It’s WAR!

Newly elected Board of Education member Scott Phelps says the only way for PUSD schools to improve is to dump Superintendent Percy Clark

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 5/5/2005

There's no denying newly elected Pasadena Board of Education member Scott Phelps is now a force to be reckoned with, at least if you are Superintendent Percy Clark, who Phelps vowed to get rid of during. his very first days on the job.

The 15-year veteran PUSD teacher beat incumbent Board member Susan Kane in the April 19 runoff election for Seat 3 on the board, and formally took his seat Monday night at his first school board meeting.

Many may remember Phelps as the firebrand John Muir High School teacher who raised a ruckus in a letter that he wrote to a local Internet education listserve in which he criticized behavior problems exhibited by African-American kids during classes.

Although Phelps' actions were at first interpreted by some as racist, his remarks later largely came to be understood as something of a clarion call for teachers and parents of all backgrounds to start waking up to what was actually going on in some district classrooms.

People who know the generally affable 41-year-old father of one young child, with another on the way, don't believe it's really even possible for him to be racist. Phelps is a follower of the Baha'i faith and being racist would violate one of the 150-year-old religion's basic tenets against prejudice. Those of the Baha'i faith further believe the purpose of human existence is fundamentally spiritual.

For Phelps, education is also fundamental, but in Pasadena, those educational opportunities for students are fundamentally flawed, primarily due to an ineffective administration headed by Clark, whom Phelps wants gone as soon as possible.

That lack of warmth between the two men is apparently mutual. Soon after Phelps beat Kane, Clark remarked publicly, "This doggone community didn't do what it should have," at Kane's last meeting of the board on April 26. "But that's another story."

Perhaps. But for right now, Phelps said he believes "we have three options to get rid of Clark: wait two years for his term to run out, buy out his contract with an estimated $1 million, or find him conducting illegal activity."

Buckle your seat belts everyone. It looks like we're in for a few more bumpy months at the PUSD.

Pasadena Weekly: What's your main complaint about Percy Clark?

Scott Phelps: Unfortunately it's him as a person. He doesn't talk or listen to anybody. There are three of us (on the board) who agree on the need to get rid of him -- (Board member Esteban "Steve"] Lizardo, [Board member Bill] Bibbiani, and me. The problem isn't working with the board members. I get along fine with everyone. The problem is Clark co-opts the board. He doesn't allow the board to have authority. He announces stuff to the Star-News and goes around the board all the time. He won't give the board critical information until the last minute so the members can't make good decisions. The issue is about him and his administration, not the board.

How does influence your daily life and the decisions you will make on the board?

It's a big part of who I am. We believe in spiritual solutions instead of technical solutions. We need to make these kids value education. If we're going to help them, we need to make sure they're not truant. We believe that kids should be trained the way their parents want them to be. They're not just going to figure everything out on their own. They need to be taught morals in their earliest years. We believe religion is the first thing a child should be exposed to. You can't ignore spirituality. The Baha'i point of view is a strange balance between training, in which the child has no say, and the belief that what's inside the child is divine and incredible. We strongly believe in the independent investigation of truth and the value of vocational education.

So you believe religion should be maintained in schools?

I think the concept of God should, absolutely. The fundamental reality of humans is that we're spiritual. We believe we're here to be mentally and spiritually tested to prepare for the next world. I think schools should be difficult and challenging and should present the opportunity for growth. In the West, science and technology has triumphed over spirituality. We need more of a balance. The way the mind processes information is connected to the spirit. We need to do things that resonate with people's souls. The No Child Left Behind Act is an unnatural law, because it doesn't recognize diversity. They're aiming high, but not providing the necessary resources or funding. Once the red states' schools start failing to meet the law's higher proficiency standards, the law is going to get thrown out fast.

How do you feel about standardization as opposed to individual needs?

They say, 'Why not shoot for high goals?' The answer is because it makes people unhappy. The college system does not work for some people, it's not their calling. Most jobs require anywhere between a high school diploma and a 4-year degree. There are many jobs that don't require a degree. We have to get back to things that engage kids. The dropout rate is enormous. People start to think standards are more important than student development, and that's just not true. Standards are just these goals. Over emphasis on standardization means every kid gets the same exact curriculum. That might be OK for kindergarten through third grade. Fundamentals are fine, but once you start prescribing the same educational experience for all students you run into trouble. I think our dropout rate has gone through the roof because standardization has no relationship with the nature of the human being. Our tests are successful at doing what they're supposed to do, reflecting social class. Standardization doesn't consider the student at all. You can't just weigh the kids; you have to feed them, too.

What were your initial intentions for writing the Muir letter?

[Assistant Superintendent] Dr. [George] McKenna and Percy Clark were blaming teachers for the achievement gap. I knew that wasn't true. I looked at data and did head-to-head comparisons from La Canada High School versus Muir, and it was a wash. Half the time we improved, half the time they improved. They started much higher, but the slope of improvement didn't change. I knew that the previous year when our scores went up we had two higher than average achieving cohorts, which are based on ninth through 11th graders. Our ninth and 11th grades that year were good, and we had one 'bad' cohort, 10th grade. I knew the incoming ninth graders had behavior problems, which meant we had two 'bad' cohorts and only one good one. There was no way our scores were going to go up. I wanted people to look at the situation rationally. I observed that the majority of the behavior problems were caused by African Americans, and people misinterpreted that. I was saying these kids weren't buying in and actively participating in the educational system. I became the darling of conservative radio. I was even on 'The O'Reilly Factor.' He used what I was saying to fit his agenda. I was naive, but who cares. I wanted to turn the blame away from the teachers. I wanted justice. I thought it was unfair for the administration to be blaming the teachers and not even consider the behavior and the unwillingness to learn. I received support and opposition right away. I had support from several African-American parents.

Why are we spending so little on education in California?

Because we're greedy. We want to keep all of our money. Conservatives have framed taxes as a burden. They've been pumping money into think tanks the past 20 years to shape the debate. Taxes are a bad word now. They no longer mean infrastructure like highways, sewage, police, fire, education. Tell me when I've said a bad word. None of those things are bad. You haven't heard of 'tax relief' until the last five years. Taxes are not bad. The conservative frame is 'strict father' and the liberal frame is 'nurturing mother.' Unfortunately, each side has caricatured the other. Conservatives say that the liberals are indulgent and liberals say conservatives are evil. [Conservatives] take this business efficiency model to raise productivity and they apply it to education. They want to starve the education system [by raising standards], and it will become more efficient. The problem with that is education is not a business in the sense that it doesn't make a profit or a product. Products, when they come out, are done. Humans are never done. You can't outsource education, I'm sorry. This campaign was a real learning experience for me. I'm nonpartisan because I'm Baha'i. I'm more liberal, but I came to know, like, and admire my campaign manager, Martin Truitt, who is a conservative Republican. I disagree with almost everything he says, but I've come to understand that conservatives are very genuine and sincere about their beliefs. Martin is a brilliant strategist and very instrumental. He was this behind-the-scenes guy and then the Star-News profiled him. He is the smartest political operative in the city. He was leveling Kane's big money machine and all the establishment endorsements she got. He's the Karl Rove of Pasadena, except not sleazy.