# Dick Murphy

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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Someone on the school board needs to ask tough questions

Critics of Des Moines school board member Jonathan Narcisse may want to revise their opinions in light of this report published in the Des Moines Register on September 26:

The Des Moines school district should sue the construction management firm that has overseen projects paid for with a local-option sales tax, an attorney hired by the school board recommended in a report released Thursday.

The recommendation came after a year-long review by attorney Nicholas Critelli that showed competitive bidding laws were broken on school construction projects. The violations were in addition to those found in a 2007 state auditor’s report.

The district has a $20 million contract with Taylor Ohde Kitchell to oversee construction projects. The firm is responsible for the violations, Critelli wrote.

Critelli’s report affirmed Auditor David Vaudt’s report that four contracts for work at East High School were split into nine smaller purchase orders. The contracts – $115,362 for an annex and $67,387 for a gymnasium – should have fallen under a state law that requires competition for any project of more than $25,000.

To download a pdf file of Critelli’s report, click here.

Here is an excerpt from an e-mail Jonathan Narcisse sent to his supporters in October 2007, one month after he was elected to the Des Moines school board:

The Taylor Ohde Kitchell contract remains a concern and I am waiting for more specific reports and evaluations. This is a $20+ million contract being paid out of local option tax dollars. One man working for T.O.K., Doug Ohde, was paid $19,200 for his September hours, his total compensation paid for 160 hours of work. Others working for T.O.K. were paid $11,675.36, $10,723.43 and $10,576.48 out of our tax dollars for their September hours.

Our Board Chair Dick Murphy has stated if I want to know what Doug Ohde is doing to earn those tax dollars I should contact the company and ask him, but I prefer to see a performance evaluation by the District and will pursue details.  After all, Doug Ohde is being paid more than our Superintendent.

That’s former school board chairman Dick Murphy, who unwisely tried to get his colleagues to censure Narcisse following the latest school board election.

By the way, the Des Moines Register reported that Taylor Ohde Kitchell and Duane Van Hemert, the district’s former facilities manager, “refused to participate” in Critelli’s investigation.

Van Hemert resigned not long after Nancy Sebring replaced Eric Witherspoon as superintendent. For years before that, Narcisse and Nan Stillians of the Save Our Schools organization had been criticizing the Taylor Ohde Kitchell contract and various decisions made by Withersppon and Van Hemert. To get a taste, read this feature on Stillians and Save Our Schools, published in the Des Moines area weekly Cityview in May 2006.

In those days, I used to hear Stillians and Narcisse referred to as “rabble-rousers” or worse, and they did sometimes use intemperate language. However, many of their concerns turned out to be justified. Meanwhile, no one on the Des Moines school board seemed to be asking tough questions during Witherspoon’s tenure as superintendent.

Earlier this month, voters re-elected three incumbents to the Des Moines school board. Narcisse had backed three challengers, Mike Pike, Steve Flood and Kris Crisman. Those challengers raised concerns about Taylor Ohde Kitchell and other aspects of the school district’s management during the campaign. For example, read this campaign flier promoting the candidacies of Flood, Crisman and Pike.

Here is an excerpt from an e-mail Narcisse sent to his mailing list on September 26:

Attached above is a map from the September 9, 2008, election. The pink, orange and yellow precincts were won by Ginny Strong, Jeanette Woods and Dick Murphy.  The dark blue precincts were won by Mike Pike and Steve Flood. Mike Pike captured the most precincts. Mike Pike, Steve Flood and Kris Crisman finished first, second and fourth in the two Eastside wards and Pleasant Hill.

If this Des Moines School District election had operated under a Ward system, voters of these precincts would have gained meaningful representation on the Des Moines School Board.  Instead, between 10-15 precincts on the west side continue to control the outcome of Des Moines school board contests.  Below are a few examples of the disparity between how we on the DMPS board treat Eastside schools compared to how we treat Westside schools.

   * Prominent Westside schools like Greenwood, Hannawalt, and  Hubbell were not consolidated and were moved to the head of line for local option tax money, while the Eastside saw super-sized elementary schools like Brubaker with 700 students, and Adams closed, despite strong and prolonged protests and a legal appeal still in process before the Iowa Supreme Court.

