All politics are local, as they say, and nowhere is that more true than in schools. Monterey County’s 24 school districts are not immune from national controversy, including arguments from the right criticizing schools for being too “woke” when teaching ugly parts of history or using inclusive gender pronouns. From Salinas to Spreckels, Carmel to Monterey, school administrators in recent years have found themselves in the middle of the chaotic culture wars. On the local level, those wars happen in school gyms or libraries where trustees meet; normally staid board meetings, with updates on attendance rates and upcoming band concerts, become heated showdowns about which direction American culture is heading.

That is the already-divisive backdrop against which the latest drama at Carmel Unified School District is unfolding. For quite a while, some outspoken parents, aggrieved by the district’s inclusion of LGBTQ-friendly library materials, have been angling for a fight against the administration. They have found, in recent months, some unusual alignment around a shared goal. There are neighbors who are suing CUSD over a plan to install stadium lights at Carmel High School. More recently, there are teachers and families of CHS students who really liked principal Jon Lyons, and who have rallied to his defense.

Lyons was placed on leave in December amid vague allegations, then removed from the role on Feb. 7. According to his attorney, Fresno-based Barry J. Bennett, the basis for discipline remains vague even to Lyons, who learned about it along with everyone else at a Feb. 7 school board meeting. “My reaction and Mr. Lyons’ was more one of surprise than anger,” Bennett says. “Like, where did this come from?”

Superintendent Ted Knight wrote a letter to the campus community later that day offering context: “Carmel Unified has, unfortunately, been plagued with a longstanding, systemic issue of failure in both the reporting and investigation of employee, student and community complaints involving sexual harassment.” Knight added that the findings of an initial investigation had been forwarded to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department.

What’s unfolded since then is mostly a bizarre state of unknowing. “The issues that were disclosed to [Lyons] in the investigation were really trivial,” Bennett says. “We get no sense of this traumatic, quasi-criminal conduct that the superintendent alluded to.”

Where there is a gap in information, it is easy for the public to fill it in with anger. And that is exactly what they did when the board met again on Feb. 15 in a packed Carmel Middle School library, where many angry community members spoke.

Board president Tess Arthur announced her resignation, then left the room. Mic drop.

At the end of the meeting, after about three-and-a-half hours of closed-door deliberations, the remaining board members announced they had decided to hire an investigative firm to look at Knight’s actions related to recent personnel decisions – presumably referring to reassigning Lyons from CHS.

“[Knight] requested that his actions be reviewed by an independent third party to vindicate his name and actions and to counter claims made by others,” according to a statement provided by CUSD. Knight has also retained an attorney. Self-preservation is perhaps intuitive for a CUSD superintendent; Knight is the district’s sixth superintendent since 2015.

Lisa Brazil of the California School Employees spoke to the board, urging them not to succumb to the noise. “Factions of our community would distract you from the real issues you hired this superintendent to address,” she said. “You chose a superintendent you thought would be courageous in the face of change and enormous challenge.”

Meanwhile, Arthur leaves a leadership void. “Part of my decision was made because there are many divisions in our community and I am a unifier,” she writes by email. “The community needs to breathe, trust and find common ground instead of differences.”

The board meets on March 8 to discuss a process for filling Arthur’s vacant seat. Hopefully, whoever comes next will also be a unifier – but at the moment, it feels like the CUSD community is more interested in dividers.

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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