Last Thursday Santa Clara Unified School District’s Board of Trustees officially censured Trustee Christopher Stampolis for his belligerence to Peterson Middle School Principal Susan Harris. On Oct. 16, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge found Stampolis guilty of civil harassment, issuing a one-year restraining order against him.
Although California law gives trustees no way to force Stampolis off the board, in a 5-1 vote they approved a strongly-worded censure resolution. Trustee Ina Bendis stormed out before the vote, but Stampolis was permitted to vote on his own censure.
The resolution, originally requested by Trustee Jim Canova, said Stampolis’ conduct violated the California civil harassment statute, workplace safety laws, and board policy promoting “a safe harassment-free workplace.” In addition, district employees can refuse to meet with Stampolis, or respond to his telephone calls or emails, “without fear of retribution or retaliation.”
“I personally feel censure doesn’t provide enough protection,” said Trustee Andrew Ratermann, who indicated that he intended to push for public, on-the-record discussions of this and other complaints that have been made. “I think there are other steps we need to put in place in terms of this Trustee.”
The audience wanted more: Stampolis’ resignation. They came ready with signs and two petitions, and punctuated the meeting with cheers, applause, boos, snickers and catcalls.
“My company requires me to take classes on harassment on a regular basis, and it includes a test to make sure you ‘get it,'” said parent Karen Cornwell. “If you violate that policy, they take immediate action – you’re gone that day. I don’t know why this is taking months and months.”
“I agree with the judge [ruling on Harris’ case] that Chris Stampolis’ testimony is not credible,” said United Teachers of Santa Clara President Michael Hickey, who attended the hearing. “Stampolis’ political allies have covered up for him for years. Chris Stampolis cannot be an effective Board Member.”
This isn’t the first time Stampolis has faced harassment accusations – or public demands for his resignation. Cabrillo Principal Stan Garber, Santa Clara United PTAs officer Leslie Kloes, Bracher STEM program director Teresa Debbage and Santa Clara High School graduate Sami Elamad submitted statements in Harris’ case alleging false accusations of fraud, intimidation, threats, belligerence, and even stalking by Stampolis. And on Oct.16, Superintendent Stanley Rose filed yet another civil harassment complaint against Stampolis.
Stampolis and Trustee Ina Bendis fought back, trying to turn the meeting into a criminal investigation – of the censure wording, the board’s attorney, Susan Harris’ attorney, board procedures, media influence – hoping, apparently, to persuade colleagues the censure was uncalled-for or illegal.
Not so, said district lawyer Richard Noack. “A censure is [simply] a statement by members of a body that they disapprove of the conduct of another board member.” The wording of the resolution, he said, was based on “a two day trial where the court made a specific finding that was recorded in the injunction signed by the judge.”
Bendis then pushed for immediate adoption of a California School Boards Assoc. censure policy model, requiring meetings to decide if an investigation was needed, launch an investigation, review the reports, and initiate a censure resolution – effectively delaying action for months.
“There has been a hearing,” said Trustee Michele Ryan. “Behavior doesn’t have to reach the level of a restraining order to be censurable.”
Stampolis stuck to his “this means nothing” comment to the Mercury News on Oct. 16; appearing nonchalant about the gravity of the charges, his board colleagues’ censure, and public opprobrium.
Stampolis said the resolution’s text was “far from factual,” and couldn’t be substantiated without a hearing transcript. Just because something is stated in a resolution, he continued, “didn’t mean it happened.” Further, he said, an internal investigation of Harris’ complaint – which other trustees said they’d never seen – showed that “I was entirely cordial.”
“The last thing I would like to share with the board” he said, “The judge did find there was no violence.” This was too much for Harris’ father, retired SCUSD principal Bob Buchser, Harris’ father, who jumped out of his seat, shouting “Liar!” at Stampolis.
Trustee Albert Gonzalez also wanted to remove Stampolis from all committee assignments, and any position representing the district. “As board members we have to model what we expect from our children. I hope Mr. Stampolis would take this to heart, but I’m not optimistic.”
Gonzalez’ motion was rejected not because other trustees disagreed, but they didn’t want to distract from the business at hand. Stampolis’ committee participation and representation of SCUSD will likely appear on a future agenda.
Stampolis said he intended to appeal the restraining order, and wanted to know what the board would do if he prevailed. Then he wanted to know if employees’ right to refuse communication with him extended to California Public Records Acts requests. It doesn’t, according to Noack.
Stampolis hasn’t responded to email requests from the Weekly for comment.
Bendis’ and Stampolis’ Financial and Personal Connections
One question left hanging was whether Bendis should have been allowed at that censure discussion.
In an open letter to the board, Harris’ attorney Eugene Whitlock asked that Bendis be excluded as well as Stampolis from discussions concerning Harris, and anyone who testified on her behalf, because of the pair’s “close personal relationship.”
Bendis insisted she had no conflict of interest. “It is a board member’s duty to participate in every action of the board. I’m not aware of any conflict of interest that would interfere with that.” She also contended, “there is no statutory basis in law for any of these assertions of conflict of interest.”
Whitlock noted that Stampolis described her as a political ally at Harris’ harassment hearing, where Bendis came prepared to testify on his behalf. Further, Bendis was an emergency contact for his children. She also accompanied him to several meetings concerning complaints by and against Stampolis. “Finally,” Whitlock wrote, “Dr. Bendis was present when Mr. Stampolis threated Dr. Rose, but said and did nothing.”
Bendis also has given Stampolis legal advice, although she denies this. In Oct. 2008, she posted on www.calattorneysfees.com about a case where newspaper sued to get documents concerning a Redding city investigation. “Mr. Christopher Stampolis, a non-party acting in propria persona, filed a Petition for Certification. Though I did not represent Mr. Stampolis, I provided him a bit of pro bono legal research and writing support in this endeavor….” She described Stampolis as owner of “a small local newspaper.”
There are also financial connections. Stampolis’ campaign finance filings show that his Committee to Elect Chris Stampolis received an $8,000 loan at 9.9 percent interest from Bendis. Between 2009 and 2013 Bendis received at least $4,000 in loan repayments from Stampolis’ political committees, according to her Form 700 financial disclosures.
California law (87100) prohibits elected officials from participating in any decision where “he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest.” A financial interest is a “business entity in which the public official has a direct or indirect investment worth two $2,000 or more.” Violating conflict of interest laws is subject to both civil and criminal prosecution by the County District Attorney.
Perhaps most telling was that Bendis left the room during the vote – rather than staying to support Stampolis against what she characterized as “a lynching” – so the official record would show her “absent.”