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MDUSD superintendent and other top administrators hired attorney to defend against Brown Act violation allegations

By Theresa Harrington
Saturday, February 16th, 2013 at 6:22 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

In response to a Public Records Act request by the Contra Costa Times’ editorial department, the Mt. Diablo school district recently released a letter from the law firm Gagen McCoy that disputed the Brown Act violation allegations raised by Wendy Lack and Alicia Minyen.

Here is the letter:

Here are the Cure and Correct letters from Lack and Minyen:

Although the Gagen McCoy letter disputes the Brown Act violation allegations, it fails to address the fact that the revised contracts signed by four board members did not take into account the legal questions raised by Lack with regard to AB1344 or board bylaws, which were discussed by Board President Cheryl Hansen at the Jan. 18 meeting. It also fails to address substantive changes made to the contracts without board approval for Superintendent Steven Lawrence and CFO Bryan Richards.

The board agreed in a 4-1 vote that the contract extensions were valid and it was not necessary to cure or correct the April 23 board action. However, trustees also agreed to seek advice from outside legal counsel regarding possible deficiencies in the contract language.

That contract language is expected be addressed Feb. 25 by another outside attorney:

Do you agree with the arguments made in the Gagen McCoy letter?

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123 Responses to “MDUSD superintendent and other top administrators hired attorney to defend against Brown Act violation allegations”

  1. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Wendy: And yet, Trustee Brian Lawrence and the administrators at the table were loftily talking about making Mt. Diablo the best district in the state or the world. How about starting by just making it satisfactory?
    You cite what you call “rookie mistakes.” The problem is: these are not rookies. These are long-time administrators who should know how to run a district.
    There was a very interesting discussion about retaining and recruiting high quality employees in which Julie Braun-Martin said the district is really good at attracting rookie teachers because it can help them get clear credentials and they usually don’t care very much about health benefits. Trustee Brian Lawrence pointed out that when they get 5-7 years of experience and are just starting to hit their stride, they bail and go to districts like San Ramon Valley.
    Braun-Martin said the economy is helping the district retain employees, because they don’t have anywhere else to go.
    But, there was acknowledgement that the district’s reputation is definitely not helping it to recruit and retain employees. Some districts, like Livermore Valley, actually have promotional videos that help them market the district. Trustees wanted to know how MDUSD is marketed. Braun-Martin didn’t appear to have many new ideas to offer up.

    Dr. J: Estrada said the website was developed through something called Sharepoint, which nobody apparently knows how to use to revamp the website.

  2. Wendy Lack Says:

    #50 & 51:

    My sense is there’s nothing wrong with MDUSD that competent leadership at the Superintendent level wouldn’t improve.

    Innovative leadership at the BOE level wouldn’t hurt, either.

  3. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#46 I just did a quick google on Sharepoint websites and its a Microsoft product. There are all kinds of people who know how to use it. Why didn’t Joe just google it ?

  4. Giorgio C. Says:

    @52Wendy, regarding the County Board of Education, I have concerns with respect to how they conduct their business. Some little red flags.

    Our trustee had missed many meetings and wasn’t responding to emails. How was I to know she was out ill? There was no message on the website telling me to email a different trustee. They should have had someone formally fill in and it should have been noted on the website. Or the agenda flyer that advertises “3 minutes” per public comment, so I drive to Concord from Hercules and am told I have 1 minute. WTF?

    These same folks will not even lift a finger to investigate Ed Code violations of my school district, such as the incomplete SARC documents which my board didn’t address until 7 months later.

    Another law that no one will enforce is the following. Our bond oversight committee has two union reps on the committee. This is unlawful per the following language

    (b) No employee or official of the district shall be appointed to
    the citizens’ oversight committee. No vendor, contractor, or
    consultant of the district shall be appointed to the citizens’
    oversight committee.”

    The irony is that this same County BOE (or DOA?) enforces these very laws when they are making the decision as to whether or not they should shut down a charter school. Then all laws matter with respect to that particular charter school, but a school district such as the WCCUSD can violate laws at will.

    I think we need to put the microscope on the BOE and the rest of the Contra Costa County Office of Ed. There is a whole lot of money flowing through there, but what are we getting for it?

  5. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s something interesting:
    The CVCHS analysis on the FCMAT website is dated Feb. 13:
    The one the superintendent distributed is dated Jan. 14:
    Yet, they both appear the same.

