precedence.”

“Personally, it’s not my role to evaluate a board member for competency,” Gibson-Gray added. “It’s the voters. They should do that.”

Householder had some questions about the process and any bylaws, then was next to speak about the matter.

“It seems like we have a lot of things that are kind of like our practice,” she said. “But if we don’t actually have a policy around this, we’re going to keep coming into these issues over and over again.”

“I really take into consideration what Willie Mims said,” Householder stated. “It just concerns me that this is now, we have someone up for the…normal rotation based on the history of what we’ve done previously, who just so happens to be an African American female and again, we’re getting this huge resistance and this feeling,  a very intense tension and feeling that I have that we’re just doing the same thing, again. And I know we had a previous board member who was vice president who was slated to be president…did not end up becoming president and now we’re kind of in that situation again.”

“For me personally, going forward to avoid these issues I just think to avoid this in the future, where this is kind of something we’ve done in the past, it’s not something we have written down, it’s just this ambiguous thing and it leaves these questions and kind of muddies the waters going forward,” she continued. “So, I suggest that us as a board take a serious look at what our policies are…for electing the president… so that we don’t come into this tension again, going forward. Because it seems like we have this historical thing that keeps going on and then when it comes to African American women who are going to take this leadership position, all of a sudden, it’s ‘no, we don’t actually go by this historical precedent it should be by their qualifications’. So, it doesn’t seem like there’s a fair standard that’s being put…it seems pretty obvious to me that there are some issues.”

Gibson-Gray explained her reasons for not voting for Vinson the last time the board voted for board president.

“When you censure a vice president, I don’t think the next year it’s appropriate to vote them into office,” she said. “But that was a one-off. We have not had that one before.” (See related article).

Householder then made a motion to appoint Sawyer-White, saying “because I believe this person needs to be given the opportunity to reach her potential.” Sawyer-White seconded the motion.

Before the vote was finalized, Gibson-Gray asked to say something.

“While I respect the rotation process, I have concerns that Crystal has not learned enough about Roberts Rules of Order, Brown Act. I think there’s some education that can happen. So, I will be voting ‘no’,” she stated. “I’m sorry. But it’s been a challenge.”

Sawyer-White responded, emotionally saying, “Either way, this has just been a rough two years and I’m disappointed. I really am.”

“So, I don’t need you doing that, alright?” addressing Gibson-Gray. “I support the community, as a whole. My daughter graduated from Deer Valley. I attended many PBIS meetings. This is not easy. It’s not a salaried paid position. You volunteer. I’ve studied many hours. But I had a feeling this was going to happen. So, I just want to publicly say this, I’m not surprised. The Brown Act training, you only need to attend that, once. In the beginning I asked about training and you nominated me, Board Trustee Diane Gibson-Gray, to be vice president because you said I attended training. So, I’m not understanding that.”

“I befriended some friends from other districts and we’re not moving forward as a district, whether I’m here, or not,” Sawyer-White continued. “And I’ve encouraged other parents to observe and view what’s going on here. Even some of the other leaders in other cities. It’s just mindboggling that we’re not moving forward.”

“The role of the president, I understand it,” she stated. “But the next person who is president has to be a little more open minded to what’s going on in the 21st Century. We’re moving forward as a district for the kids’ sake. What they’re addressing, charter schools, declining enrollment. This is a problem. I’m not all for charter schools. But there is an issue with Antioch Unified School District. I just hope the next person will realize that and we can’t move forward if…the president is not going to move forward.”

Gibson-Gray then said, “I’m going to nominate you for vice president, again.”

“Oh, no. I decline. I decline. I decline,” responded Sawyer-White.

Gibson-Gray continued saying, “The reason is, last month you said you hadn’t had Brown Act training, so you couldn’t run a meeting. Then as we saw this evening it’s Roberts Rules of Order. It’s not easy to sit in that seat and I would like you to have more opportunity to learn how to run a meeting before we put you there. I don’t think it’s fair. You have attended trainings you have tried to learn. But, until you sit in that seat and run meetings, it’s difficult.

“I’ve been there three times,” she continued. “I didn’t want to be president for three years, and finally I was forced into it. I just think you have a little more…that you need to learn about the meeting format, running it, etc.”

“That’s basically just nerves,” Sawyer-White responded. “I don’t even eat dinner when I come here. It’s just been so nerve wracking, out of the norm to come to these meetings. If you don’t have the support of the community and your kids attended and graduated. I’m just not understanding. Two kids in the district. I work. I’ve attended concerts based on my schedule and availability. But I would change my schedule to meet the needs of the presidency. I would like also more protocols for this particular candidacy. We’re backwards. We’re just so backwards. We don’t have protocols for certain things to address the kids of the district.”

“Well, I just want you to be successful. So, that’s why I’m going the way I am,” Gibson-Gray replied. “It’s difficult to run public meetings, to speak in public. I get nervous, too. I just thought you could use a little more time to…”

Sawyer-White cut her off, saying “You don’t need those qualifications to be president and that doesn’t specify that in the board bylaws at all. I think my background and even Ellie, her background involved in education. I’ve worked in non-profit, I’ve worked with the juvenile system. Teachers have reached out to me, and I haven’t mentioned their names, there’s some concerns, here.”

Householder then said, “I do agree that…this is a very important role. Until you’ve sat up here, it can be very nerve-wracking up here and I just really think unless we have some protocols and procedures of what we’re supposed to do, that we should follow the historic precedent.”

“I just haven’t heard these kinds of concerns raised about other members,” she continued. “I just feel that everybody should be given the opportunity to learn. Crystal Sawyer-White is coming into her third year of serving and so why not give her a chance to blossom into the role and be a leader for our population of students who’s primarily students of color. That’s just a reality of that we’re living in, now and I would like to see leadership and see us giving people of color the opportunity to be leaders in this community. She might not be the most perfect…she might not know everything down to the letter of exactly how it’s supposed to be. But her and I both haven’t been serving since, you know, the 70’s. No offense to anybody (to laughter from the audience). I’m just saying you gotta be given the opportunity to come into that role. And sometimes you can’t learn unless you just do. And I was told for years, and especially this past election cycle that I shouldn’t do it because I didn’t have the experience and I didn’t know this, and I didn’t know that. But, guess what the people elected me, and the people elected Crystal, as well.”

“So, I just think we just need to give everyone a fair shake. It’s a year and I think we should be coming together to support her or to support anybody who is going to be the president and vice president. If we want to do something different then let’s write a policy about it. I’m just going based on historical precedent and it just seems to me that it’s fair…and I don’t want there to be tension, either. You know I want it to be like kumbaya,” Householder concluded.

With no more comments from the board members, the vote failed on a 2-2-1 vote. Hack said, “Abstain. It’s a cop-out. I know.” He then immediately changed his vote by saying, “no”.

Gibson-Gray then made a motion that Hack “retain the seat.”

The motion passed on a 4-1 vote, with Sawyer-White voting against.

“Alright. That was painful,” Hack said.

The board then took a break, Sawyer-White left the meeting and did not return. To view the recording of the meeting visit the district’s YouTube page.



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Crystal Sawyer-White

New AUSD Board

One Comment to “A split Antioch School Board votes against promoting V.P. Sawyer-White to president”

  1. Mick Ferreira says:

    I am on the City Council (Neighborhood Board we call it) in Kapolei Hawaii.Since there is no one dominant race here we vote by qualification and seniority based on if the candidate is “ready” as well. Trying to run a “boutique” Board is impossible here as our council contains so many variables. You too, should stick to just the vote based on qualifications and leave race out of it. It sets a dangerous precedent.

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