Comparing two lapses in judgment by Des Moines school board members

Jonathan Narcisse, the odd man out on the Des Moines school board, did something dumb recently:

Craig Richman, 16, a sophomore wrestler at Roosevelt High School, wrote an e-mail to school board members last week that voiced his frustration with the state’s “no pass, no play” rule, which benches athletes whose grades slip.

Richman blamed his academic struggles on advanced math classes. He said it was unfair that he should be required to sit out for six weeks for “challenging myself” and added that he is retaking the algebra class that gave him trouble.

Board member Jonathan Narcisse, one of three board members to respond to Richman, said Monday that he thought the teen needed some “tough love.”

His e-mail told Richman: “Suck it up, man. Hit the books. Work out, and stay in shape, and don’t make the same mistake ever again.”

Richman’s parents feel Narcisse’s 11-paragraph e-mail was unnecessarily harsh. But they are more upset with a story Narcisse shared with the teen about an athlete who hadn’t focused enough on his academics and was last seen at a convenience store “asking customers for money for wine and offering (oral sex) for money.”

I happen to support the “no pass, no play” rule for high school students, and I think we’ve all had the experience of writing something in an e-mail we wish we could take back later. However, Narcisse should be particularly careful not to use inappropriate language when communicating with students. I sympathize with his point that the kid needs to take his lumps and study harder, but he could have made that point without any sexual references.

School board chair Ginny Strong wrote a letter to Narcisse

on behalf of the board that said members are “appalled” at his response to the student. The letter warns Narcisse against inappropriate language in communications that are carried out in his capacity as a board member.

“It is highly and completely inappropriate for a board member to reference a sexual act in response to a high school student’s e-mail,” Strong said.

Point taken. Now let’s compare Narcisse’s offense to a recent decision taken by the school board and announced by Strong in a press release last Friday:

Des Moines school officials today said they will not sue the construction management firm that has overseen millions of dollars in projects paid for with sales tax money.

School board members paid attorney Nicholas Critelli $49,000 for a 13-month investigation that reviewed the findings of a 2007 state auditor’s report that showed competitive bid laws were broken on school construction projects.

Critelli was charged with completing a more detailed review of construction projects and found additional projects also violated bid laws. Critelli recommended to the school board they consider legal action against the firm that oversaw all of the work, Taylor Ohde Kitchell.

The district has a $19.3 million contract with Taylor Ohde Kitchell to oversee construction projects through June 30, 2011. School officials also have decided not to terminate their contract with the company. Critelli wrote that Taylor Ohde Kitchell was responsible for the violations because of the conditions of its agreement with the district, and therefore was in violation of its contract.

Strong’s press release indicated that legal action “with little or no chance of success does not serve the best interests” of the community. The Des Moines Register added that the school board discussed Critelli’s report “briefly” at an October meeting, but Critelli was not there to take questions about the investigation.

I am not an attorney and can’t assess the prospects for a potential lawsuit against Taylor Ohde Kitchell. But I respect State Auditor David Vaudt, whose findings prompted the school board to hire Critelli, and it seems that Critelli thoroughly examined the issues at hand.

As the mother of a child in a Des Moines public school, I wonder why the school board would pay Critelli $49,000 to look into this matter and then ignore his recommendations. Even if they decided not to sue, they could have at least terminated the Taylor Ohde Kitchell contract.

As a Polk County resident, I wonder why the school board seems unconcerned with holding Taylor Ohde Kitchell accountable for how nearly $20 million in local-option sales tax dollars were spent.

By the way, Duane Van Hemert, who oversaw the bidding process on these projects as the school district’s facilities manager, refused to cooperate with Critelli’s investigation. That alone ought to raise some red flags for the school board members. (Van Hemert resigned from his position with the school district a year and a half ago, soon after Nancy Sebring became superintendent.)

Current and former school board members take pot shots at Narcisse, but he was among the community leaders who raised questions about the Taylor Ohde Kitchell contract years ago. Where were Des Moines school board members when the alleged wrongdoing identified by Vaudt and Critelli occurred? They were dismissing critics of Van Hemert and the school board as a bunch of name-callers.

If members of the school board are “appalled” by a boneheaded e-mail that offended one student and his parents, they should be equally “appalled” by Vaudt’s and Critelli’s findings.

Here’s hoping people committed to better governance and oversight will get on the Des Moines school board in the future.

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