Thursday, June 1, 2017
Santa Cruz County civil grand jury orders transparency of Soquel Union Elementary School District board
SANTA CRUZ >> The latest Santa Cruz County civil grand jury report found the Soquel Union Elementary School District again to be providing inadequate information about closed-session matters and public-comment opportunities.
The report, released Tuesday, was a follow up to a report about the school board by the previous grand jury in Santa Cruz County, which also found a lack of transparency.
The report’s intention is to urge the board to “embrace a more transparent, inclusive approach to the business of school governance,” the grand jury wrote.
The grand jury has legal authority to examine any elements of special districts, and city and county governments, according to Santa Cruz County records. The grand jury’s findings are meant to improve government operations.
School board leaders did not respond to the Sentinel for comment but said they plan to release a statement in the next few days.
The district has five schools in Soquel, Capitola and Santa Cruz. The school board has 90 days from the final grand jury report of the year to respond.
The report alleges the board has had four continued issues of concern: closed-session conduct, “trust issues and community engagement,” standards for district superintendent evaluation and “incorrect agenda template,” according to the report.
Board-meeting conduct continues to be “in question” after trustees in June 2014 and June 2015 revised the district superintendent’s contract in closed session, according to the report. Those closed-session revisions provided salary increases for the board’s only paid employee. In both instances, the board did not allow public comment before imposing the revisions, according to the report.
From January 2015 to January 2017, the grand jury found 22 instances with agendas mentioning public comments for closed-session matters without minutes documenting the comments.
The grand jury also found 17 occasions during that time in which the published minutes did not report topics discussed in closed session.
“The board often records in the minutes: ‘Nothing to report out of closed session,’” the grand jury wrote. “This is not sufficient.”
Public boards must report in public on topics to be discussed in closed session without disclosing protected information, according to state law.
In addition, the board is mandated to hold an annual self-evaluation in an open meeting, according to the report.
The evaluation should include whether the previous year’s goals have been achieved.
“The grand jury could find no evidence in the 2015 or 2016 board minutes that this occurred,” according to the report.
The report also found that the board has not updated its list of superintendent duties and responsibilities in more than 15 years.
The board’s agenda format also: lists inaccurate start times for meetings with closed sessions; fails to notify the public and district staff of appropriate time for them to request consideration of items on the consent agenda until after that time has passed; and has roll call after closed session, leaving no record of attendance, according to the report.
“Until these issues are rectified, members of the public could be deprived of their right to comment,” the grand jury wrote.
May 30, 2017
Santa Cruz Sentinel
By Michael Todd