  6. Theresa Harrington Says:

    The County SELPA also has agendas that make no sense. I noticed that at the March 5 meeting, there is going to be a “Progress Report – Juvenile Hall/Boys’ Ranch Cost & MDUSD” It notes there is an “Exhibit J.” But when I called to get a copy of the exhibit, the person who prepared the agenda said she wasn’t sure if there would be any written report, but she just puts exhibits next to all the agenda items because that’s the way she’s always done it. I pointed out that this gives the impression there is something in writing. She said, “Oh, I guess you’re right.”
    I can’t believe that no one else has ever asked to see the nonexistent exhibits!

  7. Doctor J Says:

    FCMAT still has not posted the Special Ed report — why ?

  8. g Says:

    Theresa #55. That’s an easy one. Remember back in July/August I pointed out that the dates on the Transportation study had been altered at the district because the fonts did not match.

    In this case Lawrence got the report in Jan., but (somebody) did not give FCMAT “permission” to release it until Feb., at which time FCMAT went back and altered their own dates.

    Lawrence had been caught altering with non-matching fonts on the Transportation report, so he had no choice but to release this one ‘as-is’. Do you suppose he had any idea, when he finally told FCMAT it was OK to release this one that they were going to make the date alteration to match their release date?

  9. Anon Says:

    I have not seen it on the district site either

  10. Anon Says:

    never mind it is on the district site. Printing it as I type.

  11. Doctor J Says:

    FCMAT has now posted the Special Ed report — the report says it is dated Feb 25, 2013 but on the list of reports says it is listed as “1-25-13-941”

  12. Wendy Lack Says:

    @ Giorgio #54:

    Duly noted. I believe the Board of Ed should be the role model of public responsiveness, transparency and ethics. Instead, its focus is on the care and feeding of a narrow range of pet constituencies (taxpayers not among them).

    There’s plenty of room for performance improvement at both the BOE and district levels. But the BOE should be held to a higher standard of conduct, as it sets the tone for others.

    Perhaps it’s a good-news, bad-news silver lining kind of thing, since it appears there’s nowhere to go but UP!

  13. g Says:

    Dr. J: Yes, no one can keep up with their own altered dates. Wouldn’t you love to see the Draft that has been kept under wraps since last Fall while changes (called corrections) were being made?

    So the final-final was apparently issued in Jan 25 (during the heat of big 5 contract talks), but (someone) directed FCMAT to change the dates and not to release it until Feb 25.

    Remember Gallaspie saying: “FCMAT doesn’t allow ‘changes’ but does allow for corrections.” Well, they apparently follow directions (from the guy who cuts their checks) about changing dates–so what else was “corrected.”

    We’ll never know–no one will ever see that draft copy from last year!

  14. Doctor J Says:

    When Kerri Mills was hired as interim Asst Supt with a guaranteed contract extension based on Supt’s “review”, did Steven Lawrence already have the draft FCMAT report ? If so, we need to see the initial report. The reason I ask is because the “final” version indicates that MDUSD is top management heavy in Special Ed and that MDUSD is the only district of the comparisons to have an Asst Supt over Special Ed. IF, and its an IF, Steven Lawrence withheld the report from the Board when Mills was hired, the Board may very well have decided to drop the position down to a comparable one of other districts compared for cost savings. Now the district is pretty well stuck with a high priced Asst. Supt.
    I think that the initial draft and the final version really need to be compared in order to accurately assess the situation.

  15. Wait a Minute Says:

    Have to love this quote from pg 11—“Following a comparative review of single-district SELPAs of similar size, FCMAT found that Mt. Diablo Unified has more upper-level administrative positions than other districts.”

    I think this same problem exists throughout Dent.

    Very top-heavy with very poor results.

  16. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Yet, MDUSD has far fewer COUNSELORS than other districts. Carolyn Patton recently told the CAC this could be a problem. But, as I have previously pointed out, the disproportionality report (which was approved with no discussion on the consent calendar last night), does not address mental health to the same degree as Pittsburg’s. Instead, it focuses on academic and behavior interventions.

  17. Doctor J Says:

    Wow, the FCMAT report should have affected the Disproportionality Report.

  18. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here’s my story on the CVCHS FCMAT report:

  19. Doctor J Says:

    Concealment = fraud and deceit

  20. g Says:

    The “Management Letter” from FCMAT was in fact just a letter. It had nothing whatsoever to do with Management or a Study. It appears one person took what the district provided and said “Yes, the figures you provided add up to the balance you provided.”

