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Community watchdog focuses scrutiny on MDUSD

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, December 14th, 2012 at 10:33 am in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

Pleasant Hill resident Wendy Lack has been watching the Mt. Diablo school district for years in dismay, frustrated by what she believes is a serious lack of transparency.

“I’m of an opinion that we need to clean house,” she said Thursday, during a phone interview regarding her recent allegation that the board may have violated the Brown Act in its handling of contract extensions for five top-level district administrators. “The executive staff have failed the organization. They’ve failed the kids of this district.”

After she made her allegations during Monday’s board meeting, she learned that some staff members may also believe the executive team is failing them.

“As I was standing out in the hallway chatting with people, I had individuals that identified themselves as employees of the district come up and shake my hand and thank me with tears in their eyes,” she said. “It was an emotional outpouring that indicated: ‘You have no idea how bad things here are. Working here is just like a genuine hell.’ That human response told me volumes about the depths of the problems in the district. These are good, hardworking people. It was inferred that what they see is incompetence and dishonesty and they were grateful that this citizen is going to help. That surprised me. That was a very powerful anecdote for me just to experience that. I’m still blown away by that staff reaction.”

Lack said this response mirrored what she has experienced when she has requested public records from the district.

“I’m an organizational development kind of person and I see a very dysfunctional, troubled organization,” said Lack, who has worked as a city human resources manager. “All I know is honest people don’t act the way these people do. Honest people don’t play games with contracts. When honest people respond to records requests such as I made for MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding), people don’t get jerked around. They don’t get this off-putting response.”

Lack said she told the board before a closed session meeting several months ago about her dissatisfaction after she requested to see MOUs with all of the district’s unions. She was forced to pay $52 for a stack of expired contracts that she believes should be available for free on the district’s website. Since the documents weren’t online, she said the district should have provided her with electronic copies at no cost.

“I said with incredulity: ‘There’s no electronic document here? This was typed on a typewriter? I don’t believe that,’” she recalled. “And they answered me with a blank stare.”

Lack said she has asked other agencies to post their MOUs online and they have done so.

“This school district doesn’t do that,” she said. “Is it incompetence or is it deliberately obfuscating records or concealing records? They treat the public like crap. It’s like there’s no obligation at all to be responsive to you.”

Lack said she has heard many parents air similar complaints. And after voters ousted former Board President Sherry Whitmarsh in the November election, Lack said she decided it was time to challenge the district to change its ways.

“I hear enough pain and disappointment among parents throughout the district that it actually hurts,” she said. “It’s time to shape up. With the election results as they were, I wanted to send a very strong signal. I’d like to have them reform their practices regarding how they place items on the agenda and how they provide them to the public in advance. I want to make them aware they are functioning in a fish bowl as regards to transparency issues.”

Lack said she doesn’t know if her Brown Act allegations are true or not.

“I don’t have the facts,” she said. “That’s the point. Do your business in the public and you won’t have this kind of uncomfortableness happening. It’s not tough. But it’s attitudinal. The superintendent sets the tone for good faith, fair dealing and open and honest communication with staff and the public and I don’t get a sense from him that he has a genuine commitment to openness.”

Public officials, she said, should accept personal accountability.

“They should do their best,” Lack said. “And I don’t know that we’re really getting our best out of this district.”

What is your reaction to Lack’s comments?

[You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.]

54 Responses to “Community watchdog focuses scrutiny on MDUSD”

  1. Wait a Minute Says:

    Bravo Wendy!

    I know that many employees are deeply unhappy and saddened with the hideous mismanagment of the district and the corresponding decline in its reputation.

    What has happened here has made it harder for the employees to do their jobs and there can be no question that the children and taxpayers of this district are paying the ultimate price.

    Thank you very much for your uphill battle to bring positive change to the MDUSD Wendy. And a big shout-out to Theresa and the CCC Times for their invaluable work in shining the sunshine onto the many scandals of the past MDUSD!

  2. g Says:

    The League of California Cities produced a very enlightening Brown Act document, where one of the many good points says:

    “Transparency is a
    foundational value for
    ethical government
    practices. The Brown
    Act is a floor, not a
    ceiling, for conduct.”

