Special Report: Is School District Ready to Handle Explosive Rio Mesa Growth?
Madera County is expected to be one of the fastest-growing areas in the Valley, with new subdivisions popping up on either side of Highway 41, bringing in new families and students to area schools.
Golden Valley Unified School District has a brand-new elementary that will open this fall for hundreds of kids living in Riverstone, one of the first planned communities in the Rio Mesa area. But who will be at the helm of the district when Stone Creek Elementary opens is uncertain. The district, which has been rocked in the past by political turmoil, is undergoing a new bout of instability.
Gone is the superintendent, Rodney Wallace, and in his place is a veteran schools administrator, Mike Berg, who has stepped in at other districts that find themselves between leaders.
Meanwhile, the School Board itself has grappled with incidents of questionable conduct and governance decisions that sparked new board policies, including a first-ever trustee censure policy.
Is this district, which is barely two decades old, ready for the explosive growth headed its way? Recent events may indicate that the district is still experiencing growing pains.
Agreement Pays Superintendent Who Quit
Golden Valley trustees agreed last month to pay three months of salary totaling more than $44,000 and $63,000 into a retirement account for Wallace in exchange for his voluntary resignation from a post he held for less than three years.
According to the resignation agreement, Wallace is on paid leave and will get his salary and benefits through June 30.
But was it a retirement or a resignation? According to a board statement released at the March 23 meeting, when Wallace’s departure was announced, it appeared to be the latter.
“The Board also desires to express its appreciation for the work of Superintendent Wallace and wishes him well in his retirement. As the board works through this leadership transition and endeavors to maintain a focus on reopening schools and academic excellence, it asks for patience and understanding.”
Berg, a veteran administrator who has worked at various Valley and Sierra school districts, was appointed interim superintendent while Golden Valley searches for its new leader.
Berg’s official first day as superintendent was April 1 because he needed a few days to wrap up his work as Golden Valley’s construction project manager. So Assistant Superintendent Kevin Hatch was put in charge of the district temporarily until Berg could assume the top job.
It might have been a brief moment of deja vu for Hatch, who held the top job six years ago when turmoil roiled the trustees and sparked a historic recall election.
There appears to be turmoil this time around as well, although no one with knowledge about events leading up to Wallace’s resignation is willing to talk about them. GV Wire reached out to the five School Board members, who did not return phone calls or emails, and to the head of the Golden Valley teachers association, who referred all queries to Berg. Wallace also could not be reached for comment.
Berg said he could not comment on events that occurred prior to his appointment as interim superintendent.
Berg’s contract was approved by the School Board at the April 8 meeting. As interim superintendent, he will be paid $100 per hour, with a maximum of 960 hours per year due to California restrictions on public employee retirees.
New Elementary School Opening
All this is happening as the district prepares to open its newest elementary, Stone Creek, and is preparing for explosive growth in subdivisions along the Highway 41 corridor north of Fresno.
Stone Creek’s principal Shellie Roth can be heard on public service announcements on iHeartRadio stations in the Fresno region extolling the new school in the Riverstone community and the district itself.
To the casual listener, the radio PSA smight sound like the school is trolling for student enrollments for this fall:
“This is Shellie Roth, principal at Stone Creek Elementary School. Stone Creek, a TK-6th grade school, is accepting registrations for fall 2021. This brand new elementary school is located in the Riverstone community on Highway 41 and Ave 12 just north of Riverpark. Stone Creek is part of the award-winning Golden Valley Unified School District. The innovative 15.5-acre campus is planned to feature tech-forward 21st century classrooms, a state-of-the-art Library/Media Center, a dedicated music room, outdoor learning spaces, an outdoor amphitheater, and a dynamic sports complex with the highest-quality ball fields and playgrounds. For more information, go to gvusd.org or call 559.395.5264. Stone Creek is shaping the hearts and habits of our future generations.”
But Berg, who had served as Stone Creek’s project manager for several years before his abrupt promotion, said the PSAs are intended to be informational and not a vehicle to entice enrollments to Stone Creek.
“We have an abundance of enrollments,” he said, adding that officials expect to open in August with about 200 students. More students are expected in subsequent years until the school hits capacity at 625.
And Stone Creek won’t be the last new elementary for the district, as thousands of new homes are on the drawing board, Berg said.
The new superintendent will come to a district that is barely two decades old but is known in the county and Valley for maintaining high academic standards. Golden Valley serves a primarily rural region that is steadily becoming more suburban.
The district’s first classes were held in the 1999-2000 school year, when 790 students were enrolled in Webster Elementary (which had split off from Madera Unified School District), Camelot High, and Independence Continuation High.
Over the years as more people moved into the area, the number of students and schools grew, and today Golden Valley’s enrollment is nearly 2,100 students in two elementary schools, a middle school, a comprehensive high school, several alternative education schools, and for patients at Valley Children’s Hospital.
But the way forward was not always a smooth one.
In 2015 then-Superintendent Andy Alvarado, who took the top job in 2010 at the start of the district’s second decade, was abruptly fired on a 3-2 School Board vote. Later that year, outraged voters recalled the three trustees who had voted to fire him and elected new trustees. The School Board then voted to rehire Alvarado with a bump in salary, according to a Fresno Bee story.
The Bee reported that Hatch, who had taken on the superintendent’s job after Alvarado, voluntarily agreed to relinquish it and return to his old job as assistant superintendent for educational services, and to take a $40,000 pay cut.