    The dirt here is that we are supposed to believe that just TWO board members “commissioned” the report. Two board members who do not sign checks. Although the cost should be deducted from Mayo’s stipend!

    Of course, there was NEVER a consensus from a third board member (Eberhart or Dennler) who, had there been, would have once again, violated the Brown Act. They wouldn’t do that! Oh, No, Never.

  21. Doctor J Says:

    @G#70 You’re right. Two Board members cannot act for the Board. Its just Steven Lawrence’s excuse for having FCMAT reguritate the district’s fantasy.

  22. g Says:

    Theresa, can you get a copy of that Oct 3rd “signed study agreement” that Debi Deal refers to in the letter?

  23. g Says:

    Dr. J: Do you believe for a minute that Eberhart, and maybe even Dennler didn’t know about, and agree to, commissioning the “study?”

    Yes, Lawrence wanted to prove he was right, and if the study came in under $25K could have commissioned it himself—but, he would not have laid it off onto Mayo last night. He cannot afford to throw away a friendly vote that easily.

  24. Theresa Harrington Says:

    I have asked both the superintendent and FCMAT for a copy of that letter. Interestingly, when I called FCMAT, the person who looked it up said it was signed by the superintendent on Oct. 8. She said, “So, it went to the board at the meeting just before that.”
    Although there WAS a board meeting Oct. 8, this contract was not on the agenda. I guess FCMAT doesn’t realize MDUSD operates differently than other districts.

    Also, it is very interesting that the district left the County Office of Education out of the FCMAT report, despite County Superintendent Joe Ovick’s specific request to be included.

    Here’s what Peggy Marshburn wrote in an e-mail:

    “We were not copied on the FCMAT report by the district or FCMAT. We requested last fall to participate in the event the district decided to go forward with a study, that did not occur. Dr. Ovick requested of FCMAT that we be interviewed as part of the study, that did not occur. The County Office conclusions were not included as part of the study.”

    So, how valuable is the study? It’s still the district’s word against the county’s.

  25. Doctor J Says:

    Oct 8 ? Was this a campaign activity by the Supt to support Sherry Whitmarsh before the November election ? Especially since Lawrence excluded the COE involvement and just got someone, not a CPA, to regurgitate the district numbers. Debi Deal’s letter says the district asked for it in Aug 2012 but Lawrence didn’t sign the study agreement until Oct 8. This could very well be something the FPPC would look into.

  26. Giorgio C. Says:

    I’d like to propose that concerned citizens from both the WCCUSD and MDUSD form a committee for purpose of exploring the creation of an Office of Inspector General of Education for Contra Costa County or possibly the state. Currently, there is NO oversight of school districts in this part of the world.

    Contact me if you are interested

    Los Angles Unified,256485&_dad=ptl&_schema=PTL_EP

  27. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Speaking of WCCUSD and MDUSD, there was an interesting vote at Monday’s MDUSD meeting regarding the county’s CSBA delegates, where three trustees were running unopposed for three seats, including WCCUSD Trustee Charles Ramsey. Board President Cheryl Hansen supported the other two, but made a motion excluding Ramsey, saying she couldn’t support him, but wouldn’t go into details. The board unanimously approved the other two candidates, then took a separate 4-1 vote approving Ramsey.
    I happened to speak to Ramsey yesterday for another story I was doing and he brought this up. Obviously, word travels fast. He said Hansen doesn’t know him at all and has never spoken to him. He said that if she really wants transparency, she should have stated why she didn’t vote for him, since he assumes she was basing her opinion on things she has heard and read, rather than on first-hand knowledge.

  28. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#77 I don’t have a clue, but perhaps she had some knowledge based on her working at the COE. Since most of us had never met the presidential candidates, we also based our opinions on things we have heard and read. Its not unusual. What else do WCCUSD & MDUSD have in common ? Bryan Richards.

  29. Theresa Harrington Says:

    I have received a copy of the FCMAT agreement from FCMAT:

    When I asked how the FCMAT rep could have signed it Sept. 5, if it wasn’t created until Oct. 3, the person who sent it to me said she forgot to change the date on the final agreement. The draft agreement was sent Sept. 5, she said.

    So, the superintendent has been keeping this a secret for more than five months!

  30. g Says:

    Ooops! Forgot the change dates (again) to match what the district ordered us to do. Ooops! No one considers this pay for play?

    Transportation; where final reports were held up for months “for editing” but the final report miraculously matched an early draft “word-for-word.”

