Members of the public on Wednesday gave impassioned and tearful speeches in response to the announcement Superintendent Darnise Williams would be departing from the Sequoia Union High School District.
Speakers accused the Board of Trustees of anti-Blackness, a lack of transparency and upholding white supremacy, in a public condemnation that lasted nearly an hour. Many questioned the board’s assertion that the decision was a “mutual agreement,” alleging that the trustees had forced out the district’s first Black female superintendent.
Board President Carrie Du Bois addressed members of the audience at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting, reading a news release that said Williams, who has a doctorate in a educational leadership, had resigned her position at the district after “leading the high school district through the pandemic recovery.”
“The Sequoia Union High School District and superintendent have mutually agreed to part ways,” Du Bois read. “We thank Superintendent Williams for her grace, devotion and leadership during this unprecedented time. … Dr. Williams’ leadership has been recognized at the local, regional and state levels for her focus on disrupting educational inequities.”
The announcement came after a chaotic week of closed session meetings and rumors about a possible ousting of the superintendent. The board did not give any specific reasons for Williams’ departure.
“I don't think you understand the level of damage and pain that you have inflicted and the long lasting effects of that,” said Pablo Aguilera, a teacher in the district. “We're not dumb. We all know she was pushed out.”
Trustee Shawneece Stevenson could be seen wiping away tears, while the other board members mostly remained stoic throughout the public comment.
“I’m hurt, I’m sad, I’m grieving,” Stevenson said at the end of the meeting, in a call for racial healing within the board. “I’m sitting here crying because I’m hurt. It’s grief.”
Taja Henderson, a teacher in the district, said she “knew when [Williams] was hired that a target was put on her back,” but she “never thought that her departure would happen in less than 2 years.”
“This board should be recalled,” she concluded, her voice shaking.
Speakers described the feeling of loss of trust in the district leadership and a traumatic upheaval, particularly for the district’s students of color. One speaker called the board’s actions “unethical and illegal,” while another described the decision as “a rolling back in history.”
Samantha Rodriguez-Velasquez, a student trustee, described feeling heartbroken.
“(Dr. Williams’) absence today and for the rest of this year will continually break my heart,” she said. “Students feel not only disappointed but insecure and trusting our role models.”
Williams, who normally attends regular board meetings, was not present at Wednesday night’s meeting. Williams could not be reached for comment before the Wednesday night meeting.
“I have no joy right now. I don’t have a smile on my face. I don’t feel like I've accomplished something. I feel sorrow,” Du Bois told the Pulse before the meeting. “When I read this statement tonight I will be sad, and I will be still inside.”
Community members raise alarm bells
Rumors about Williams’s termination from the district began to swirl in the last week when community members noticed multiple special meetings pop up on the board’s calendar.
The board held two back-to-back closed session meetings on Friday and Monday, sparking confusion and frustration among members of the community. There was an hour of public comment on the matter before the board’s Monday night closed session meeting before the board ended the comment period to evaluate Williams during a closed session meeting on Monday. Friday’s meeting was, according to sources, more than four hours long, after which board members reported that they had voted 4-1 to hire new counsel, Eugene Whitlock, for an unspecified purpose.
Williams, who was appointed by the board in April 2021 for a three-year contract that started in July 2021, most recently had her evaluation in August, where trustees, except for Du Bois, gave Williams positive feedback.
Williams could not be reached for comment before the Wednesday night meeting. Trustee Stevens declined to comment.
Recently retired board members, community members speak out
Former trustee Alan Sarver called into question the “unprecedented multiple special meetings” and accused Du Bois of orchestrating recent events, including the possible firing of Williams.
Sarver’s colleague Chris Thomsen, who also retired from the board last week, told the board he was “deeply saddened for the district by your handling of the first meetings of this board and the distrust you are sowing in the community at this point.” He said he could "only reasonably conclude as so many others have concluded that it was the aim of the president (Du Bois) and the vice president (Rich Ginn) to remove the district superintendent.”
Thomsen called the board’s handling of the situation “reckless,” “damaging to the district” and “possibly illegal.” He specifically called out the board for the hiring of Whitlock, a former San Mateo Community College District employee known as the whistleblower in the corruption case against former Chancellor Ron Galatolo. Thomsen said this was an action that should have been taken in public so that community members had a chance to comment on the hiring.
In response to her former colleagues' comments indicating they were appalled with the new board’s actions, Du Bois, who has served on the board since 2011, said she would “never say anything bad about them (Sarver and Thomsen) publicly.”
“We have had our differences of perspective,” she said. “Even though I worked with them for a long time, I don’t know if they truly know me.”
Du Bois said she’d like to work on the board’s communication and that board members haven’t been interested in that openness in the past. Her current term is up in December 2024.
East Palo Alto parent Jedd Bloom, who said his children will eventually attend high school in the district, called the school board’s actions “racist” and “violent.”
“Of course you're racist, but you are violence, you are people of violence,” he told the board on Monday night. “If you choose to terminate Dr. Williams's contract, you are people of violence because you snuffed out Black life in the same way your ancestors snuffed out Black life. You elevate whiteness in the same way your ancestors elevated whiteness. You denigrate and destroy Black and brown bodies in the same way your ancestors did the same. … You uphold white supremacy. It is unhinged. It is uncalled for, it is inappropriate, and you feel like you just bear no consequence. I'm disgusted.”
At the time of her departure, Williams was the lowest paid superintendent in the region, according to Sarver.
This is a developing story and will be updated.