A tall man with a familiar face sat alone centered in the first row of the school board meeting reviewing notes and waiting calmly as the nearly full gathering of district employees, administrators and principals and teachers, and concerned citizens chatted quietly. Former Superintendent Michael Watenpaugh remained apart from everyone until a certain formality, designated on the Agenda as “4C: Consideration of Approval of Employment Agreement for District Interim,” was discussed and approved by the School Board.
A night for new beginnings, a renewal, a fresh start, all of the things that the onset of a new school year promises, characterized this meeting. Only youth truly mark innocent new ventures, so it was fitting that the student from Richard Crane led the adults in the flag salute.
Then the adults got down to the formality of Item 4C. Defying the traditional mode of simply going to the vote, Trustee Jennifer Wiltermood availed herself of the right to discuss this action. After hearing the details of the Interim’s contract, she explained why she initially voted against the hiring of Dr. Watenpaugh and why she planned to reverse her vote. He would be taking a significant cut in pay from his previous job as Superintendent of San Rafael City Schools at close to $300k to earn $235k for a contract that spanned July 1, 2019 through November 30, 2020.
The Board then voted 5-0 to hire Watenpaugh. The audience greeted this action with warm welcoming applause as the new leader moved to sit with the board and to thank everyone for bringing him back to the district.
Then the Board administered the Oath of Office to the incoming Student Board Members, Devin Deatherage and Juliet Kaufman. Each student shared her pleasure at being seated.
Devin Deatherage, a senior from Rancho Cotate High School, stated, “I’m very excited and honored to be the School Board Representative. I wish to represent my school the best I can and am thrilled to start the school year!”
No less enthusiastic, Juliet Kaufman, a sophomore from Technology High School, shared her feelings: “This is an incredibly exciting moment for me. I am still kind of in awe that I was selected to represent my school and am so honored. I hope to make the best out of this opportunity. I am so excited for what this year holds!”
And the tone was set for a quiet businesslike evening as the School Board President, Leff Brown, invited public comment. Former elementary teacher Kathleen Eckert, retired the past nine years, made it a point to not only attend this meeting but also comment on the new direction taken by the school district. Regarding Michael Watenpaugh, her superintendent from 2003 to 2007, Eckert offered much praise.
“I respect this gentleman to come and guide us, to move us from a most difficult time. I am excited to see what’s going on. We need to develop good rapport with the students. Thanks to the Board and Administrators. Aren’t we lucky that you have come back!”
Debbie LeBoy began her public comment by also acknowledging the new start led by the new superintendent. She then praised the students at Rancho Cotate and Matt Transue for their use of the new theater to hold a year culminating representative activity, a state assembly.
Then the Student Representatives led the agenda back to business as each reported about the start of the school year. Devin Deatherage and Juliet Kaufman described many summer activities, and then Juliet told about the new beginning as Technology High opened its year at the historic Waldo Rohnert site. She said, “This marked the beginning of an era for Tech High. The students are ever so grateful for the money spent and the work done to set up the school.”
Rohnert Park Educators Association President David Freebairn added to the new beginnings theme as he greeted the new superintendent and welcomed him to lead the new start.
The meeting moved smoothly through the consent agenda as all but two of the eleven items passed by a 5-0 vote. The other two items received 4-1 votes.
Then District Administrators Matt Marshall and Rocky Schumann delivered a presentation centered on a proclamation “Declaring September as School Attendance Awareness Month.” They shared many significant facts regarding the importance of attending school. CBO Robert Marical underscored the discussion talking about the impact of truancy on the funding of the district.
Trustee Tim Nonn expressed concern about the measurement for the loss of attendance and wanted some qualitative and quantitative data regarding those losses. He asserted, “We need to evaluate these programs to determine if we should retain certain companies. We must have more than anecdotes to keep such programs as restorative justice. We want to make informed decisions.”
Robert Marical added a facilities update to his enrollment report. The roofing was completed at Monte Vista, the Theater Art building expansion at Lawrence Jones was finished, and much work went into the renovation of Waldo Rohnert to receive Technology High students and staff.
Thomas Page Teacher Amy Miller commented extensively on the possibility of extending the legal services of Dannis, Wolliver, and Kelley (DWK). Her concerns were that this firm would not be moving with the district toward collaboration. DWK may have been part of the problem connected with the past seven years and the unusual legal expenses that the district incurred. She said, “I want us to remain in a positive situation. I don’t think that firm (DWK) is the way to go. I encourage the Board to hire a firm that will move us in a positive direction.”
Trustee Nonn commented, “The problem with DWK, I have spoken with members of the different unions who have cited many troubles. I have a stack of articles about DWK litigation and its negligent behavior. The main thing: we have had a long history of unnecessary litigation. The District lost and paid out a lot of money. Since we have made a decision to work collaboratively, we need to send a strong signal to all three unions. Returning DWK will send the wrong message.”
No vote was taken. The issue will be brought back in September.
The evening concluded with a statement from Dr. Watenpaugh. “I am extremely happy to be here. Thank you for the warm welcome. I plan to visit every campus immediately and will be in every classroom and meet with all of the staff and then present my findings to the Board.”
The superintendent then addressed his particular job. “My role is to set up for the new superintendent. I want to talk with everyone about how to make his or her job better. I thank you for the honor, and I’m excited to be back in this community!”
One spectator, Cassandra Albaugh, followed up the meeting with insightful commentary: “There was more open discussion of issues, and trustees aired their concerns and differences with mutual respect. Staff was receptive and forthcoming in meeting the needs of all Trustees. Hopefully, an era of more transparency is upon us.”
And thus begins a new school year.