Sunday, August 21, 2016

[Santa Barbara County] Lompoc school board responds to grand jury report at charged meeting

The Lompoc Unified School District Board of Education held a highly charged special meeting Friday morning to formally approve its responses to a number of issues outlined in a recent report from the Santa Barbara County grand jury.
The meeting, which lasted about two hours, included accusations of hostility and a lack of respect among board members and district administrators. The discussions, which at times became heated, also shed light on some of the specific circumstances that led to the problems raised by the grand jury.
The board ultimately agreed with all of the findings from the grand jury report, which was released June 23, and also agreed that it would follow all but one of the recommended corrective actions.
The seven areas of concern that were highlighted by the grand jury included conflicts of interest, financial irregularities, inadequate and unenforced internal financial controls, hostile work environment, lack of employee oversight, other unethical behavior and a lack of ethics training.
Much of the grand jury report focused on board member Bill Christen and his wife, Tina Christen, who had been the district’s director of special education before being reassigned to a classroom position just a day before the release of the grand jury report.
Bill Christen was the only member of the board who was not present at Friday morning’s meeting, but he and his wife were among the main topics of discussion.
Board member Carmela Kessler, who has had several public disagreements with Bill Christen and even said Friday that “if anybody has experienced (hostility from the Christens) it would be yours truly,” defended some of the actions of Bill Christen, and the board, as it related to some of the findings.
One of the problems identified in the grand jury report was the fact that Bill Christen twice voted to approve raises for groups of employees that included his wife. The grand jury deemed this to be a conflict of interest.
In its response to that accusation, the LUSD board agreed with that assessment and noted that it has requested reimbursement from Bill Christen and that the matter has been referred to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office. If the district attorney chooses not to pursue criminal prosecution, the board stated that “LUSD may seek to obtain reimbursement from Mr. Christen using civil litigation.”
Kessler said Friday that she and Bill Christen both attended voluntary ethics training when they were elected to the board four years ago and that she did not recall this specific situation being presented as a problem. She suggested that it was not Bill Christen’s intent to go against any regulations.
“I don’t think his intention was to have a conflict of interest,” she said, adding that it was likely due to a “lack of knowledge.”
The board, at the request of Kessler and member Bill Heath, ended up adding a line to the response stating that the board hopes the issue with Christen’s reimbursement can be resolved without criminal prosecution.
Another of the findings from the grand jury report that received a lot of attention at Friday’s meeting was the allegation that a hostile work environment was created by “the increasingly contentious working relationship” between Bill Christen and Superintendent Trevor McDonald, and between Tina Christen and her colleagues.
This hostility was cited by McDonald as being one of the root causes for another of the grand jury’s findings regarding financial irregularities and a lack of financial control within the district.
As evidence of this financial irregularity, the grand jury cited the fact that revenue within the special education department, which at the time was managed by Tina Christen, jumped 85 percent from $3.3 million in 2013 to $6.3 million in 2014.
McDonald said that an issue was raised at the time by former Assistant Superintendent Sheldon Smith, who has since left the district, but that Smith was rebuked by Bill Christen for terming the spending as an “encroachment” and was intimidated into softening his stance.
“Mr. Smith is forced to change his language or verbiage to say ‘contribution’ (instead of ‘encroachment’) and that was only because he was verbally attacked and felt like, ‘Uh-oh, now my job’s on the line,’” McDonald said.
“When there’s some kinks in the system, I can understand how a person walks away thinking, ‘OK, we’re in great shape’ versus, ‘Wow, our encroachment has increased,’” he added.
McDonald also pointed to a grand jury finding that an invoice for a $238,000 payment for books was submitted by the special education department without prior approval. McDonald said that no one knew about that purchase until it was discovered by the grand jury.
He said an employee was told to make the purchase, presumably by Tina Christen, and that employee did what she was told out of fear.
To help stop issues like that from occurring again, he said the district was going to limit the number of people who have purchasing power.
In its response to the grand jury, the district also noted that it would hire an independent auditor specifically to track general fund spending.
In response to McDonald’s example involving Sheldon Smith, Kessler said she had a “hard time” accepting that administrators would fear for their jobs for doing the right thing.
Later in the meeting, Kessler brought up concerns that she raised to the board in 2014 regarding hostile workplaces. She said that she never felt like there was a hostile environment during her many years working in the district but that it’s different now for her as an elected official.
“In the almost four years that I’ve been on this board, I have felt that I’ve been in a hostile work environment,” she said.
She accused McDonald and some board members of dismissing her concerns in the past, which led to a testy exchange in which she and board President Steve Straight got into an argument about body language and accused each other of being disrespectful to the other at that very moment.
Heath attempted to calm things by going back to the grand jury report and noting that the concern about workplace climate is real and needs to be addressed, something the board, in its response to the grand jury, said it will do by amending its professional standards policy.
The board also agreed to better track its employees during work hours and to enforce its travel expense policy, which was alleged to have been violated by the Christens when they traveled together to a conference in New Orleans this year.
McDonald noted that the Christens failed to properly reimburse the district for that trip and that the couple’s expenses went beyond reason, amounting to more than $1,000 per day for a six-day trip.
McDonald suggested that was another case of people failing to speak up about red flags due to fear of retribution.
The only recommendation that the board did not agree with from the report was a suggestion from the grand jury that the district revise its “Employment of Relatives” policy to include members of the LUSD board.
The board rejected that recommendation, arguing that board members “do not have the responsibility to manage, supervise, evaluate or promote any district employee other than the superintendent,” so the policy would have minimal impact.
In its final response, the board agreed to adopt a policy requiring ethics training for all members.
All of the responses were agreed upon unanimously with 4-0 votes. District staff will make small changes with wording before returning the responses back to the board for review. The document then will be signed by Straight and sent to the grand jury.
The terms of Kessler, Christen and Hank Gallina run out this year. Christen is the only one of the three who did not file papers with the county to seek re-election.
August 19, 2016
Santa Maria Times
By Willis Jacobson

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