Nearly every year for the past several years, Mayor H. Abram Wilson has joined a lineup of school officials and teachers onstage to pass out diplomas to Cal High graduates.
It's a tradition that school officials ended to keep politics out of commencements. But Wilson said it's a slap in the face – if only for implying that his participation was politically motivated.
"It's really disturbing and quite petty that they would do something like this," said Wilson, who terms out in December after 12 years as mayor.
Turns out, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District voted in 2009 to not allow elected officials, except school board members, a formal role at commencement. They're instead given reserved seating in the audience. The idea is to keep politics out of high school graduations, said district spokesman Terry Koehne.
"We can't have someone campaigning for an open seat that could use our graduations as a political forum," Koehne said.
But Wilson suspects the policy itself was politically motivated. And he takes issue with the fact that no one told him about the rule until a few days before this year's ceremony.
Months before trustees OK'd the policy change in 2009, state Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, helped pass out diplomas at the Cal High commencement. At the time, Wilson was gearing up for his 2010 campaign against her for the 15th State Assembly District.
A few school district trustees openly endorsed Buchanan, who was running for what became her second term. Buchanan served for several years on the San Ramon Valley school board before seeking higher office.
Wilson decided against going to Cal High's graduation that year to avoid an awkward situation and bringing attention to his high-profile political rivalry.
"It's very interesting that in 2009 it was Buchanan who showed up to hand out diplomas when we were running for state Assembly," Wilson said.
Buchanan's involvement in the graduation came across as a political endorsement, especially since there are three other high schools in the school district and dozens more in the Assembly district, Wilson noted.
Koehne said he can't recall hearing any complaints about Buchanan's attendance and Wilson's absence that year, a situation he called unprecedented for the district – where a politician's presence distracted from the graduation. But he acknowledged it directly led trustees to update the graduation policy two months later.
"The entire campaign was very sticky for the board and the city of San Ramon," Koehne said. "I think both agencies wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety."
To the district, that's more important than any elected official's tradition, he added. Traditions are fine until a problem arises, then policies may change.
Wilson agrees that politics have to take a back seat to a celebration of student achievement. His involvement over the years has never been about politics, he said. It's about supporting the city he was elected to represent.
If it was about politics, he would have joined Buchanan on stage two years ago, Wilson said. But he says that's exactly why he didn't.
To add insult to injury, no one told Wilson or the City Council about the policy until two years later, just days before graduation. In fact, the district didn't enforce the rule last year, allowing Wilson to hand out diplomas alongside longtime trustee Rachel Hurd.
Wilson said he's offended he was left out of the information loop. While there's no requirement that the district update the city on policy changes, the two agencies meet every month.
At a City Council meeting earlier this week, Wilson called out the school board, asking trustees who voted for the policy to explain their reasons for the decision at a televised public meeting.
"I'd love for them to tell the people of this city why they think the City Council can't congratulate the students of San Ramon on graduating," Wilson said.