Dennine Roberts (who asked to use a pseudonym), a mother of two Westlake High School students, didn’t pay much attention to school board meetings before this academic year. Now she’s watching “every eye-stabbing, painstaking minute of them.”
The reason? The Conejo Valley Unified School District Board has fumbled its way through scheduling and repeatedly failed to put students back on campus. On January 15, the school board announced that students would not be returning to campus for a second semester as planned.
“They’re not learning anything,” says Angie Klifman of her two children, who are technically students at Westlake High School. “We only have two classes a day. … It’s been very depressing.”
Heidi Vas, mom of two CVUSD high schoolers, says her daughter is “not really going to school, she’s logging in … My kids are really not getting an education.”
These three moms, like many others in the area, are closely watching the activities of the school board.
“I had never watched a school board meeting, and I’m definitely tuning in now. I’m watching very carefully,” says Vas.
Klifman remembers watching the live-streamed board meetings when the schools started closing down. A 20-year Ventura County resident, Klifman has always been involved in her kids’ schools, volunteering and running booster clubs.
“I’ve just never needed to spend six, seven, eight hours at night watching a school board meeting and calling in and writing letters. I just never needed to waste my time that way because it wasn’t necessary, and now it is,” she says. “I’ve watched it till 2 a.m. before.”
Klifman wants to know “which school board member was saying what because when it comes to election time, you need to know.”
The families’ main motivation: fixing the disaster that has been the 2020 academic year.
“It’s gone on so long [the kids] don’t even remember what it was like,” says Roberts. “It was a very strange, very complicated, very minimal educational schedule. … Getting thirty percent of your education is not acceptable. Two-and-a-half hours of school every day is not enough for anyone.”
Roberts and other parents point to the school board’s “blatant inability to tell the truth and to do their job,” she says. “They enabled this to happen. … Now the door’s closed for the rest of the school year.”
“They made it so complicated that no one truly understood what was happening until it was happening, and there was no going back,” adds Roberts. “They had one job — to come up with their reopen, redesign plan.”
Vas labels it “a stark absence of foresight and leadership.”
“I’m watching everyone try to make everyone happy, and in the process, everything is failing,” Vas says. “You lose faith in the whole system because you feel like you were lied to.”
Klifman is equally miffed: “The excuses they make — it’s just, it’s ludicrous.”
She and other parents have called in at board meetings and emailed board members.
“Most of the time, I don’t even get a response, and a lot of times, I’ll get the exact same response that everybody else has gotten — a token response,” she says. In a group chat with twenty other moms, “We share, ‘Oh, I got this response,’ and then they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I got the exact same response.’ Word for word. They must think we’re stupid,” Klifman says.
Roberts also has received “cut-and-paste emails” from school board members and Superintendent McLaughlin.
“Every once in a while, I’ll get something, and they’re kind of talking down at you like, ‘You don’t know what all we’ve done.’ I’m like, you’ve had eight months to
figure this out,” says Klifman.
Every school board member declined the Conejo Guardian’s multiple requests for interviews.
Roberts took it upon herself to write the state, county, school board, California Board of Education, and the Health Department, begging them not to let anything stop kids from returning on January 19. Those efforts failed, and many families are blaming state unions’ increasing control over local school district decisions.
“I definitely think there was a turn when Bill, Cindy and Jenny got elected to the board,” Klifman says. “Their signs were everywhere. There was so much money backing them … That’s when I saw the teachers union really started having a hold on our school district.”
“The school board is literally the same, one and the same as the union,” says Roberts. “The union plants teachers to call in, and health care specialists to call in during school board meetings and plead their case, and so that’s made us fight back harder. … There’s still some that are saying, ‘Oh, the school board gets such a bad rap. They try so hard to please everybody, and they just can’t.’ It’s like, no, that’s the show they put on while they enable the union to get their way.”
Parents like these are now taking action to stand up for their kids’ education.
“I’m finding so many people that have been fighting this on their own, and we’ve all come together and started organizing,” says Roberts.
“We ordered banners, we ordered signs, we’ve been down there with signs and protesting,” says Klifman.
Klifman, who has a degree in finance and accounting, has even volunteered to substitute teach.
“They say there are not enough subs for the teachers. Okay, I went online to be a sub [but] they’re only taking credentialed teachers as subs,” she says. “No wonder they don’t have enough subs because they won’t take anybody! I was happy to sub. I can sub a math class or something like that easily. … We’re here to help.”
Beyond their own frustrations, parents interviewed by the Guardian warn that academic integrity and performance have both taken a hit during the hiatus. Klifman’s daughter experienced the effects in her AP classes.
“Exact words from her, when we thought we were going back to school in November: ‘Mom, I can’t go back to school. Everybody has cheated their way through their AP classes that they had first quarter, and I have all mine second, so what if my grades are less than theirs?’” Klifman says. “I would bet a million dollars that most of the kids are saying they don’t want to go back to school because they know it was gonna be harder when they go back. … It’s not because they’re afraid of COVID. It’s because they become complacent of not having to go anywhere and because they can cheat online.”
As for the school board, Roberts has come to this conclusion: “These people are putting on a really good show making you believe they’re doing everything they can for the best of the community when the reality is, if they had done their job properly, the scheduling would not have put us in this situation,” she says. “They have a tendency to blame the principals, the counselors, the whatever, but ultimately they are the ones that were responsible for figuring out how to navigate through this return to campus, and they have failed miserably. And because of their failure, they’ve opened the door for the union to just do everything they wanted.”
Unfortunately, “I think a majority of us are past the point of hope,” she adds. “We don’t see anything changing, at least for this school year. And they’ve done so much manipulating and deceiving us that I don’t trust them going into the future.”
“It brings to light the question, ‘How deep are the union roots in our school board?’” she continues. “I think we’re all coming to our own conclusion that they’re pretty deep, and we don’t want to live like that anymore. … This was such a good school district. This is why we bought homes. This is why we live here. This is why our property tax is so high, and this is what we want, and we’re all realizing that it’s kind of a facade, and there’s a whole puppet master behind all of this making these crazy decisions to protect the teachers.”
Vas’s conclusion is also dreary.
“Maybe this thing is so broken we don’t need to necessarily fix it the same way,” she suggests. “The one thing that this is opening up, on a positive note, is I think some people will discover that they don’t need the school.”
As for the Klifmans, they’re moving to Texas.
“I’m done.” Klifman says, “We’re selling both of our houses, and we’re out of here in July, and [my son has] actually said to me, ‘Mom, I think I’m going to have to redo this year when we move. … The satisfaction of unenrolling my kids at the end of this year is going to be one of the best days of my life.”
Roberts and others fear that “the union is now talking about not wanting to return in the fall and making remote learning a permanent piece of our California education.”
Her solution? “Shine the brightest light on them and expose them for everything they have failed to do for our students, our teenagers, our high schools, and their future.”