   * The District spent $11,148 per pupil on our 4th most affluent non-choice elementary Walnut Street school; while we spent $6,738 –or $4,410  less per pupil –at our poorest school Willard on the Eastside where 93.46% of students receive free or reduced-fee lunches. The District spent more money per pupil at Merrill than at Weeks, despite Weeks containing twice as many students living in poverty as those at Merrill so defined.

   * The Eastside showed exceptional support for re-opening a full-time Technical/Vocational school; however, the District plans to invest more to expand programming in Westside students through the prestigious I.B. [international baccalaureate] program.

I still believe that it is a mistake to interpret the recent school board election as a sign that voters are happy with the status quo in Des Moines public schools. I believe that many people supported the incumbents because they feared the challengers would give the religious right a foothold on the school board.

I support switching to a ward system for school board elections in Des Moines, so people on the east side do not continue to feel disenfranchised by the process.

Whether or not that reform is enacted, it is important for school board members to keep a close watch on administrators so that abuses like those uncovered in Critelli’s report do not happen again.

Final note: This article from the Des Moines Register troubles me:

A consultant charged $36,000 to teach Des Moines school board members how to monitor Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s job performance under a new management method that wraps up its first year next month.

Up to another $22,000 is budgeted – the money also can be used for conference fees and subscriptions – to help board members understand the so-called “policy governance” model, which gives them the authority to set broad goals but grants Sebring and top administrators the power to decide how those directives are met. Sebring, for example, would decide which schools hire additional kindergarten teachers if board members decided that smaller classes sizes are needed.

The district hired James Hyatt of Charney Associates in January 2007 to teach the model, which is derived from the way corporate boards of directors oversee their chief executive officers. The district hopes to get a $15,000 grant to help pay for Hyatt’s work.

The method has critics, who say it gives the superintendent leeway to make important decisions that are not immediately made public.

Sebring seems like a good superintendent, but the last thing the Des Moines school district needs is for school board members to become less engaged in how the district is managed.

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Does the DM school board majority want to get Narcisse re-elected?

Because if they do, they should stay on the present course.

I didn’t write much about the Des Moines school board campaign, because I don’t live in the school district and didn’t have a firm grasp of what all the eight candidates stood for.

As I noted last week, three incumbents kept their seats in a relatively high-turnout election. The outcome was a setback for school board member Jonathan Narcisse, who was hoping to get a few allies elected.

That said, it appears to me that the majority on the board is now overplaying its hand in an effort to further marginalize Narcisse. Not only do I suspect this will backfire, I also think they are wrong about the prevailing level of satisfaction with Des Moines Public Schools.

At its meeting last Tuesday, the school board majority chose not to act on Dick Murphy’s ill-advised motion to censure Narcisse, probably because Narcisse had retained the prominent attorney Alfredo Parrish. Instead, the board

referred his alleged misconduct to Polk County and state officials for further investigation.

Board members voted 5-1 to forward alleged violations of state ethics laws and school board policies to the Polk County attorney’s office and Iowa attorney general’s office. Narcisse abstained from the vote.

The board rejected member Teree Caldwell-Johnson’s proposal to refer the alleged violations to an independent agency for investigation before referring them to authorities.

“Not once in closed or open session has this board been presented evidence to support the claims,” said Caldwell-Johnson, who cast the lone no vote.

Narcisse isn’t going to win any awards for congeniality, but I doubt that this action will diminish his standing among those who elected him to the school board.

From what I gather, the people who are comfortable with current governance of the Des Moines Public Schools interpret the recent election results as proof that the people are satisfied with the status quo.

However, Narcisse represents a significant number of Des Moines residents who are concerned about graduation rates and other problems in the district’s schools. If he wants another term on the board, I wouldn’t bet against him finishing in the top four next September (when four seats will be up for grabs).

The Des Moines Register’s reporting on the school board race focused on the fact that three challengers backed by Narcisse lost. But did they really lose because of their association with Narcisse and his criticisms?

A major controversy that developed during the school board campaign received little attention in the Register’s reporting. Some community activists, led by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, repeatedly sounded the alarm about a threat to the school board from the religious right.

Gil Cranberg reported shortly before the election on the contents of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa’s newsletter:

The headline on the lead article in the publication warns, “Religious Right Plots to Control Iowa’s Largest School District.”

