Last month I wrote about an impassioned speech delivered by Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustee Martha Fluor at a board meeting earlier this summer.
Fluor, who has served on the board for 26 years, had lashed out at critics who are campaigning for term limits, asking, “Where were you?” when she sacrificed birthdays, anniversaries and other events to attend to district business.
If others are so intent on change, she suggested, they should step up and run for the board.
While I empathized with Fluor’s frustration over being a repeated target of harsh commentary, I also expressed the view that her emotional response was counterproductive. The division seems wider than ever between the board and community activists who are pressing for term limits and demanding other changes at the district.
I think it’s safe to say that Fluor wasn’t thrilled with my column, but to her credit she met with me afterward for a long interview, during which I found her to be candid, highly knowledgeable about district history and education policies, and willing to concede that mistakes have been made.
We might not always agree, but I greatly appreciated that she didn’t flinch under tough questioning.
A little background on Fluor: Due to her father’s globetrotting business assignments, she spent a good part of her childhood living abroad, in Venezuela, Chile and Liberia. That experience informs her passion for education, she said, because she understands what it feels like to be an outsider.
Fluor is a former special education teacher, former president of the California School Boards Assn., the mother of five grown children and grandmother to eight (including some current Newport-Mesa students). She said she was initially motivated to run for the school board in 1991 when she grew incensed at Mesa Water District’s plan to install a 10-million-gallon water tank at Kaiser Elementary.
“Someone said, ‘If you don’t like it then run.’ And I did,” she said.
Over the years, she has at times run unopposed for her Area 3 seat, although in last year’s election she nudged out challenger Amy Peters, who advocated for term limits.
Fluor isn’t wholly opposed to the idea of term limits — “None of us is irreplaceable,” she said — and she maintains that she has at times tried to recruit new candidates. She also conceded that a couple of trustees have grown less engaged in recent years.
But she also worries that term limits will not lead to a more independent board, as proponents believe they would, but will instead rob the district of institutional knowledge and experience. Until new board members are “up to speed,” she said, “authority will revert to the district.”
Fluor was also blunt in her assessments of the superintendents she has overseen.
Former Supt. Mac Bernd, who left the district in late 1997, “was a dictator,” while his successor, Robert Barbot, was “a phenomenal human being. He treated everyone with respect.”
Jeffrey Hubbard, who took over for Barbot in 2006 but was fired amid legal woes linked to his tenure at another district, “thrived on controversy … and discord.”
The current superintendent, Fred Navarro, who was hired to restore stability after the tumultuous Hubbard years, “was not my first choice,” Fluor acknowledged.
Navarro has been involved in his own set of controversies, including lawsuits brought by former district administrators.
One of those complaints, filed in January 2016 by former district spokeswoman Laura Boss and former asst. Supt. Ann Huntington, alleged that Navarro created a workplace culture of fear and intimidation. That lawsuit was dropped through a settlement in March, with the district stating that no money was paid out.
Another legal action, by former Human Resources director John Caldecott, is pending.
In addition to claiming a hostile work environment, Caldecott has alleged that the district engaged in financial improprieties regarding the reporting of some salary information to the state.
Fluor was dismissive of Caldecott’s claims, asserting that the particular reporting at issue wasn’t his area of expertise. She also took issue with board critics who believe that she and other trustees have a too-cozy relationship with Navarro and give him a free pass when disputes arise.
“I think people perceive that a 7-0 vote is cozying up with him,” she said. “We do our homework. If we’re not comfortable, we keep pressing. If I have a problem with something, I call him.”
Nonetheless, Fluor maintains that the superintendent has “done a remarkable job. He’s a true instructional leader.”
As for the troubled history associated with NMUSD’s use of Swun Math — a Common Core-aligned program that was riddled with errors — Fluor acknowledged that the episode could have been handled better, but she believes the district is now on the right track with the implementation of new curriculum.
“Were there some missteps? Absolutely,” she said, “but we’ve moved on.”
I doubt such assertions will do much to quiet the highly motivated group of critics who believe the board hasn’t pressed Navarro hard enough on Swun and other problems, nor will they stem the push for term limits. I’ll be among those who continue to try to hold the board and administration to account.
But at the least, Fluor’s willingness to calmly discuss contentious issues was a welcome respite from the acrimonious atmosphere that has plagued the district for too long. More — and more open — communication is always a good thing.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.