    SpEd; where reports supposedly were not available, but were quoted (ooops) in an open board meeting many months earlier.

    Charter Audit; this one was just plain in violation of just about everything a district should stand for!

  31. Theresa Harrington Says:

    g: You make good points. And with the transportation report, staff began IMPLEMENTING recommendations BEFORE the report was ever finalized or publicly released.

    Regarding the audit, the only way to truly figure out why the district’s numbers are so different from the county’s numbers is for BOTH the district and the county to come together at a public meeting and explain how they came to their conclusions. If the district had included the county in the FCMAT report, that outside agency should have been able to do that. But, the district chose to ignore County Superintendent Joe Ovick’s request to be included in the report. The district also failed to provide FCMAT with the number of special ed students who went to CVCHS this year. It’s very odd that a report issued in February is merely hypothesizing about how many special ed students might attend CVCHS in 2012-13. That information should be readily available and FCMAT should have included it, so the ACTUAL fiscal impact would be known. The board should demand that the superintendent decipher the hypothetical analysis and give the public the true number.

  32. Wendy Lack Says:

    Numbers shouldn’t be this difficult to calculate.

    Nor should it be this tough to communicate with one another.

    I’m at a complete loss to explain what’s going on here.

    Is the confusion and turmoil in the District a result of intentional obfuscation/deception, corruption or incompetence? Or all three?

    Is the problem at the Board level or staff level, or both?

    It’s numbers. It’s communication. It’s not that tough. And if those responsible are having difficulties with such fundamentals, then clearly they’re not right for their respective roles.

    Sheesh. This schtick is getting quite tiresome.

  33. Doctor J Says:

    @Wendy, MDUSD numbers are smoke and mirrors — Steven Lawrence’s explanation on Monday night was simply “lame”. The COE numbers are more reliable and he refused to have a CPA audit and report. If you read the FCMAT report, it was NOT an audit — just a regurgitation of the “client supplied” information. It was not by a CPA. I don’t think a CFE, Certified Fraud Examiner, is even a California state license. By the time Steven Lawrence ordered the “letter” in October, the horse was already dead — and he complains about deficit spending ?

  34. Doctor J Says:

    @Giorgio C. In California, we have a “State Auditor” which performs that function.

  35. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#81 Significant that the FCMAT “study agreement” says that the County Super will get a copy of the agreement and report per AB 1200. Does Superintendent Joe Ovick‚Äôs office say they never received a copy of the Sept/Oct [unsure which] agreement ? If they did, perhaps they should have been more proactive in providing their information.

  36. Wendy Lack Says:

    @DJ #83:

    Yes, I read the letter.

    As you say, it was a “ditto” of the staff’s interpretation — not a credible, independent review.

    How much did this FCMAT letter cost the District? Do we know?

  37. Doctor J Says:

    @Wendy, the “Study Agreement” linked in TH’s post in #79, I believe said the cost was about $5,000 dollars. What a waste of money — and Trustee Lynne Dennler complained on Monday night there was not enough budget money to buy new projector bulbs at $300 each for teachers. Well, that is about 18 bulbs. Lynne ought to be complaining to her Board partner Linda Mayo for authorizing such extravagance.

  38. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Wendy, the agreement estimates it will cost $4,300. I have asked for the final cost, but have received no response.

    Dr. J: The county said they did not receive the final report. Peggy said the county was aware that the district might pursue such a report and asked to be included, if it went forward. That request was ignored. I’ll send Marshburn a copy of the study agreement and see what she has to say about AB1200.

    It would have been well worth the money if it had included the county’s estimates. Then, the public would have a credible outside analysis of BOTH the district’s and county’s projections and rationales. But, as you and Wendy note, it is virtually worthless because all it does is regurgitate the district’s numbers. And as I have pointed out, FCMAT didn’t even bother to get the actual special ed enrollment at CVCHS this year, which makes its estimate less reliable.

    Also, Dennler’s frustration was partially aimed at the superintendent, who apparently sent her a memo saying there was no way to fund light bulbs without making cuts elsewhere. Hansen offered to donate her stipend to pay for televising board meetings. The board should have an agendized discussion about how to pay for maintenance of technology that it purchases. Dennler has a valid point that it doesn’t make sense to buy a bunch of equipment, if you can’t afford to maintain it.

  39. g Says:

    I liked Georgio’s link to the Ill. Inspector General site. So far, I only read the 2012 report on Chicago Public Schools—and it was a hoot!