The Alliance’s board represents a large number of religious denominations. Its mission includes challenging “political extremism based on religion;” and its goal is to ensure “that the work and influence of government and religious entities remain separate.” The Interfaith Alliance newsletter identifies the Iowa Family Policy Center as opposed to these goals and says it is “helping to elect three candidates to the school board.” The three are unnamed. Connie Ryan Terrell, the Interfaith Alliance’s executive director, said that’s to avoid engaging in electoral activity and jeopardizing the organization’s tax-exempt status.

The Alliance is not bashful though about bashing the Iowa Family Policy Center. The newsletter said the Center is “not supportive of public education and works tirelessly to privatize education by diverting additional public funds to private schools.” Further, the newsletter said, the Family Policy Center “advocates for prayer in school, teaching intelligent design as science curriculum and posting the Ten Commandments in public schools.”

If you read Cranberg’s piece, you will learn that those three unnamed candidates (opposed by the Interfaith Alliance and supported by the Iowa Family Policy Center) are the same three candidates Narcisse was supporting.

It wasn’t just one newsletter. The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa sent out several mass e-mails alluding to a threat to the public schools in Des Moines. One that I received on August 28 included this passage:

The religious right is not concerned about academic integrity, graduation rates or academic equity across a school district.  Regardless of Supreme Court rulings or state law, the religious right inserts itself into school board races across the country to gain control of school boards and impose conservative Christian education and “family values” on the public school students. Their ultimate goal is privatization of the public schools, which you can be assured, will not be equitable.  It is important these concerns are raised in the election process rather than debating them later at school board meetings.

I know you care about your community overall and specifically the children of your community.  I ask you to get involved!

·        Ask all the candidates if they have received the support (verbal, voter-organizing, or financial) of the Iowa Family Policy Center or the Iowa Christian Alliance.

·        Ask all the candidates, do they support having a public education system or should the public education system be privatized?

·        Ask all the candidates, if elected, what role will their faith and/or values play in shaping public policy for the school district?  What is their view on maintaining a boundary between religion and government, including public schools?

·        Ask all the candidates, would they vote to support or oppose the teaching of creationism, intelligent design, or Christian doctrine in the SCIENCE curriculum taught by the district’s teachers?

·        Ask all the candidates, do they support or oppose the districts’ employment and student non-discrimination policies which includes sexual orientation and gender identity?  And how would they work to enhance the implementation and effectiveness of this policy?

An e-mail from the Interfaith Alliance on September 2 urged readers to attend school board candidate forums and ask similar questions.

I am convinced that this issue is partly why turnout was so high on September 9. I know of people who voted for the Des Moines school board incumbents because they were worried about giving the religious right a foothold.

It didn’t help that two of the three candidates aligned with Narcisse sent their own children to parochial schools. Obviously, they still have a right to run for the school board, because their property taxes support public schools. On the other hand, many people felt that people who kept their own kids out of public schools should not be involved in governance of those schools.

Here is an excerpt from an e-mail the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa sent out the day after the election:

It’s a good day for public education, religious freedom and democracy!

Regardless of where you live in Iowa , most of you knew about the particularly bitter election battle for 3 seats on the Des Moines School Board.

Most of you were aware of the work of the Iowa Family Policy Center ( Iowa ‘s largest religious right organization) to “reclaim” Iowa ‘s largest school district.  You understood the potential danger if that came to fruition, not only for the Des Moines school district but for the entire state.

And I am sure most of you know by now that IFPC was NOT successful in “reclaiming” the Des Moines schools!  Voters across Des Moines averted IFPC’s efforts with an amazing turnout (about twice as many as last year).

The children, families, staff, schools, district and democracy won!

On September 18 the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa sent out a fundraising e-mail, noting with pride that

It’s been a little over a week since the voters in Des Moines resoundingly pushed back the efforts of the religious right to “reclaim” the Des Moines school board.  Thank you for your support and for your help to inform other voters.

My point is that I would caution administrators and school board members not to conclude that the voting public are mostly satisfied with the Des Moines Public Schools. They may have supported incumbents for different reasons. If so, they may not be in a hurry to punish Narcisse next year.