Three years later, Alvarado left Golden Valley — this time without a severance package — to become superintendent at Central Unified School District in Fresno, the job he holds today. Wallace, then superintendent of El Tejon Unified School District, was selected as Golden Valley’s new leader from 26 applicants, the district reported at the time.
He was hired in October 2018 on a three-year contract ending June 30, 2021, and an annual salary of $166,130. His contract was amended in June 2019 when the trustees agreed not to formally evaluate Wallace since he had only been on the job eight months, but to give him a positive evaluation that extended his contract by a year and bumped his salary to $171,945, the next step on the schedule.
Revised minutes of the June 23, 2020 board meeting, which the trustees somewhat inexplicably did not approve until eight months later at the Feb. 23, 2021 meeting, reported that the board unanimously voted for a positive evaluation for Wallace. Doing so extended his contract another year to June 30, 2023, and bumped his annual pay to $177,963.
Meanwhile, with two big construction projects looming — Stone Creek Elementary and the new LEAF career technical project at Liberty High School — the district had hired Berg as project manager. He had retired in 2015 from Central Unified’s top job and later worked as interim superintendent for Yosemite Unified School District in Madera County. LEAF is an acronym for Liberty High School Engineering Agriscience Farming.
Trustee Conduct Questioned
Hints began to emerge in recent months of fractures forming among trustees and district staff. Golden Valley, like most other school districts, is grappling with the impacts of the pandemic and having to balance the desire of many parents to return to in-person instruction with the need to keep students and staff safe from the coronavirus.
Golden Valley Unified School Board written minutes provide limited insight into what was happening. Board meetings are not recorded.
At the Nov. 18 special board meeting, the minutes reported that “The Board expressed concerns of the information being shared and questioned the purpose of the meeting.” Wallace responded that the board needed to be aware of the reason for school closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
The minutes also reported that community members, staff, and the board discussed a number of topics, including “role and responsibility of the board” and “keeping politics out of discussions and modeling behavior.”
There apparently was an attempt to mend fences at the Dec. 15 meeting, according to the minutes: “Members of the Board apologized to fellow board members, staff, parents and the community for the inappropriate behavior during the November 18, 2020 meeting. Staff and community members spoke to the behavior of a few board members along with expectations of the whole board asking for formal action at a future board meeting. The Board will consider a resolution regarding conduct, ethics and meeting norms as an information item at the January 26, 2021 meeting.”
Censure Bylaw Added
At the Jan. 26 meeting, trustees reviewed several information items, including a resolution setting governance standards that include refraining from rude or abusive conduct and personal attacks on other board members, staff, and members of the public; refraining from performing management functions that belong to the superintendent and staff; and keeping “confidential matters confidential.”
There also was a revision to the board’s governance standard bylaw, adding this section:
“In order to maintain effective management and clarity of roles, individual Board members shall interact with District administration as follows:
- Board members shall direct questions or requests for information to the Superintendent, or Designee. If substantial staff time will be required to complete a particular project/task, the request must be agendized at a Board meeting to determine if time should be spent acting upon the Board member’s request.
- No individual meetings shall violate the Brown Act. The Board acknowledges that a discussion or decision outside of a scheduled Board meeting could result in a violation of the Brown Act.
- Board members may not unilaterally schedule meetings purporting to represent the District in violation of generally accepted Board practices and policies. Board members shall not unilaterally attend internal staff meetings or meetings between administration and third parties unless invited by District or site administration, or authorized to attend by action of the Board, or with the approval of the Board President, with notice to the Superintendent.
- When visiting a program or school site during school hours, Board members shall sign-in as a visitor and identify themselves as a Board member.”
In addition, the trustees reviewed two new bylaws: The first outlines the process for making formal complaints against a board member, and the second establishes the process by which the board can censure a fellow trustee for violation of state or federal law, regulation, or board policy.
A censure is one of the most serious actions a School Board can take against a trustee for actions deemed unacceptable.
After establishing its own censure bylaw, the Fresno Unified School Board in 2019 censured Trustee Terry Slatic for a series of events involving students and staff. Meanwhile, the Sierra Unified School Board decided earlier this year not to censure Trustee James Hoak Jr. for being present at the U.S. Capitol during the violent insurrection on Jan. 6 that attempted to halt the Electoral College vote electing President Joe Biden.
The Golden Valley trustees unanimously adopted the governance standards, new board bylaws, and revised board governance bylaw at the Feb. 9 board meeting, according to the minutes.
Minutes of the Feb. 23 meeting reported that the board talked about the board bylaw concerning electronic communications and the restrictions of the Brown Act for board members responding to social media posts: “The Board stated they would continue to communicate this with the community and pay attention to other board member responses before responding themselves.”
State law prohibits board members from commenting on posts from other board members on district business, even if the comment is only an emoji or a “like.”
The board then held a special meeting on March 2 that had a single agenda item for the closed session. It read “Personnel: Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release/Resignation/Complaint (Government Code: 54957).” No action was taken, the minutes reported.
The board then held two more meetings, a regular meeting on March 9 that included the same agenda item in the closed session and a special meeting on March 18 during which trustees toured the Stone Creek school site.
Wallace’s resignation was announced at the March 23 meeting. Two days later at a special board meeting, the trustees voted unanimously to hire Berg.