Friday, July 1, 2016
[Santa Barbara County] Grand jury report cites several problems with LUSD board
Perceived conflicts of interest, lack of oversight with regard to funding and other unethical behaviors were among a range of allegations levied at the Lompoc Unified School District Board of Education in a damning report released Wednesday by the Santa Barbara County grand jury.
The grand jury, according to the report, began its investigation after receiving complaints about the LUSD board. The report also comes a little more than three months after the board revealed that it was investigating member Bill Christen for conflicts of interest regarding votes he made to give raises to a group of employees that included his wife.
The grand jury report listed seven “deficiencies” discovered in its investigation, including Christen’s involvement in matters related to his wife, as well as recommended corrective actions. The LUSD board, the Santa Barbara County Board of Education and the county superintendent of schools have 90 days to respond to the grand jury’s findings.
The seven deficient areas included conflicts of interest, financial irregularities, inadequate and unenforced internal financial controls, hostile work environment, other unethical behavior and a lack of ethics training.
The conflict of interest resulted from Christen twice voting, in 2014 and 2015, to approve raises for management and confidential employees who were members of the Association of Lompoc School Administrators (ALSA). Tina Christen, Bill’s wife, was a member of that union as the district’s director of the special education department.
Bill Christen, according to the grand jury report, denied breaking any conflict of interest laws and told the watchdog body that the laws were “complex” with “many exceptions.”
The grand jury said it is up the District Attorney’s Office to determine if laws were broken, but that “whatever that determination may be … the jury believes that even the appearance of a conflict of interest seriously harms the public’s confidence in the Board of Education.”
The grand jury recommended that Christen reimburse the district the money that his wife benefited from the raises, and that board members recuse themselves from future votes that have perceived conflicts.
On Tuesday night, a day before the grand jury report was released, the LUSD board announced that Tina Christen had been reassigned from her position as director of special education to a classroom position. The board voted to recommend the change in closed session. It passed 3-0, with Bill Christen and board member Carmela Kessler abstaining.
Board president Steve Straight said Wednesday night that Tina Christen's reassignment had nothing to do with any investigation and that the recommendation came from Superintendent Trevor McDonald.
Christen and his wife also were key in the grand jury’s investigation into financial irregularities and hostile work environments.
The grand jury reported that it was unable to determine exactly how expenditures of LUSD’s general fund are being allocated and tracked. As part of its investigation, it reports that some witnesses expressed concern that the special education department, which was headed by Tina Christen, received preferential treatment after Bill Christen’s arrival on the board in 2012.
The grand jury reported that its investigation found that allocations from the LUSD general fund to the special education department increased by more than 85 percent in the first year after Bill Christen was elected.
According to budgetary documents included in the grand jury report, the special education department revenues more than doubled between 2013 and 2016, going from about $3.4 million to about $7.2 million.
The grand jury recommended independent auditing specifically for general fund money to clarify where and how dollars are being spent.
The hostile and confrontational work environment allegations stem from interviews with past and present employees, according to the report.
Some of those employees reportedly cited the work atmosphere as their primary reason for resigning.
“Among the contributing factors often cited by LUSD employees were the increasingly contentious working relationship between the Superintendent (McDonald) and Mr. Christen, and between the SED director (Mrs. Christen) and her colleagues,” the report stated. “LUSD employees stated they did not have recourse to prevent these problems, for ‘fear of retaliation.’ LUSD has a ‘nondiscrimination in employment’ policy, but it expressly prohibits only ‘unlawful’ conduct.”
The report suggests that such a “legalistic limitation undercuts the policy’s usefulness in preventing and remedying workplace conduct that may be harmfully abusive but not clearly unlawful.”
The grand jury recommended the district adopt a new policy that would fill that potential loophole.
Other grand jury recommendations included that the district enforce an attendance policy for staff and management to ensure they are present and accounted for during work hours, and that LUSD adopt a policy to require ethics training for board members, something it does not currently have.
Straight, the LUSD board president, said in an emailed statement that the board is "extremely troubled" by the findings but "heartened by the fact that the report does not question the commitment of the (district) to providing our students with a quality education."
"While we analyze the report and take appropriate corrective actions, we will continue to keep our focus on our students," the statement read.
To read the full report, visit www.sbcgj.org/2016/LompocUnifiedSchool.pdf.
June 30, 2016
By Willis Jacobson