Serving on a school board can be a difficult and thankless job. Conscientious trustees need to study reams of reports before each meeting. They have to leave the comfy confines of their homes at least once a month in the evening to spend several hours sitting on uncomfortable folding chairs listening to tedious presentations.
The trustees are given the undesirable task of having to determine which programs to cut, or which employees to lay off. They struggle to keep the schools afloat with diminished revenues beyond their control. For all their work, they receive zero financial compensation – not even a small stipend like members of the McKinleyville Community Services District board or Arcata City Council.
School board members deserve some sympathy – and a big thank you – for doing what they do.
But that doesn’t mean they’re beyond reproach. None of the members of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District (NHUHSD) Board of Trustees were involuntarily conscripted for the job. All of them either ran for office and were elected by the voters, or applied for mid-term vacancies and were appointed by the board. They all took the job with a promise to serve and to act as leaders of the NHUHSD, which oversees McKinleyville and Arcata High schools, as well as the continuation schools.
But that leadership has been non-existent in the wake of board member Dan Johnson’s June 13 commencement speech before the Arcata High School Class of 2013.
As previously reported in this newspaper, Johnson read a speech at the commencement which he identified as a letter that he had written to his daughter. However, it turned out that much of the speech was lifted from the famous “You Are Not Special” speech given by Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr. to that school’s class of 2012. It looks like a pretty clear cut case of plagiarism, a major academic no-no which, if done by students in the district, would land them in a big, stinking heap of trouble. Cheating is not something that can, or should, be tolerated in school.
So what should happen when a school board member gets caught doing the same thing? The first course of action is to allow the trustee to explain himself. Was it an oversight? A misunderstanding? A simple mistake? Maybe it was an innocent mistake, fueled by ignorance about plagiarism. If so, how about an explanation and an apology?
Instead, Johnson has for some reason decided to remain silent on the issue. No response. No statement. No apology. No explanation whatsoever.
Since Johnson isn’t taking responsibility for his actions, maybe, then, something resembling leadership could come from the other four board members. But that hasn’t happened either. Emails sent to Colleen Toste, Dana Silvernale and Dan Collen asking for their input on the speech were unreturned. The only response came from Board President Mike Pigg. He basically said that it was up to Johnson to comment on the issue. Pigg also said that the board might need to discuss graduation speeches prior to future ceremonies.
The district’s by-laws make it clear that only Pigg can speak for the board as a whole. However, the by-laws do not preclude board members from making individual statements about Johnson’s speech. What are their thoughts about what happened? Do they plan to address the issue? Will there be any discussion at all about the speech? Or will Johnson get a free pass?
There are lots of questions, but only silence from those in charge.
Fortunately, the voters have a voice of their own which will be heard this November.
Three seats held by Dana Silvernale, Mike Pigg and Colleen Toste are up for grabs. These are four-year terms. The filing period opened July 15 and continues until Aug. 9. If one or more incumbents doesn’t file to run for office, then the deadline will be extended to Aug. 14.
To run for the school board you need to be a registered voter residing withing the boundaries of the NHUHSD. Contact the county Elections Office to sign up. Election day is Nov. 5.