    It is imperative that senior and new board members of all public agencies to routinely ‘look for’ articles like this, and study them thoroughly.

    And it behooves all boards to look for, hire and promote only those managers and especially legal advisers, whose past actions and records-of-employment prove that they are capable of living by these tenets.

  3. anon Says:

    I am surprised that employees spoke to Ms. Lack about the hell they’re going through. If their comments are found out, they’ll be terminated by Lawrence.

    It’s also very telling that Whitmarsh was not re-elected. She was initially elected because she was an advocate for teachers. Teachers didn’t vote for her this time around because they distrust this district’s administrative team. Principals have left en masse because if they even question whether a directive is in the best interest of students, they’re soundly reprimanded. Thank you, Ms. Lack. Please continue to investigate as you have a very strong but very silent and frightened majority thankful for uncovering the unethical way this district is being run.

  4. Doctor J Says:

    Wendy knows how responsible honest governments work: for 20 plus years she was with the City of Walnut Creek and served as their HR Director. Her opinion is important.

  5. Doctor J Says:

    My blog post #86 under the Brown Act violation subject is further proof of what Wendy details in Theresa’s blog post of employees having tears in their eyes. Steven Lawrence’s house of cards needs to crumble.

  6. anon Says:

    what is most disheartening is that this administrative team is so intent on hiding their dishonest dealings with contracts (ie: Measure C, the renewing of their own contracts, the AIS contract) that there is little focus on student learning.

  7. Wendy Lack Says:

    @Anon #3:

    Investigation and fact-finding are the District’s responsibility. I only ran the alarm bell.

    The District’s predicament is complex and presents unique employer challenges. A majority of the Board (Dennler, Hansen and Mayo) have a conflict of interest in this matter, as they held Board seats at the time the events in question occurred. Further, several members of executive-level management are implicated.

    So after one sifts and sorts through all of these conflicts of interest, it may well be that the intervention of an independent authority is needed to direct the fact-finding process with integrity. Such an authority must be qualified to the job and be above reproach.

    Fact-finding must come first. To address a complaint one must first properly identify the facts. Then and only then can appropriate action be taken.

    Further, the District has an affirmative duty to conduct its own administrative investigation regarding the implied allegation of wrongdoing by District employees, independent from any other inquiry by others and independent from issues related to Board members.

    At such time as a factual determination is made that staff, individually or as part of a conspiracy, acted in a way to wilfully and intentionally mislead the Board of Trustees or the public, and/or to wilfully violate applicable policies/regulations/law, then serious disciplinary action is warranted (up to and including termination of employment).

    There is no question that evading law, then misleading elected officials about doing so, is very serious indeed. No one knows the facts in this situation. We don’t know whether such a thing has occurred in this District.

    But the point is: The issues raised in my complaint have serious implications that extend far beyond sloppy staff work or garden-variety Brown Act oversights.

    When executive-level staff engage in deceit, the breach of trust often is irreparable.

  8. g Says:

    Wendy, There’s just one observation in conflict.

    April 23 minutes where invalid “old” contracts were attached for board approval:

    Motion #1
    Hansen moved that this agenda item be postponed until after the new Board is seated in December 2012. Motion
    failed for lack of second.

    Motion #2
    Whitmarsh moved that the contracts be approved as presented. Motion failed for lack of second.

    Motion #3
    Eberhart moved that the contract extensions be approved for one year. Dennler seconded. The Board voted 4-1-0
    (Hansen – No). Motion carried.

    The fact that Hansen stuck to her guns on her belief that they could not approve the stale documents, as presented on that date, is probably evidence of why, as has been reported here, she was left out of this most recent Hub and Wheel serial meeting. (District official calling in board members one-at-a-time) asking them to agree to contracts that had not yet been brought before the public)

    While at least one person indicates they were asked to sign these documents in October, and others had signed before she did; as of December 10 Hansen had NOT been presented with the date-altered contracts.

    I think it is safe to not implicate Hansen in this particular fiasco from April 23, to Dec 10.

  9. g Says:

    Not Hub and Wheel—Hub and Spoke.

