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What You Can See About What You Don’t See: SCUSD Closed Session on Principal’s Restraining Order Against Trustee

Nobody believed that the Oct. 1 special closed session meeting of the Santa Clara Unified Board of Trustees was about anything but the Temporary Restraining Order Peterson Principal Susan Harris filed against Trustee Christopher Stampolis, and complaint she’s lodged against the district on the grounds of Unsafe Work Environment, Supervisory Employee Uncivil Conduct, and Gender Harassment. So credible do Harris’ claims appear, that two uniformed SCPD officers were present for the entire four-hour meeting.

And it was equally clear that one member of the board, Trustee Ina Bendis, seemed determined to block that discussion. Bendis has done pro bono legal work for Stampolis in the past and made political donations to him.

The agenda had two items: Conferring with legal counsel Dannis Woliver Kelly about two cases of “anticipated litigation” (item 3.1) and discussing “public employee performance evaluation: Superintendent” (item 3.2) – something that’s been on the closed session agenda on and off since last April. District “staff” requested that the Superintendent’s performance evaluation be taken off the agenda.

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That precipitated a lengthy discussion of the agenda, whether items should be on it or not, and whether public comment would be taken at the beginning or the end of the meeting.

“I would like the board to keep 3.2 on the agenda,” said Trustee Ina Bendis. “It’s something that the public expects us to be discussing. If it turns out that … we have nothing to say about it, we can always decline to discuss it … We should have an opportunity to speak on that issues should we choose to do so.” Bendis made a motion to keep it on the agenda, which failed.

But the “pending litigation” was a different story. Apparently, Bendis had already started her own investigation, and presented a blizzard of statute numbers and legalese in an attempt to block discussion of the district’s clear and real jeopardy.

“I have a concern about one part of item 3.1 … and that is that 3.1 references government code based on government code 54956.9(d)(2) and (4), and based on my on my review of the statute and a discussion that I actually had with Mr. Chase, the Deputy District Attorney … He stated that he did not do any prior research, and therefore could not forward a specific opinion, but he agreed that in order to have a closed session under (d)(2) … the body first must have researched an opinion, or at least reached an opinion in open or closed session, that there is, under the facts and circumstances pose significant exposure to litigation against the local agency.

“So we did not- there was no agendizing of 54596.9(d)(3) which is the proper agendizing by the board that there is, in fact … the facts and circumstances present significant exposure to litigation against the public agency.

“Therefore, one might say it’s a rather technical violation, it would be a Brown Act violation to discuss anything under (d)(2),” she continued. “However, there’s nothing I’m aware of preventing discussion under (d)(4). Given that we do not have anything under 54596.9(d)(3) agendized, [I move] that we not discuss (d)(2) and restrict ourselves to (d)(4).”

In summary, Bendis didn’t want to discuss highly probable litigation against the district by one or more of its employees, but was amenable to continuing a unusually protracted performance review and discussing suing somebody else.

“I spoke with our attorneys about this issue,” said Board President Christine Koltermann. “We can have the discussion at the beginning of closed session about what is appropriate to discuss in closed session under the Brown act, so there’s no reason to discuss it at all in open session. That takes care of itself.”

Bendis persisted. “This is a technical issue. The legislature would not have included (d)(3) in the statute, unless the legislature intended that the discussion of the data be separate from this discussion. The attorneys who put together this agenda should have included that. This agenda has not been properly noticed to have a discussion under (d)(3).

“So I don’t want this body be at risk for any discussion we may have tonight … I believe we’d violate the Brown act if we discuss anything under (d)(2). If our attorneys are here and disagree with the information I was given by Mr. Chase, I would be very open to hear it.”

“They’ll address the board in closed session on this issue,” said Koltermann. She also refused to discuss in the public session who would be allowed at the closed session. When Stampolis left the building, it was manifestly clear who was at the meeting.

About 10 people got up to speak. The complaints were familiar ones. “I urge this board to stop wasting everyone’s time [and return to] Common Core, LCAP – student-centered concerns, not board member concerns,” said teacher Teddi Duffy.

