St. Helena Unified School District board recall, California (2010)
School board president Ines DeLuna, vice president Cindy Warren and trustees Carolyn Martini and Cynthia Lane were removed from office.
Sean Maher, Jeannie Kerr, Jeanne DeVincenzi and Jeff Conwell were elected to fill the seats made vacant by the recall vote.
Recall supporters coalesced into two separate pro-recall groups. One group, "Citizens for Quality Education," was instrumental in getting the recall question qualified for the ballot. Another group arose later that focused on supporting the potential replacement candidates who won a seat on the board when the four recall targets lost their seats.
Recall opponents formed an organization called "Citizens Against Recall Election of Cindy Warren, Ines DeLuna, Cynthia Lane, Carolyn Martini" and through mid-February 2010 had raised about $19,500 for their effort, versus the roughly $18,700 raised by recall supporters.
The St. Helena recall effort drew national attention shortly before the February 23 vote with the publication in the New York Times of a lengthy review of the recall called "St. Helena’s Version of Hatfields vs. McCoys."
According to the New York Times, "The battle over an election to recall four of the five members of the school board has pitted neighbor against neighbor and friend and against friend, driving a wedge through a small school district that has slightly fewer than 1,400 students. The factions have taken to sitting on opposite sides of the high school gym and staking out separate bleachers on the Little League field. Several pro-recall parents took their children off a swim team after the coach sided with the board members."
Recall Cynthia Warren?
Recall Ines DeLuna?
Recall Cynthia Noble Lane?
Recall Carolyn Martini?
Candidates on the ballot
Four candidates ran for the four seats that became vacant when the recall succeeded: Jeanne DeVincenzi, Jeff Conwell, Jeannie Kerr and Sean Maher.
- Jeff Conwell ran for the seat Trustee Cindy Warren occupied. Conwell is an airline pilot. He has three children in the St. Helena school system.
- Jeannie Kerr ran for the seat Trustee Cynthia Lane occupied. Kerr has been involved in Parent Teacher Groups, the St. Helena Public Schools Foundation and the annual Just Imagine! fundraiser.
- Sean Maher ran for the seat Ines DeLuna occupied.. Maher has two children in the St. Helena school system. He served as president of the Boys & Girls Club board for four years.
- Jeanne DeVincenzi ran for the seat Carolyn Martini occupied.
Motivation for recall
Organizers of the recall said they sought the recall because:
- They are dissatisfied with the way the school board handled the process of choosing a new school superintendent.
- They also assert that misconduct occurred in the awarding of retirement packages to St. Helena Unified School District Superintendent Allan Gordon and high school principal Jim Zoll.
- They believe the district needs a higher degree of fiscal responsibility. They say, "Curbing the current excessive administrative spending in our district could free up hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be allocated to programs that develop all levels of education for all the students in our community. Cutting back on unnecessary administrative positions, excessive administrative salaries, unnecessary legal fees and unwarranted early retirement benefits for select administrators would allow our district to fund the valuable programs that have been cut or curtailed in recent years by the district, and perhaps additional programs could be funded to provide our students with more tools that they will need to achieve their goals."
- They want more transparency. Recall supporters have said, "Public trust is lost when board members call special meetings to correct their failure to properly inform the community of an issue that was discussed and decided at a previous meeting."
- Better relationships. They say, "It is important to have a school board that is willing to listen to, and take in, all points of view before making decisions. Eliminating any fear of retaliation for bringing concerns before the board and the administration is another critical step toward promoting trust and integrity in our district."
- A board that thinks independently. They say "Our school district deserves board members who are willing to dig deeper into issues and administrative recommendations instead of accepting them at face value."
Objections to recall
Objections that were raised to the recall campaign included:
- Holding a special election to conduct the recall will be expensive.
- Recalls should only be held when "malfeasance rising to a criminal level has been established."
- The recall, if it goes on the ballot, will take place only about eight months before the regularly scheduled November 2010 election.
- Those supporting the recall made allegations about corruptions. "The Napa County district attorney investigated and found these charges ... to be totally without merit on each and every charge."
