Nov 1 2017

Opinions on School Board Meeting: School Employees and Teacher Aids Contracts, Upset Parents, Teacher Behavior, Bond Reissuance

What did students observe at the School Board meeting of October 25, 2017? 

The Piedmont Unified School District Board meeting on October 25th took place at City Hall, beginning at 7:00 pm, one of the bimonthly meetings that take place on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month.

Upon arriving fifteen minutes early, no seats were to be had and the room was packed with people lining up in the hallway and scrambling for seats in the overflow rooms. This meeting was so popular because of the unofficial topic on the schedule, sexual harassment allegations about a Piedmont High School teacher, Mr. Mark Cowherd.

The meeting opened up with Gabe Kessler, a core teacher at Piedmont Middle School and the President of the Associated Piedmont Teachers [APT], expressing his support for the teachers’ aides and their fight to receive higher wages as they negotiate their contract. Mr. Kessler also talked about the challenges of deciding on an instructional calendar for the 2018-2019 school year, as each calendar works better for different students.

After the meeting, I talked to Mr. Gabe Kessler about this, and he said that it “was one of the harder things because there are elements of every calendar that work and elements that don’t.”  He also said that he wants to continue to show his support for the teacher aides and will continue to do so as the President of the APT, and as a teacher who is supported by the aides. Lastly, he said that he was also there to better understand what the community was feeling about Mr. Cowherd, although it would be inappropriate for him to comment on that further.

Mr. Kessler was followed by Ms. Ford, a third grade teacher, who also demonstrated her support for teachers’ aides, listing multitude reasons why they are essential in the classroom. For example, in one lesson, an aide will be listening to the lesson, picking the essential parts of it, modifying the lesson for the student they’re working with, and helping them understand. All of this done simultaneously. Finally, Ms. Ford said that these aides cannot afford to stay and live in Piedmont because they aren’t being paid enough even though they are most important.

After Ms. Foster spoke, Teris Alzer, a teacher’s aide, spoke on behalf of the CSEA and other teacher’s aides about their contract negotiation and what concerns aides have. She said that they want to be able to provide for families and kids and want to be cared for as employees. David Brobali and Jeffrey Verdano, both teacher’s aides, also spoke and said that they want to continue to work in Piedmont, but can’t even afford to live here on just this salary and sometimes work extra jobs.

The School Board then decided to move to the items not listed on the agenda, as there were so many people gathered to speak and support those talking about the sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Mark Cowherd.

First to speak was Lisa Sherman, the parent of Natalie Stollman, one of the students who filed a complaint against Mr. Cowherd. Ms. Sherman described how her daughter had the courage to say something, yet after receiving a letter that said Mr. Cowherd was being welcomed back to school after three weeks of administrative leave, she felt ignored and disregarded. She also said that there should have been a counselor to check in on her and other students, making sure she felt okay. Finally, Ms. Sherman expressed concern over how the student body views Mr. Cowherd’s return, for it can be inferred that what he did wasn’t wrong or that they won’t be listened to when they bring up a concern about a teacher.

Esther Rogers, also a parent to Piedmont students, followed Ms. Sherman, stating that she was there to support Natalie and her mother. She said that she sent out an email the night before telling people about the School Board’s decision and actions and wanted to rally support for this meeting.  Ms. Rogers also raised concerns about the impact this decision has on boys in the classroom, as the teasing sets a bad example. She wondered what we, as a community, are saying when we allow a teacher to remain in the classroom when it has been concluded that he does tease and people are uncomfortable with that.

After Esther Rogers, eight more people stood up and spoke to show support, each telling of a time when their son or daughter felt bullied or uncomfortable in Mr. Cowherd’s class. Most notable was Kim Hunter, who is an Alameda County District Attorney, who said that the community needs to take a stand and can’t ignore these stories. Additionally, Ms. Hunter said that even a seventeen year old is still a child and when you ignore this, you perpetuate the idea that this is okay.

As everyone finished speaking, Ms. Rogers asked those attending the meeting to show their support for Natalie to walk through the main hall.

After most people left the meeting, Michael Brady gave an H1 update, a bond that is discussed at every School Board meeting. H1 aims to fix the gaps in the education system. At this meeting, new ways to name and build new buildings and facilities were discussed, with a full description found on the District website.

Then, Mr. Booker began to talk about CAB refinancing and the two page summary that was put out to the community and can also be found on the District website.

Amal Smith said that she had received eight emails about switching from CAB to SIB. A member of the audience who did not state his name also talked, saying that if they refinanced the CAB in 2032, 22.89 million dollars would be saved later, as opposed to refinancing now, which would only save 19 million dollars now. He said that this point wasn’t very clear in what was sent out to the community and he was worried the community wasn’t aware of this. He was also disturbed that CABs were put back on the table when the majority of the community wants SIBs. He was also worried about a recent tax increase of about 1,000 dollars on many Piedmont homes.

At this point, all of us students there were completely lost and had no clue what was being said around us, so I asked what all of that meant. Mr. Booker explained that when the District rebuild Havens, they borrowed money and that CABs and SIBs were ways to pay back the loan and that they were looking at which was the better one.