“Let the administrators do the job they were hired to do and not bow to the whims of a few incoherent board members. We are wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars in administrative salaries. Our admins are chasing board members’ incessant demands for reports that have nothing to do with educating students.

“The admin has no time to do the job they were hired to do. Dr. Koltermann, it is time for you to lead this board,” she continued. “I know you can do it … and corral the cats … the board antics are, my guess, going to drive off another set of administrators. There will be no [personnel] consulting firm that wants to work for this crazy place.”

Parent Peta Roberts said that Trustee Bendis “has already cost this district millions in legal fees” as a result of employee complaints.

In 2010, the board censured Bendis for her conduct toward staff. Subsequent to that, at least one employee, Melinda Fore, agreed to an undisclosed settlement in her Hostile Workplace complaint, precipitated by Bendis’ behavior to the former Bracher principal. Although Stampolis’ children attended Bracher at the time, he was not on the board.

The closed session lasted past 11:00 p.m. The report back was that “the board agreed to comply with state law to indemnify and defend district employees named as defendants in relation to actions and omissions as described in the school rulebook during their employment with the district,” said Koltermann. In other words, they’ll pay Principal Harris’ legal bills, and those of anyone else in the same position.

The board also “encouraged” the parties, Harris and Stampolis, to “mediate their dispute,” with the district footing the bill. Finally, “the board gave additional direction to staff and counsel regarding closed session items.” It’s likely they’re awaiting the outcome of Harris’ Oct. 14 court hearing to take further action.

Oct. 9 SCUSD Board Meeting: Alviso Community Town Hall, Magnolia Lease Negotiations, Common Core and School Site Budget Review, and Return of Drug Dogs

The next meeting of the SCUSD board will be at George Mayne School in Alviso (5030 North First St. San Jose) and include a public hearing (8:00 p.m.) on that community’s specific concerns, one of which is the Trammel Crowe industrial development across the street from the elementary school that was approved by the San Jose City Council last Spring (Alviso is part of San Jose).

At the closed session starting at 4:30 p.m., the SCUSD board will be negotiating about continuing Magnolia charter school’s lease on Central Park School (formerly Milliken School), which expires in 2015.

SCUSD Board President Christine Koltermann and Trustee Michele Ryan are both employees of Magnolia, raising concerns about conflicts of interest. California’s conflict of interest laws (Govt. Codes 87100 and 1090), require public officials to disqualify themselves from any contract negotiations if they have a direct or indirect interest in the outcome. Failing to disqualify can subject officials to criminal prosecutions and void contracts.

In 2013, the County Board of Education renewed Magnolia’s charter “with reservations” about the school’s financial health. Despite the reservations, the Board approved the charter 6-1, with only Board Member Anna Song opposing.

The public agenda includes updates on school site budgets and Common Core implementation, plus an encore of the Aug. 21 Wonder Woofs drug dog show.

That discussion featured a demand by Trustee Ina Bendis for a “show and tell” of the dogs’ abilities, using her purse, which she said contained Tylenol with codeine and “methamphetamine” (Adderall). Drugs, said Bendis, “is one of the greatest safety issues in our schools.” Trustee Christopher Stampolis additionally requested that the program be extended to middle school.

Trustee Jim Canova objected to policies that would make “school feel like prison,” while Trustee Andrew Ratermann thought SCPD should be consulted before any action was taken. Trustee Albert Gonzalez noted that the presence of dogs could be offensive to some – for example, those who are afraid of dogs (especially big dogs), those who are allergic to them, and those who don’t like them

Behind this discussion is the assertion that there’s a teen epidemic of marijuana use, which would be worsened if California legalizes it. But the numbers don’t provide evidence for either contention.

A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found first-time marijuana use by teenagers declined slightly from 2009 (5.2 percent vs. 5.4 percent). And a national study of 11,000 teenager published this year in the Journal of Adolescent health found that marijuana legalization had no discernable impact on its use by teenagers. On the other hand, marijuana use by people 55-59 quadrupled between 2002 and 2012, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association.

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