Utah lawmakers on an Education Task Force questioned Tuesday how well the Salt Lake City School District is serving children in west-side schools, encouraging school board member Michael Clara to continue investigating.
Clara filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights in February, asserting there are too many inexperienced and ineffective teachers in west-side schools. He has clashed with board members over his attempts to discuss that topic, as well as the dropout rate for Latino students, graduation rates, the district's recent tax increase and other issues.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he had asked for data about Salt Lake City's inexperienced and ineffective teachers but could not understand the district's confusing response.
"I haven't been able to get to the bottom of it, and I've dealt with school finance for 35 years," said Stephenson, who serves on the Senate Education Committee. "There's a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers on the west side."
The district's "ineffective" designation is based on student test scores and is used in school improvement plans.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said when he served on the Salt Lake City Council, it was difficult to get attention for the needs of the Rose Park neighborhood on the city's west side.
"I say bully for you because it will get left out," said Reid, chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said districts statewide need to get veteran teachers into schools with at-risk students. Urquhart suggested districts could "use extra incentives."
"Every student should receive an equal education but they don't," Urquhart said in an interview. "Move those gifted teachers into the lower performing schools."
Clara spoke during a public comment session as the Legislature's Education Task Force discussed how education should be governed. Clara is calling for the ouster of Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers, alleging Withers is taking over the board's responsibilities.
"The superintendent runs the board instead of the members running it," Clara said in an interview. "I'm not able to address the issues my constituents bring up."
He added: "[The school board has] been on autopilot, so of course they think they're a good board, but they don't have 52 percent of their students dropping out in their neighborhoods."
After he repeated his criticism at the task force meeting, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, questioned Clara's "inflammatory statements about the superintendent."
Noting she worked with Withers when he was a school principal, Moss said Withers has a reputation for putting students first, even when others protest.
Clara directed her to his website, Michaelclara.com, where he chronicles his disagreements with Withers and the board.
"I documented it on my blog because of the skepticism," Clara replied to Moss.
Withers, who has been the district chief for 10 years, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
"Dr. Withers was not in attendance at the meeting," district spokesman Jason Olsen wrote in an email. "Mr. Clara was speaking only for himself. He was not representing the Salt Lake City School District board of education or Salt Lake City School District."
Tensions that have been simmering since Clara joined the board eight months ago surfaced at the board's Aug. 6 truth in taxation hearing.
Members started arguing when Clara started to pass around a three-page letter explaining why he was against a planned property tax increase: He felt he was lacking information and opposed a one-time payment to Withers, which Clara considered a bonus.
"Call for the question!" member Laurel Heath Young repeatedly said, speaking over Clara, who also continued to speak. Board president Kristi Swett cut off the discussion and called for the vote, which was 6-1.
Board member Rosemary Emery protested in an email to other board members after the meeting.
"Michael was treated unbelievably rudely," Emery said. "They've been rude to me but not like that. I do think the superintendent has co-opted the board."
Within days of the vote, Clara had created a YouTube video that showed that portion of board meeting, with his commentary added.
Veteran board members, some who have served for more than a decade, have refused to comment about the board meeting, Clara or the issues he is raising, including Swett and vice president Heather Bennett, who both represent Salt Lake City's east side.
Clara and Emery said more attention needs to be paid to Salt Lake City's west side, which they said includes more low-income neighborhoods that struggle with gangs.
Member Tiffany Sandberg, who also represents Salt Lake City's west side, said district documents show a Latino high school dropout rate of 39 percent districtwide, not the 52 percent reported by Clara. Clara explains his reasoning on his website.
"There's a lot frustration on the board," Sandberg said. "I truly believe Michael Clara has good intentions and a good heart but the methods that he uses to try and accomplish things can be counterproductive."