  10. anon Says:

    wendy lack states: “They treat the public like crap”. and that is why Clayton Valley went charter. Teachers and parents from that school were brushed off and treated like crap when they voiced their concerns. Lawrence and his team are to blame. Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill residents have been trying for years to cede from this district. with the lack of trust in the current administratrion, there’s even more impetus for them to do so. Or, perhaps each school in these cities will also go the charter route. it’s time for this new board to rein in Lawrence and Rolen or the district that we know and love will become more and more fractured.

  11. Doctor J Says:

    Theresa, any update on the potential story you alerted us to a week ago of “corruption” ?

  12. Doctor J Says:

    FCMAT update: Read between the lines: Steven Lawrence left West Sac in disarray.
    And FYI, FCMAT has finally published the MDUSD “final” Transportation report: I haven’t compared it to see if any more changes were made.

  13. anon Says:

    The unhappiness runs deeper than just at the Dent Center; just look at Mount with the continuing mistrust and mismanagement. There is a lack of honesty.

  14. Wendy Lack Says:

    @G #8:

    What the situation calls for is objective and thorough fact-finding, since it appears no one has complete information at present.

    When you live long enough, you learn that it never pays to make assumptions. We must always ascertain the facts — the community deserves as much.

    The fact that three of five Board members were seated during the period in question creates a conflict of interest for them. This conflict complicates how the District is able to respond to the complaint.

    Keeping those with conflicts away from the investigation/fact-finding process protects their personal interests as well as ensuring the integrity of the inquiry process for the public good.

  15. David "Shoe" Shuey - Clayton City Council Says:

    Without vigilance corruption/indifference/entitlement/apathy/tunnelvision/myopathy takes root. Concerned parents, citizens and groups must make all officials accountable and Wendy and her group (and many others – many on this blog) have done a great job of making this happen. The new Board can correct many of the public’s concerns with a new openness and transparency.

  16. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Dr. J: No word.

  17. Giorgio C. Says:

    The chain-of-command is citizens-elected board-superintendent. The board can be recalled for not providing proper oversight of the Superintendent. Supporting evidence of the board’s failure to perform its duties could be the findings from an investigation by the Grand Jury or DA, or also a review of successive Performance Audits. Have previous deficiencies been corrected?

  18. vindex Says:

    Bravo to Wendy and Theresa. Well done. Keep up the good work. Leading the MDUSD is a difficult job. I will cut the leadership a lot of slack. However, immoral and illegal behavior must be dealt with promptly and fairly. Therefore, we must fire the Sup’t. and Greg Rolen right way.

  19. g Says:

    The very worst of the cloud that has loomed over the board for far too long is now gone. Under certain circumstances, there is at last, a hope of sunshine in the future.

    I suspect (and hope I’m right) that under a new leadership, acting as a body hell-bent on fairness, honesty and transparency, that Steven Lawrence, and his Associate leaders will, within the next very few months, come around and accept the fact that the rules of engagement have changed.

    However, there is one sure rogue cloud that I fear will always, simply because it is inherent in his very nature, never come around to fairness, honesty or sunshine. Unlike the others, who at least chose some field of Education as their profession, this one cares not a whit about educating our youth.

    Always looking for “a fight,” where none is warranted, “the angle,” of what’s in it for him, and “the loophole,” to evade every law…Greg Rolen is an impediment to sound school governance.

  20. Giorgio C. Says:

    You said some of the school staff were upset with the management. Couldn’t these same employees, along with their respective unions, have made the MOU documents available to you? I’ve never heard of any government entity concealing the MOU docs. This brings me to the next question–did each bargaining session begin with the “Sunshine” period, in which proposals are publicly announced-shared for purpose of obtaining public feedback?

    I work for the state of California. I want you, the taxpayer, to get in my business. I want you to conduct salary surveys so that you can see how my pay compares to other, including the private sector. I am the “fishbowl” that you seek.

    Here are my contracts (Bargaining unit 10)

    By the way, my union was not being 100% transparent and democratic. In my opinion they violated the California Corporations Code. The tried to kick me out for protesting. I was reinstated last week. In other words, you might want to make sure each of the unions also supports transparency.

