Tuesday, July 27, 2021

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Williams school board fires embattled superintendent

Newly elected Williams Unified School District trustees Kathleen Bautista, from left, Pat Ash, Cesar Perez, and Ed Davis take the oath of office, administered on Dec. 14 by Superintendent Edgar Lampkin, whom they fired three days later.

Four new members of the Williams Unified School District Board of Trustees were sworn in on Dec. 14, and three days later, they kept their primary campaign promise. 

In a special meeting on Thursday, Board President Patricia Ash, Vice president Kathleen Bautista, Ed Davis, and Cesar Perez voted in closed session to fire Superintendent Edgar Lampkin, effective immediately through a paid leave of absence and a 60 day notice. 

Only veteran school board member, Sylvia Vaca, dissented. 

The action drew applause from parents and former district staff, who called Lampkin a tyrant, a dictator, and a racist during the public comment portion of Thursday’s meeting. 

Ash, Bautista, Davis, and Perez were elected on Nov. 3, running a pro-union campaign against the embattled superintendent, who first came into the crosshairs of mostly English speaking elementary school teachers several years ago when they felt Lampkin was forcing them out of their jobs to make way for Spanish speaking teachers and cultural programs that reflected Williams’ mostly Hispanic population. 

Lampkin was also widely criticized for spending lavishly on attorneys and consultants, while staff and student programs, such as music and physical education, were cut. 

Animosity between the teachers and Lampkin became more apparent in 2018 when the district cut three teacher positions and all the paraeducators (many who helped translate for non Spanish speaking teachers), resulting in a no-confidence vote in the superintendent by the unions. 

Parents believed the eternal politics, constant chaos, disrespect, and Lampkin’s obsession for control was the reason for the mass exodus of teachers and students to other districts and alternative programs. 

Those parents who removed their children remained bitter that their kids couldn’t get a quality education in their home district that was up to par with other districts in Colusa County, especially after Williams Unified repeatedly performed poorly on state tests or failed to meet state benchmarks. 

“I shouldn’t have to home-school my kid to give him the education he deserves,” said Williams parent, Tammy Smith, at Thursday’s meeting. 

Williams Unified School District Superintendent Edgar Lampkin recognises Renate Simmons on Dec. 14 for 23 years of service to the district as the Library Coordinator. Simmons is married to outgoing School Board President George Simmons, who also received recognition last week for his service on the board. Simmons, who did not seek reelection in the Nov. 3 election, is also a retired Williams Unified School District teacher.

Lampkin was hired by the district in 2016, and support for his leadership style has been mixed. 

Prior to Thursday’s closed session action to dismiss Lampkin, Marcos Sillas pleaded with the board to wait until after the holiday break to make their decision, so more community members could provide input. 

Sillas said Lampkin has always cared about the children and their education, and that he had their best interests at heart. 

Sillas also said he was concerned about the high financial cost to the district to terminate Lampkin, hire an interim, and likely a consultant to help search for a permanent replacement, which could cost the district as much as $500,000. 

The district will continue paying Lampkin’s monthly salary of $12,666 plus benefits until Aug. 17, 2021, unless he becomes employed elsewhere or retires. 

Most of those speaking at the meeting, however, praised the board for taking immediate action to terminate Lampkin. 

Smith said it was the first time in a number of years that she felt parents were finally being listened to. 

Trustee Vaca, however, criticized her fellow board members for what she considered “vengeful” action taken by a new majority because they fired Lampkin without attempting to talk or meet with the superintendent after they were elected. 

“I am sorry to say that I cannot help but to feel that decisions made by this board are based on a personal agenda and not made on the district’s students’ benefit,” Vaca said. “I fear that with this new leadership, our district will be both morally and possibly fiscally damaged.” 

Vaca also accused the board of a possible Brown Act violation after Ash, who was selected to serve as president at their first meeting, called for Thursday’s special meeting to terminate Lampkin the same evening the four new members were sworn in, as if the new board members had previously discussed and decided on a course of action. 

But such a Brown Act violation, even if true, would be very difficult to prove, given the action was consistent with the newly-elected members’ election campaigns. 

Ash, Bautista, Davis, and Perez, all Williams alumni, indicated during their campaigns that they would likely terminate administrators from the top down. 

“We’ve spent two generation here and we still have great respect for this school, which is the reason and the motivation for why we all ran and why we want to change things,” said Davis, who graduated from Williams High School in 1964 and became a district teacher. 

Former paraeducator, Meghan Miller, also confirmed that community members did seek out the candidates in order to hatch a plan to take back control of the district. 

“When somebody is trampled on for so long by someone who does not care, they do start talking to one another and start formulating a plan to make a change,” Miller said. “And that plan is brought about by running for the position and by putting yourself out and saying this is not acceptable anymore. And that is exactly what these new board members have done. They have listened to the community before they were board members. They have seen the terror that this person (Lampkin) has brought into our district and the horrible aspects that have happened to our school and our children and the education. We have lost wonderful teachers. Many, many children have been switched out to other schools, including my own, and wonderful paraeducators that had nothing but love and care and nurturement for our children are all gone because of his hidden agenda.” 

While it is unlikely that a prosecutor could prove the new board members colluded in an illegal meeting after they were elected, when they were required to abide by California’s open meetings law, the board did run afoul of the Brown Act on Thursday by applying separate time allowances for different speakers, based on the content of their comments. 

The Brown Act specifically provides that a legislative body may not “prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body.”

But within minutes of specifying that three minutes would be allowed for public comment, Ash’s application of the Brown Act allowed only those who criticized Lampkin or praised the school board to speak without interruption.  

When former Williams Unified Trustee Alejandra Lopez, who lost her reelection bid on Nov. 3, requested time to speak during public comment, Ash indicated that she could speak only if she “kept it short.” 

Ash then directed the executive administrator to mute the Zoom feed after eight seconds when Lopez started to criticize a board member. 

While such action could be charged and punished as a criminal misdemeanor, Brown Act violations by public officials typically just embroil government agencies in costly litigation, Grand Jury investigations, or both, paid for by local taxpayers. 

Brown Act violations also erode public confidence in the government and elected officials, according to open meeting advocates such as the First Amendment Coalition.   

While inexperienced board members can be expected to hit a few road bumps when they are first seated, Ash previously served on the Williams City Council, and conducted public meetings for several years as mayor of the city. 

After Thursday’s action, Ash issued a statement regarding Lampkin’s termination. 

“The newly elected board believes that its vision for the future and expectations for leadership require a change in management style and new leadership that will benefit our district and the students we serve.” 

The board has engaged the services of retired Sutter County Superintendent of Schools, Bill Cornelius, to serve as interim superintendent while the board develops a recruitment plan for a qualified and experienced replacement for Lampkin. 

Cornelius recently guided Colusa Unified School District in their search for a new superintendent.

Editors note: This article has been corrected from the printed version to reflect the word fiscally, from physically. 

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