By Nic Rivera
In a surreal rant during Tuesday night’s board meeting of the Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD), superintendent Mark McLaughlin continued his pattern of throwing out a smokescreen whenever he is asked tough questions. Instead of just answering the question, his pattern has been to attempt to divert attention away from himself and toward Sandee Everett instead.
In my research for this editorial, I was able to find most of the video recordings of the incidents that he referred to in his rant, but for some of them his description was too vague. In every case, there was simply a question from Everett – or from citizens during public comments. As a public figure, McLaughlin really needs to grow thicker skin. The public has every right to question his actions without it resulting in a meltdown or erratic behavior.
He also did the same maneuver when the board was discussing the timesheet insurance fraud complaints against the district that had been asserted by district employees during the Woolsey fire cleanup efforts. At that meeting, the superintendent caused a diversion by calling out Trustee Everett for using her phone during the meeting. Everett made it clear afterwards that she was texting her family about her sick daughter. According to comments by Everett, the superintendent, as well as the other board members, earlier had been made aware of the serious health situation with Everett’s daughter.
This time, McLaughlin was reluctantly responding in the affirmative to a difficult question posed by Everett, who asked him if his office had sent a letter to teachers and other employees of the district indicating that they could attend the GetAhead Summer School program at a significantly discounted rate. Because GetAhead is operated solely with tuition revenue, this would mean the paying parents were subsidizing discounts for district employees’ children. The summer school program is operated by the Conejo Schools Foundation (CSF) – but apparently in name only. In reality, both the teaching and the administration of the summer school are done primarily by CVUSD teachers and staff. Conejo Schools Foundation’s primary role is to collect tuition fees from parents. It has been alleged that this collection of tuition violates AB 1575, which is the law that prohibits student fees for educational programs.
If these allegations are true, then CSF (and CVUSD) owe parents millions of dollars in illegally collected tuition fees over the years. Parents are rightfully angry about this situation, since it is already outrageously expensive for parents to send their children to “free” public school around here. They are especially annoyed when they find out that they could have sent their kids to public summer school in Simi Valley at no cost. Why can’t CVUSD offer free summer school to everyone like Simi does?
The reason that the superintendent’s letter is important is because the district has been claiming that the violation of AB 1575 doesn’t apply here because CSF is a separate 501(c)3 organization and is therefore free to violate the provisions of AB 1575. The fact that the superintendent’s office sent out that letter definitely demonstrates that the district is materially involved in the financials of the summer school program and therefore CSF is not actually independent.
Visibly bothered by the question from Everett about the letter, the superintendent attempted to divert attention away from himself and toward Everett by reading a prepared statement listing all the times this year that Everett has asked him hard questions. Since this “airing of grievances” was not agendized, his childish outburst was likely also a Brown Act violation.
Acting Board President Jenny Fitzgerald not only allowed this Brown Act violation to occur, but she strongly encouraged it. Ironically, since he was just reading a prepared statement, he could have read it legally during his earlier superintendent comments without breaking the Brown Act.
To many observers, the fact that he mentioned personal health at the beginning of his highly odd outburst suggests that he could be planning to file a complaint or lawsuit in order to extort money from the district. This would of course further erode the already troubled financial status of CVUSD.
As the single conservative member of a highly politicized 4-1 liberal majority board, Everett is typically the only trustee that asks difficult questions. She appears to be the only trustee interested in holding the district leadership accountable to the community. The primary purpose of a school board member is to provide citizen oversight of the district and its superintendent.
Asking tough questions about finances and potential corruption is exactly what every board member should be doing, not just Mrs. Everett. It is truly a shame that only one board member is willing to do the job she was elected to do. The fact that the superintendent interprets all probing questions as personal attacks says more about him than it does about Everett. He should be responding to questions with eagerness, professionalism and respect. If he cannot handle questions from board members then perhaps McLaughlin is not suited for an executive position and should resign.
Nic Rivera is a resident of Ventura County. Follow Nic on Twitter.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.