    Good luck to you and please keep us apprised of your efforts!

  21. anon Says:

    Fact finding first? That is certainly not what happened in this case. What seems supported here is accusation and then fact finding. If I am looking for someone or some entity to be our “watchdog” it certainly won’t be someone who shoots first and asks questions later. That is not the kind of community I wish to live in.

  22. Doctor J Says:

    Excellent article Theresa. I think you captured the issue.

  23. Giorgio C. Says:

    I agree that we must not shoot first. Why are staff raising incompetence and dishonesty to a citizen? Is there a whistleblower program so that such allegations can be investigated by an impartial entity? The rank-and-file will often be critical of management, so a large grain of salt should be taken with such “reports.”

    I’ve witnessed what appeared to be incompetency, but what was really the result of too many cutbacks, placing folks in impossible situations. Or sometimes the turnover is high because of the low pay, so some positions are staffed by folks who never master the job. That is why an impartial entity is needed to investigate such allegations.

    The state has a whistleblower program. Do school districts have the same or is the default the Grand Jury yet again?
    State auditor complaints

    Here are some Grand Jury reports found at
    1999-2000: Mt. Diablo USD and San Ramon USD
    2000-2001: Dougherty Valley School
    2002-2003: Mt. Diablo USD
    2005-2006: Antioch USD
    2007-2008: Multi-district report on school food safety
    2009-2010: Multi-district report on truancy
    2010-2011: Mt. Diablo USD report on finances
    2011-2012: Multi-district report on bond oversight
    2011-2012: Multi-district report on compensation of board members

    Currently, individual schools are subject to an accreditation program. I believe there should be a separate accreditation program for school DISTRICTS, not just schools.

  24. Doctor J Says:

    Theresa, what can you tell us about the WCCUSD “substitute teacher” strike last Friday, the last day of classes ?

  25. anon Says:

    #23. G That’s exactly what the MDUSD school staff and teachers need. There is no impartial higher authority that is willing to listen and to act if necessary.

  26. Giorgio C. Says:

    For oversight, the board and citizens can review Performance Audit documents, such as this one for the WCCUSD.

    What I observed is that some “deficiencies” in this 2007 document were not corrected by the 2011 follow-up audit which I currently cannot locate. These were possible hints that maybe some departments were having a problem. Of course, at the end of the day, it is the Superintendent who is held accountable. The Superintendent relies on such audits to help them with their management decisions.

    Everything in this audit should be linked to a respective SOP and job description. If these things currently do not exist, then create them pronto! With the WCCUSD, I have been prodding them about bringing their job descriptions up to date. They benefit from this, too. Show me in writing what you are dealing with and you will have my support. If not, the default will be to replace the Superintendent and school board if necessary.

  27. Sue Berg Says:

    Theresa, can you find out when the employee contracts were placed on the district’s web site? They’re all there now. Anyone who wants to see them can click on the “Employment” tab on the home page. The MDEA contract is also accessible on the MDEA web site.

    Giorgio, whenever one of the unions or the district want to change any part of an employee contract, the relevant section(s) of the contract is(are) sunshined at a Board meeting–placed on the agenda as “information only”–before negotiations begin. Typically, when a contract is about to expire, each side tells the other which parts of the contract it wants to revise/update and those are the parts that are sunshined.

  28. Doctor J Says:

    @SB#27 Not exactly — many changes by “MOU” without notice have been made — the SIG school changes are just one example, both for Cohort 1 and Cohort 2.

  29. g Says:

    Sue Berg; Thank you for pointing out the location of the union contracts. A very quick perusal shows very clearly that Gary Eberhart knew the correct way to extend/alter/revise an existing contract. No doubt he needed union leadership holding his hand to direct him, but nonetheless, as current board president (Nov, 2011) he signed AND dated the ‘properly’ annotated revised copies.

    As for the contention from Whitmarsh that no one else was there when “she was the third” to sign these last big-5 contracts, I suggest a close look at the contracts. How often do you see three people signing a contract (at different times) with what certainly appears to be the same pen?

    Sure, there could have been a pen clipped to the folder—sure, it may have been the only pen in the office—sure.

