Oakley Union Elementary School District
oakley board

Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

March 1, 2021
School board members in a small California learn the hard way that online meetings are being disseminated to the public.

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely curtailed in-person meetings and social interaction. To carry out their regular meetings, many businesses—including school boards—have migrated their get-togethers to video conferencing applications like Zoom and Teams.

The applications have soared in popularity as workers shut out of their offices and isolated in their homes are still able to consult with colleagues and conduct business.

But when the line blurs between the comforts of home and the professionalism expected at work, that can be a problem. It can be especially troublesome when some of those who take part in these virtual meetings are doing so without a clear understanding of how the software works—whether a hot mic is recording what they are saying or a computer’s camera is transmitting their image for all the world to see.

And that’s why the 5,200-student Oakley Union Elementary School District in Oakley, Calif., found itself without a school board last month. All four people serving on the board resigned in February after outrage over their dismissive comments spread from the small Bay Area community across the nation.

During a Feb. 17 virtual board meeting using the Webex application, board members were apparently unaware that their comments were being sent out over the internet for all to see and hear. What their constituents heard were profane-laced insults directed at parents, and complaints that some parents were pushing for in-person instruction to resume so that “they could get their babysitters back,” or have more time to smoke marijuana.

After several minutes, board members realized that they were conducting a public meeting and that their comments were being disseminated to the community. But the damage had been done.

People posted videos of the meeting on YouTube and Oakley resident Rebecca Mackowiak initiated a Change.org petition that collected thousands of signature in support of an effort to oust the board members.

“I am asking that the board members resign immediately due to their egregious behavior,” the petition stated. “They should no longer represent the parents, teachers and children in this school district.”

The response was swift and decisive.

Board president Lisa Brizendine resigned the day after the meeting, and board members Kim Beede, Erica Ippolito and Richie Masadas followed suit the day after that.

Beede, Ippolito and Masadas issued a joint statement apologizing for their actions.

“We deeply regret the comments that were made in the meeting of the Board of Education earlier this week,” they said. “As trustees, we realize it is our responsibility to model the conduct that we expect of our students and staff, and it is our obligation to build confidence in district leadership; our comments failed you in both regards, and for this we offer our sincerest apology.”

Under the California Education Code, when a majority of positions on a local school board are vacant, the county school board president is to appoint interim members until permanent board members can be chosen.

Contra Costa County Board of Education President Annette Lewis has appointed herself and other county board members as interim Oakley board members.

Oakley Superintendent Greg Hetrick, who took part in the Feb. 17 board meeting but was not heard making any offensive comments, said in a letter to the community that he would strive to restore the public’s trust in the district as officials work toward a resumption of in-person instruction.

“Under the current circumstances, I feel an increased sense of responsibility,” Hetrick wrote. “With that responsibility, I am committed to returning the attention to student learning and getting our students back in school. This unfortunate situation will not discourage or distract me from working to build back the trust in our community and return our students safely back to school as soon as possible.

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