After explaining CABs and SIBs, Mr. Booker went on to discuss an open hearing for APT and opening a hearing on the contract to discuss benefits, retirement and disability benefits found in Article 10 and Article 6 that can be found online at the District website. He also invites the community to email the Board Members about this.

The Board then voted on the 2017-2018 working budget, which passed, and the Board gave their reports and announcements, essentially reporting to others what they had done in the community since they last met, and what they were planning on doing.

Overall, this School Board meeting was intense, but hopeful, as the community rallied together around each other to reach a common goal, I have no doubt that the School Board will take the feedback into consideration and respond accordingly.

by Emma Ziegler, Piedmont High School Senior


On October 25th, 2017, the School Board met in the Council Chambers at City Hall for the School Board Meeting, that occurs twice a month. The official purpose of this meeting was to discuss teacher aides, the CSEA wages, the future of named facilities at Piedmont High School, and refinancing bonds. Additionally, many members of the community brought forward their concerns and grievances regarding History teacher, Mr. Mark Cowherd.

The first major issue brought up was wage of teacher aides. Alaleh Ford, a third grade teacher at Beach School, described her experience with teacher aide and how integral teacher aides are. Ms. Ford’s teaching style is dependent on rotations, where she teachers two-thirds of the class and her teacher aide teaches the other third. Ms. Ford’s teacher aide also helps go over the successes and mistakes on tests, with each student individually. This same teacher aide “does yard duty, lunch duty, goes to 3 other teachers in a day… [and] stays longer after school.” Despite their hard work, Ms. Ford feels teacher aides are undervalued and cannot afford to stay, with many aides leaving only after a few years.

The next issue brought up was the California School Employees Association (CSEA) contract negotiations. Terra Salazar, the president of Chapter 60 CSEA, felt their workers were not treated fairly or respectfully. She was suported by Gabriel Kessler, David Pinvolly, and Jeffrey Dreadon. She pointed to the job descriptions that had not been changed for over a decade, despite the changing educational environment.

Maureen Rhodin, the District Data Coordinator, added that the CSEA had not been assigned any Board liaisons, despite there being 2 liaisons for the Association of Piedmont Teachers and 7 for Parent Clubs and Organizations.

Ms. Salazar stated “we have been pressured to do more with less and we’ve done it… [because] our students need us”. While Ms. Salazar acknowledged the budget was looking “bleak”, she still believed that their workers deserve higher wages.

The biggest issue discussed was the offensive conduct of a Mr. Mark Cowherd, a Piedmont High School history teacher. Many parents, such as Lisa Sherman, Esther Rodgers, Cara Michaels, Hope Salzer, Janice Sheldon, Pamela Grewal, Carol James, Guy Van Guano, and Vincent Vasulo, as well as an Alameda County District Attorney, Kim Hunter, were fearful of how this would set the wrong example for Piedmont students, and felt that Mr. Cowherd should not have been let back into the classroom. Ms. Sheldon and Ms. James both claimed Mr. Cowherd’s conduct has been an issue for a long time, with Ms. Sheldon calling a parent about Mr. Cowherd three years ago.

One of the major problems was the tone of the letter sent after Mr. Cowherds return to school. Many of the parents say that it “welcomes him back.”  Ms. Sherman, the parent of one of the students that brought forward evidence against Mr. Cowherd, believed this would discourage girls from speaking up against sexual harassment, while teaching boys that there is no punishment.

In an interview, Jamie Pehanick, a concerned Piedmont parent, believed that the regulations at school should be changed. She, like many others came, to the meeting to show her support for the parents as well as the students who spoke out against Mr. Cowherd, specifically Lisa Sherman. She personally disapproved of both Mr Coward’s actions and the letter that welcomed him back. Overall, she was “pleased with how [the School Board Meeting] turned out.”

    In another topic, Michael Brady, the Bond Program Coordinator, discussed the naming of school facilities. Mr. Brady stated the Board of Education has all rights to naming facilities. This includes renaming facilities and adding new names. A facility could be trees, memorials, buildings, or even parts of buildings. New facility names may come from donations or they may be generated by the community, and given to the Board for consideration. In the upcoming construction of Piedmont High School, memorials will be preserved. However, there may also be requests to remove some memorials, such as the removal many past eagle scout projects. This topic was mainly covered to give the Board information, for future feedback.

    The last major topic covered in the meeting was the refinancing of bonds. There were two options a Capital Appreciation Bond (CAB) to a Current Interest Bond (SIB) or a CAB to CAB (CAB and SIB are to different types of bonds). Estimates project a higher tax savings if the Board waits to refinance. However, this is assuming interest rates continue the trend of going down. If the Board chooses to wait, they may save $40 million dollars, instead of the $24 million dollars if they refinance sooner.

    In my opinion, the problems the parents had did not lie in Mr. Cowherd’s case, but the laws and regulations dealing with the case governed the case.  Much of Mr. Cowherd’s actions were spread by word of mouth, or through unofficial documents, which only added fuel to the fire. The Board should have had more power to deal with the issue, such as revealing more information on the case or clearing up any misunderstandings. Parents should not have to go to City Hall to call for further action.

by Lyndon Torio, Piedmont High School Senior

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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