- Complaints about high administrative salaries don't take into account "that the salaries we pay are “market rate” when compared to the districts we want to emulate."
- Complaints about how much the school district spends on legal fees "fail to mention that, according to a summary of legal costs provided by the District, $152,000 of those fees are a result of two lawsuits filed by one of their leaders, Kevin Alfaro."
- The school board that is the target of the recall "has brought us the best schools in our district’s history, with an even brighter future ahead of it."
Path to the ballot
On September 14, recall supporters turned in their recall petitions to election officials. They reported that they had collected at least 2,000 signatures for each of the four recall petitions. 1,515 valid signatures were required to force a recall vote for each of the four recall targets.
- January 2009: Superintendent Allan Gordon makes district administrators eligible for what a local newspaper refers to as a "lucrative retirement incentive."
- April 9, 2009: Superintendent Allan Gordon announces he is retiring. Trustees indicate they were leaning toward replacing him with assistant superintendent Robert Haley. Choosing Haley, they argued, would save the district the approximately $30,000 it would cost for an executive search. Ken Alfaro, who later become a leader in the recall effort, urged the board to utilize a wider search saying, "It doesn’t appear that you have spent much time considering this. I think you need to listen to the parents." The trustees went into a closed session that night. When they emerged, they announced they were offering the job to Haley.
- May 6, 2009: Parents and residents upset about the hiring of Haley express their views in a meeting.
- May 11, 2009: Trustee Jim Haslip resigns from the board in protest of the board's decision to hire Haley. In reference to the board's decision to hire Haley, he said, "the deal has been pre-cooked."
- May 14, 2009: Trustees confirm their hiring of Haley, awarding him a two-year contract with one-year renewals contingent on positive performance evaluations.
- The recall effort begins.
- June 2009: Four parents say in a letter that retiring superintendent Gordon acted inappropriately in January 2009 when he made administrators eligible for a lucrative retirement incentive that he then took advantage of when he retired in April 2009.
- September 14, 2009: Recall supporters turn in signatures to force the recall election.
- September 2009: Napa County District Attorney Gary Lieberstein clears administrators and board members of wrongdoing with regard to allegations about the district's retirement package saying, "There is no credible evidence to support the conclusion that any members of the Board of Trustees, including their management team, took any action that would constitute a violation of any civil or criminal laws within our jurisdiction." Lieberstein also says there is insufficient evidence that recall supporters were guilty of extortion.
- October 26: Election officials had until this date to verify the signatures.
- November 2009: Pro-recall parent Kevin Alfaro wins a special election to fill the seat on the school board made vacant by the May 2009 resignation of Jim Haslip.
- February 23, 2010: Date of the recall election.
- The school board had a choice between a traditional polling place election or a vote-by-mail contest, and they chose the mail-in ballot option.
- Napa Valley Register, "Upvalley recall election set," October 31, 2009 (dead link)
- Napa Valley Register, "A recall in St. Helena?," June 1, 2009
- St. Helena Star, "Incumbents out-raise, out-spend recall challengers," January 21, 2010
- Napa Valley Register, "Money edge to incumbents in St. Helena," February 22, 2010
- New York Times, "St. Helena’s Version of Hatfields vs. McCoys," February 20, 2010
- St. Helena Star, "Conwell, Kerr pull papers for recall election," November 12, 2009
- St. Helena Star, "Maher, Kerr pull papers for recall election," November 19, 2009
- St. Helena Star, "Candidate Profile: Carolyn Martini," December 17, 2009
- Napa Valley Register, "Parents, school officials clash," June 28, 2009 (dead link)
- Napa Valley Register, "Spending priorities at St. Helena schools," January 23, 2010
- St. Helena Star, "Recall fueled by costly vendettas, false allegations," October 22, 2009
- St. Helena Star, "Recall supporters submit petitions," September 17, 2009
- St. Helena Star, "Tuteur discusses recall with school board," October 4, 2009
- Napa Valley Register, "After months of turmoil, St. Helena voters to decide on school board recall," January 24, 2010