By a 6-1 vote, the Visalia Unified School District Board of Directors approved a resolution at its December 9 meeting to publicly censure Board Member Charles Ulmschneider for violating the Brown Act. Ulmschneider was the lone “no” vote.
According to the text of the censure, Ulmschneider “met with three or more board members to discuss district business outside of a properly called meeting by calling, emailing or meeting with other board members to lobby for the board’s adoption of German as the district’s preferred new high school foreign language offering.”
The Brown Act states: “A majority of the members of a legislative body shall not, outside an authorized meeting, use a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate or take action on any item of business that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.” With seven board members serving on the VUSD Board, any behind-the-scenes discussion of an issue by four or more members violates the Brown Act.
Ulmshneider also distributed packets of information he collected about foreign languages to the other board members in advance of a board vote on the possible addition of a third foreign language to the high school curriculum. Most of the packets were not opened, however.
“When you have nepotism and cronyism, you’re going to have this perverse interpretation of the Brown Act,” said Ulmschneider the next day. “The Brown Act generally is about open meetings and so forth, and not about a board turning on itself, unless it’s political. This is about political bullying. It was obviously political. They made phone calls.”
The board elected Juan Guerrero as its president and Lucia Vazquez as its clerk earlier in the meeting. Both were elected by 6-1 votes, again with Ulmschneider as the lone dissenter in each vote.
“It would be hypocritical of me to vote for somebody that I opposed and defeated substantially,” said Ulmschneider about his opposition to Guerrero. His vote against Vazquez was because she was unopposed when she was elected to the board. “When you run unopposed, are you being elected or are you being rubber-stamped by the public?”
Ulmschneider, who is often the lone dissenter in board votes, was asked if he was treated differently with the censure issue than other board members would have been. “Yes, of course,” he responded.
Jim Qualls, outgoing board president, was asked before the vote if Ulmschneider was being treated differently as a result of previous disagreements with other board members. “I would have done it to any other board member,” he responded. “We work hard to maintain trust and we don’t want to lose it over this issue.”
VUSD Superintendent Craig Wheaton spoke before the board vote and tried to make it clear that the censure was not a punishment, but “just a drafted resolution of the board disapproving of the conduct of a board member.” The board has the right of freedom of speech “and censure is an expression of that right.”
Ulmschneider maintained the next day that his actions that resulted in his censure were only intended to provide information about high school foreign language education. “The analysis I did was pretty involved and I wanted to make sure it was public,” he said, adding that he also wanted to do a presentation about the subject at a board meeting. “I think it’s an insult to the people here to not be allowed to do a PowerPoint presentation for the public good.”
Based on his post-meeting comments, Ulmshneider has not abandoned his belief that he did nothing wrong, and that he did not violate the Brown Act. He was asked if the board’s censure changed anything.
“I think it chills my communications with them,” said Ulmschneider. “That censure puts your collegiality on ice. I tried my best during my first term and my second term, but you can see the cronyism. There’s no way I can give them anything else now. Everything has to go through the superintendent and I have to hope the superintendent – who I didn’t vote for – will give (information I want to present) to the board.”
Before the censure vote, the board considered the possible addition of a third foreign language to the high school curriculum. After hearing from educators and members of the public about the merits of German and other languages, as well as concerns about the impact of a third language on the current Spanish and French programs, the board voted to delay its vote so it could further study the issue.
This time, the vote was 7-0.