Speaking of Des Moines residents who feel poorly served by the public schools, I support David Yepsen’s proposal to move away from at-large elections for seats on the Des Moines school board:

Winners who come out of individual districts have to listen to their constituents and work with winners from other districts to get things for their own. Out of that political process, everyone benefits.

At-large elections haven’t worked in the Des Moines schools. Instead, some neighborhoods feel left out. Huge majorities from one neighborhood can impose leaders on others. This is a particular problem in Des Moines, where for generations, the community has sometimes split into east-side, south-side and west-side factions.

It’s flared up again in our schools because the east-siders and south-siders think the west-siders, who often elect more of the board members, aren’t doing as much for the east-side and south-side schools as they do for their own. Never mind the facts that suggest otherwise – the feeling is there.

Electing board members from districts would help cure it. It would also encourage more people to seek office. As it is now, many qualified people from some neighborhoods don’t run for the board because they figure they have no chance in a citywide election. If candidates had to come out of districts, more new leaders would be tempted to run.

West-siders have dominated the Des Moines school board for a long time. Bringing some balance to the board would reduce tension in the community.

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Dial down the hostility on the Des Moines School Board

The Des Moines school board election was one of the most bitterly contested in Iowa this year. Eight candidates, including three incumbents, ran for three seats. One incumbent who was not up for re-election, Jonathan Narcisse, publicly supported a trio of challengers. The campaign was marred by anonymous fliers attacking Narcisse as Narcisse slammed some of his colleagues in print and on the radio.

The three incumbents were re-elected with relatively high turnout at 12.7 percent:

Ginny Strong, 8,017 votes

Dick Murphy, 7,863 votes

Jeanette Woods, 7,200 votes

Kittie Knauer, 6,979 votes

Steve Flood, 5,699 votes

Mike Pike, 5,504 votes

Kristine Crisman, 4,385 votes

Larry Barrett, 1,741 votes

The fourth-place candidate, Kittie Knauer, is a retired high school principal in the district and probably has a decent chance to win a seat if she tries again in the future. Speaking to the Des Moines Register, she did not rule that out.

Flood, Pike and Crisman were the three challengers backed by Narcisse:

Flood, who some observers thought had the best shot among the challengers to break through the status quo Tuesday, said the incumbents’ sweep is a loss to those school children who are less fortunate.

“I didn’t lose tonight,” he said. “The children of Des Moines that weren’t born into privilege lost tonight. The children of Des Moines that don’t have a voice lost tonight.”

Crisman, Flood and Pike said they did not think their affiliation with Narcisse hurt their chances at the polls.

“I didn’t run to get elected. I don’t have the ability to tell the lies you need to tell to get elected,” Flood said. “I ran to reveal the truth about what’s going on in our school district. That’s all Jonathan does every day.”

Crisman said she was disappointed by the results, which show “apparently people keep wanting to go with status quo,” which she said includes high schools that are “dropout factories.”

Narcisse has been an irritant to fellow school board members for two years, and by his own admission has “contributed to a toxic environment in ways.”

He gave it his best shot, and the incumbents won. Now Narcisse should work on repairing relationships during the coming year. (He is up for re-election in 2009.)

Board chairman Dick Murphy is not helping matters by putting a vote to censure Narcisse on the agenda for the school board’s first post-election meeting:

Specifically, the censure motion charges that:

– A publication tied to Narcisse, the Iowa Bystander, received advertising money from the school district, a conflict of interests.

– Narcisse did not review bills as required before he asked for an approval vote.

– He did not attend expulsion hearings, as board members must do.

– Narcisse alleged that the board violated open meetings laws with legally private sessions called to discuss Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s contract.

Sebring and Narcisse sparred earlier this year over comments he made about the district’s dropout rate.

Narcisse said Friday that he was not notified when it was his turn to review the bills and moved to approve payment. He said he did not solicit business for the Iowa Bystander, told members last fall that he had connections to the paper, and has since dissolved his financial interest in it.

Narcisse also said he was not notified of the expulsion hearings.

What constructive purpose does this censure motion serve? Murphy should withdraw it from the agenda. He is only exacerbating the tensions on the board and in the community.

I agree with former school board member Jon Neiderbach that censuring Narcisse is a waste of time and a distraction from work that needs the board’s attention.

After the jump I have posted an open letter from Neiderbach, which a friend forwarded to me.

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