  30. anon Says:

    Giorgio C,

    I like the idea of an entity which could investigate concerns related to the school district, but one which is truly unbiased. Typically I would think that the newspaper could satisfy much of that role, but they have clearly shown themselves to be extremely biased. I guess that becomes the issue, who is unbiased and to whom? I read some of the Grand Jury reports and the answers to the reports and the reports seem to pose some good concerns and the answers seem to answer the concerns raised. Its a bit frustrating that I see problems and then I find out that there are rational answers that account for the problems. Its not black and white as is mostly posted on this blog. All I see on here are complaints with little discussion about solutions other than this person is bad or that person is good. My guess is that many people are trying very hard to do the right thing. I find it hard to believe that there is a giant conspiracy or that there is wholesale incompetency. I see things that I certainly don’t like at our school, but it seems much more related to lack of funding than incompetency. I’d like to find a place online that is much more geared to solutions than accusations.

  31. soooo frustrated Says:

    I agree with #30

  32. Giorgio C. Says:

    I agree with you 100%. I have been on both sides of the whistle blowing process. At the end of the day, most folks come to work trying to do the best they can with what they have. Sometimes, we the taxpayer, have to admit we might have gone to far with our attempts to streamline our budget spending. Yes, there is incompetency at times, but then the question is “why was that person hired”, and we then discover no one else wanted the job for whatever reason.

    You get the picture. Like you said, it is rarely black and white. I would rather be in a position of supporting my district than subjecting them to a witch hunt, but in fairness, they need to meet us half way.

  33. Giorgio C. Says:

    I can relate to Wendy’s observations regarding the difference between honest and dishonest people with a specific matter I confronted the WCCUSD school board with. It had to do with the fact that the School Accountability Report Cards had not been completely filled out, that it was not stated as to how many non-fully credentialed teachers were hired at each school site.

    What I experienced that seemed dishonest to me:
    I pointed out to the board at 2 meetings and emails that this information was missing and that they were in violation of the Ed Code. No response to my email. As I spoke before the board, no response from anyone. Just blank stares. After my last attempt to resolve before the board, I left the auditorium. Once outside, away from the camera, the new HR Director met me and said I was correct, that the school was in violation of the Ed Code and that they would correct it, that the previous HR Director simply didn’t do it.

    Why did it take me 3 months to get this resolved? Because the school district does not want citizens to know how many non-fully credentialed teachers are being employed in the district. I’m not saying these non-credentialed teachers are not getting the job done. They might be. The point is that the law clearly states that I have a right to know who is in my child’s classroom with respect to their qualifications.

    The suspect (dishonest?) behavior continues. I am now learning that the district when they responded to my request, possibly have bent the definition of “fully credentialed” when completing the SARC documents, that contract employees from Teach For America might have been deemed “fully credentialed” even though this is not accurate. In summary, they did not complete the documents, and then when forced to do so, they possibly lied in the process. I am still sorting this out.

    Add the fact that recently, the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee was asked to approve a debt limit waiver for a recently approved bond measure. The district staff and school board seemed to be pressuring the CBOC to just rubber stamp this waiver and move on. I took a closer look at the waiver process, including the previous waiver. The waiver form clearly asks if there were any objections from any CBOC members. The previous waiver states that there were “NO” objections. This form was sent to the state Board of Ed. If one looks at the CBOC meeting minutes, they will see that a CBOC member loudly protested and voted “No” on the waiver request.

    Not only were his objections not documented by the Associate Superintendent on the waiver form. This CBOC member was then kicked off of the committee by use of a non-existent policy regarding allowable number of absences for a committee member.

    At some point, a citizen does get frustrated, and when this happens, Wendy’s comment about “cleaning house” comes to mind. Perhaps we need to establish a county-wide multi district oversight coalition? If anyone is interested, please contact me. Thanks.

    Giorgio Cosentino

    Some of my observations and concerns pertaining to the WCCUSD can be found here

  34. Doctor J Says:

    FCMAT publishes article on MDUSD violating Brown Act.

  35. Wait a Minute Says:

    I’m all for independant, outside investigations regarding the many, many allegations regarding senior district leadership and former board members.

