A woman sits at a dais in front of a projector screen at a school board meeting.
Santa Clara County Office of Education Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan at the Feb. 21, 2024 board meeting. Photo by Brandon Pho.

It was an emotional night for Santa Clara County’s top educator, as she wondered whether her time as superintendent might end.

Residents waited for more than two hours at Wednesday’s Santa Clara County Board of Education meeting as trustees weighed Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan’s performance behind closed doors — which could have led to discipline or termination. Instead, trustees took no notable action, leaving Dewan’s fate unclear.

Prior to the closed session, dozens of speakers lined up to defend Dewan’s leadership, questioning why her performance evaluation has dragged on for months.

School district superintendents from both in and outside the county said Dewan has been the county’s most responsive and accessible superintendent in years.

Franklin-McKinley School District Superintendent Juan Cruz described Dewan as the glue that held the county’s 31 school districts — and 236,000 students — together despite confusing public health messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Dr. Dewan during the COVID pandemic worked tirelessly to keep all of us informed and provided guidance during a very difficult time,” Cruz said at the meeting. “I don’t know how she did it, I just know we depended on her and her staff to be the conduit of information for us to make sense of it.”

The prospect of Dewan’s firing prompted a community petition to circulate in support of her leadership — and concern that her job is in jeopardy.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez attended the meeting to show support for Dewan. She said the superintendent has shown unique interest in overlooked aspects of the county education system.

Chavez said she never realized the full potential of the county office of education until Dewan became superintendent, even though she said the two have had their disagreements.

“It is because in every single interaction I’ve had with her, she has been ethical, clear and child focused,” Chavez said at the meeting, adding that the county education system has made progress under Dewan. “Please keep us moving forward. Don’t push us back to the past.”

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez attended the meeting to show her support for Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Not everyone is behind the superintendent.

Faviola Bataz, the mother of a special education student in the Gilroy Unified School District, has been coming to county school board meetings since August. She and her husband spoke critically of Dewan.

They said disabled students have for years enjoyed a specialized education setting in Gilroy at the Gateway School, but could no longer send their kids there once the campus was shared with a nearby elementary school. She accused the district of not seeing students like her son as important enough to have their own learning environment.

“All these people are talking about beautiful miracles you have done for the schools, for the superintendents — but what about the students that don’t talk or walk?” Bataz said.

Dewan, who contributes a regular education column to San José Spotlight, did not respond to requests for comment.

A union representing special education teachers has been raising workplace safety concerns and frustration with what it calls the office of education’s top-heavy management, where in some cases administrators outnumber other workers 4-to-1.

Sarah Gianocaro, president of SEIU’s Santa Clara County Office of Education chapter, said her organization has not advocated for Dewan to be fired.

“We simply asked for her to be held accountable for what’s happening at the organization,” Gianocaro, an occupational therapist for the county school system, previously told San José Spotlight.

Gianocaro said there are numerous preventable injuries occurring to both special education students and workers, but more often to employees since they will physically put their bodies in between two students during a fight, for example, to prevent injuries.

“We know some of the board members have asked for information related to issues we have raised — for example, we talked about the high manager to staff ratio, particularly in administration. (Dewan) refused to provide them that information,” Gianocaro told San José Spotlight. “When they’ve tried to get more information about classroom safety, I’ve seen some of her written responses saying, ‘that’s not your purview.'”

Before the meeting, Trustee Don Rocha declined to go into detail about the closed-door discussion and the issues behind it.

“We evaluate the superintendent’s work and governing relationship with the board annually, and we are in the midst of that work. As part of that, the board has the authority, and in my opinion, the responsibility to evaluate the superintendent’s overall work and consider many other factors and options available to the board in that evaluation,” Rocha told San José Spotlight. “This is what the board is currently undertaking, in short we are doing our job.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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