    There were instances of fraud and misappropriation, etc. that you could just about scratch out the CPS and fill in MDUSD, and cross off vague references to Staff, Principals and Officers that you could cross off and write in MDUSD names.

    Dr. J. if our state did anything even close to this, we’d be with Dorothy–back in Kansas.

  40. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#88 The COE was supposed to receive a copy of the Study Agreement — did they ? Ask FCMAT when they sent that to the COE. I agree with you that the study would have been worthwhile if it had actually considered both sides of the coin — but it didn’t. I agree with Lynne Dennler that budget money ought to end up in the classroom as a first priority. Instead it gets spent on trips to Monterey, So. Cal, and even out of state for ADMINISTRATORS. There is too much money being spent on lunches, snacks, SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS for trainings, and the like. Can’t people stop at Starbucks and bring their own coffee and donuts ? One good thing about Jerry Brown’s education funding reform, by taking away “categoricals” ALL money becomes money available for the classroom — the Board will be held responsible for all the extravagant spending. Lets also talk about cell phone stipends. Why are we subsidizing administrator’s cell phones ? Almost everyone is one an “unlimited” plan anyways. Lets not forget about Board Medical/Dental/Vision.

  41. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Yes, board medical/dental would pay for a lot of lightbulbs!

    I have already requested a copy of FCMAT correspondence to the County Superintendent regarding the agreement and final report. And I have already sent an email to Peggy Marshburn asking if they received notification about the agreement and double-checking again whether they have received the final report from FCMAT.

    You also make a good point that the district will no longer be able to claim that “categorical” money has to be spent on professional development, etc. Dennler could insist that money for snacks and coffee instead be spent on lightbulbs for Elmos. On that note, the board did not have food brought in for the retreat. Instead, staff and trustees were expected to bring their own lunches.

    Regarding the website, I have now successfully uploaded 19 video clips from the Strategic Planning portion of the Board Retreat to, along with four videos at I haven’t yet had time to listen to them all, but somewhere in that discussion you will be able to hear what Joe Estrada said. Someone who no longer works for the company created it, he said.

    Unfortunately, I have been unable to upload most of the Brown Act/PRA videos due to technical difficulties, but I will post the materials that were passed out. The attorney stuck to her PowerPoint, so you can see most of what she said just by reading that.

  42. Doctor J Says:

    The more I learn about FCMAT, the more I fear that FCMAT is being very poorly managed and has lost its “independence”.

  43. Theresa Harrington Says:

    The board could invite County CBO Bill Clarke to come and present the county fiscal analysis, then have Debi Deal present the FCMAT analysis, then invite questions from the public and the board. That would help cure and correct the secret deal struck between Whitmarsh, Mayo, the superintendent, and FCMAT. The agreement includes a “Board Presentation, to be determined, if requested.” The board should request it.

  44. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Here is Marshburn’s emailed response to my questions (which included a request for a copy of the county’s response to the FCMAT notification):

    “Dr. Ovick received notification of the study and responded that he wanted to be interviewed as part of the study. That did not occur. The County Superintendent has not received a copy of the final report from FCMAT or the district. The copy we received came from the Clayton Valley Charter high school. I will have to research the response to the notification.”

  45. Doctor J Says:

    Lets cut to the chase: Why does the district continue to subsidize administrator cellphones ? As far as a Debi Deal and Bill Clarke debate, why don’t they just share each other’s thinking and see if they can come to a consensus ?

  46. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Apparently FCMAT wasn’t interested in having a discussion with the county.

  47. Doctor J Says:

    @TH#94 Wow, the snub of Dr. Ovick by FCMAT puts a whole new face on FCMAT’s credibility, or lack thereof.

  48. Doctor J Says:

    Yikes, there is much more to this than appears on the surface. Somehow Steven Lawrence got FCMAT to ignore Dr. Ovick ? Unbelieveable — maybe that’s why there was a month between the sending of the agreement and when Steven Lawrence signed the agreement ? If so, what a conspiracy. The state should remove FCMAT from Kern County.

  49. Theresa Harrington Says:

    Maybe that’s why Lawrence didn’t want to bring the report to the board.

  50. g Says:

    Can anybody tell us exactly why Kern got that contract when FCMAT was formed, and why it has remained there as a boon to their economy, at the cost of everyone else? Doesn’t it seem like that would be an agency that should be moved around every 5 years or so?

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