    The new board president is absolutely handling this correctly by ordering the superintendent and general counsel and Deb Cooksey that they may NOT advise the board about these issues based on their conflicts of interest regarding these allegations.

    Of course, this did not stop Rolen from “offering” to “research the issue” for the board first!

    The community deserves the truth for once and I’m confident the truth will be much different from we have been officially told in the past by these so-called “leaders”.

  36. Theresa Harrington Says:

    FCMAT also published the CCT story about changes in school lunches, which showed that MDUSD is meeting or exceeding USDA requirements. When I was at the MDHS event the other day, Food and Nutrition Services Director Anna Fisher and her staff were widely praised for their “can-do” attitudes and proactive partnership with Kaiser’s “Weight of the Nation” program and Cindy Gershen’s efforts to bring more fruits and vegetables into MDHS lunches.

  37. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s my CCT story regarding Lack’s allegations:

  38. Doctor J Says:

    There is no excuse for Rolen not having the one line “extensions” ready for the Agenda as “due dates” for the Board “dockets” are 11 days prior to the Board meeting, and he had plenty of time to have them “posted”. Obviously there was a conspiracy of Steven Lawrence, Greg Rolen, Gary Eberhart and Sherry Whitmarsh to not present to the public “the full story”. Remember Sherry’s comment about “we were waiting” for some event to present them — never disclosing what the event was.

  39. Doctor J Says:

    How unprepared is MDUSD ? There is NO written policy about “intruder” and NO written policy about “Standard Operating Proceedure for an intruder on campus. The only written policy is that all “visitors” must register with the office. The “safety plans” are just old “cookie cutter” plans regurgitated year after year with no thought and not even complete when presented to the Board. My criticisms last year went unheaded. Why Steven Lawrence haven’t you bothered to correct these proceedures ?

  40. Doctor J Says:

    Local tragedy:

  41. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Sequoia MS was locked down today after receiving a threat:

  42. Doctor J Says:

    See my post #39. What is the Board policy and proceedure ?

  43. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here is the message the supt. sent to parents Friday about the Conn. shooting and district school safety procedures:

    Here is the resource for parents and teachers regarding helping children cope with tragedy, from the Nat. Assoc. of School Psychologists, which the supt. mentioned in his message:

  44. Doctor J Says:

    #43 And no one noticed until Monday ?

  45. anon Says:

    Once again, hysteria and hyperbola compliments of Dr. J. An entire school district focused on ensuring that plans are in place with additional emphasis placed on even more practice of procedures which have long been in place. And then there is Dr. J trying to get the public to believe that the district has once again dropped the ball. There are plans at every school which were directed to be put in place by the district office as is required. Each plan specifies how intruder situations are to be handled. Each school has a code which is announced over the school wide intercom so that teachers know to lock doors and protect students. Each plan specifically indicates procedures for contacting law enforcement and other first responders. You don’t have to believe me, ask your principals, ask your teachers and ask your students. These plans have been in place for years and they continue to evolve as changes are necessary. Of course the schools don’t scrap last years plan and start fresh every year. Schools improve on plans as necessary and modify areas of plans which need changing. At a time when communities across the nation are pulling together to ensure that our students are protected, Dr. J feels the need to use this to further his efforts to demonize the district. Pathetic!!!!

  46. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here is an automated message sent to all district parents about the Sequoia MS, Sequoia Elementary and Sequoia day care center lockdown today:

  47. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here is a new blog post with links to three messages from district officials about school safety and the Sequoia MS threat:

    I apologize for not posting the Friday message sooner, but I was off that day and didn’t get a chance to post it over the weekend.

  48. Doctor J Says:

    @Anon #45, Are you really satisfied with the “Safety Plans” posted on the Board agenda last year ? Which one was most impressive to you ?

  49. Doctor J Says:

    Here are the “check the box” school site safety plans for school year 2012-13. Do you feel “safer” knowing these plans ?

  50. anon Says:

    Dr. J,

    I am very satisfied with the safety plans that I am seeing at schools. That is all that I care about. Your hyperbole doesn’t have a positive impact on student safety, that much I am certain of.

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