LODI — A resolution giving Lodi Unified School District superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer authority to take all appropriate action during the COVID-19 pandemic raised concern from constituents and stakeholders Tuesday night.
During a special online-only meeting of the district’s Board of Education, parents and district teachers commented that delegating such authority to the superintendent made no sense, and stripped the seven board members of their leadership duties.
“The Pope’s prayer today was ‘those in possession of responsibility need to take responsibility,’” teacher Jennifer Cassel said in an email submitted to the district and read by Nichols-Washer during the meeting.
“So why does this resolution feel like board members, the very ones who ought to be taking responsibility in the midst off a crisis, are sidestepping opportunities for leadership? The board was elected to lead,” she continued. “So why hand over the reins? What message does that send to an anxious community?”
Tuesday’s resolution was a result of San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas issuing a March 13 directive that all districts close due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
According to California Education Code, a school board is permitted to delegate its powers and duties to an officer or employee of the district in an emergency situation. Delegating those powers would mean the superintendent would be able to make emergency decisions without consulting the board of education.
A majority of the board wanted to delegate those duties to Nichols-Washer as it declared an ongoing public health emergency.
“Everyone needs to realize that the board is not giving up control,” board member George Neely said. “The board has always had control. This resolution was written by the COE, put out to all superintendents and presented to board for expediency. And if there is something we don’t like, we can always come together, do something about it and make a change.”
Board members Courtney Porter and Ron Heberle said the resolution was unnecessary, given the superintendent had made emergency decisions in the past without consulting them.
Porter cited the November lockdown at Tokay High School, which Nichols-Washer implemented without notifying the board.
He also noted Tuesday’s closure of the district office after an employee “self-reported” testing positive for coronavirus, a decision the superintendent made without board consultation.
“We’re always available,” he said. “I really think this is a violation of our duties in approving this resolution, even though it’s in her job title. This looks bad and sends a bad message. The optics, the reasoning, just don’t work for me.”
Porter also struggled with a response the superintendent gave the board during the meeting as to where that authority would be delegated in the event she fell ill during the current pandemic.
Nichols-Washer said if she were to test positive for the virus, the next in line would take over, and then next in line after that person would take over in the event of am illness. However, she could not identify a specific person or position within the district who would be next in line.
Michelle Orgon, president of the Lodi Education Association, questioned how the board could consider supporting the resolution when the superintendent could not identify who would take over for her in an emergency.
“If as one board member says there no difference (in duties or abilities), then don’t make changes,” her comment read. “If there’s no change in the job description, there’s no need to vote on this tonight. With all due respect, Dr. Washer makes these decisions already, so keep it as it is.”
Residents watching the meeting on the district’s YouTube channel agreed with Porter, Orgon and Cassel, stating that approving the resolution would create unintended consequences, such as increasing the lack of trust the community has in the district.
“Leadership is needed, but not at the expense of a dictatorship scenario,” Mike Shinn commented. “The board exists to make sure the constituents are represented. You can’t skip that process. Accountability.”
Board members in support of the resolution said it does not take their “power” or responsibility to their constituents away, and that if the superintendent makes any poor decisions in the current state of emergency, she will be held accountable.
They also stated they can reclaim their power and authority from the superintendent if they believe she is not doing as much as possible to protect students and staff form illness during the pandemic.
“In my opinion, this is an okay thing for us to do because she’s probably the most qualified to do it,” board member Gary Knackstedt said. “We’re here to make sure we have good people in the jobs to do those jobs. She’s the expert, and it seems to me that leadership is giving people the tools they need and let them do their job.”
Nichols-Washer said the authority given to her in the resolution is not something superintendents want to have. In the incidents Porter noted, she said there was no time to call a meeting or consult with the board immediately if student and employee safety was at stake.
“In all emergency events, of course the board will be informed,” she said. “This is a tool that will not be taken lightly. It will be used only in extreme circumstances, and is an avenue to be able to get a job done in a very difficult situation.”
The board voted 5-2 to approve the resolution delegating authority to the superintendent, with Porter and Heberle dissenting.