School Board

Summary

The Grand Jury investigated the actions of the School Board based on complaints regarding possible violations of the Brown Act. Testimony and review of Board meeting tapes and actions led the Grand Jury to believe that there is some validity to the allegations.

The Grand Jury concluded that while board members have the best interest of the students and community in mind, they have often overstepped their roles. This is due to a distrust of past administrations and a lack of adequate training regarding their roles and responsibilities. The Grand Jury found one conflict of interest and several violations of board policy. Board meeting minutes are vague and do not accurately reflect Board actions.

Findings

    1. The School Board received legal counsel after it appeared that board members conducted serial meetings related to the school calendar. A public petition and this legal advice caused them to rescind their vote and reconsider the school calendar issue voted on at a January 14, 1998 board meeting.
    2. The District Attorney’s office expressed concerns about recurring complaints regarding the School Board’s conduct related to serial meeting violations of the Brown Act.
    3. Most board members stated they do not receive adequate training regarding their roles and responsibilities.
    4. A board member participated in a decision to purchase airline tickets from a travel agency. The board member is an employee of the travel agency.
    5. There has been a lack of trust between board members and the administrative staff.
    6. Board members perform functions normally assigned to administrative staff.
    7. Board policies have not been revised for many years.
    8. Board members do not perform an annual board self-evaluation as required by the bylaws.
    9. Important school documents are missing or are unavailable for review.
    10. Board meeting agendas contain numerous references to page numbers in the board packet. Only one copy of this document is available for the public at Board meetings.
    11. Board minutes do not accurately reflect the Board’s actions.
    12. Board members approve payment after checks are issued.

Conclusions

  1. Lack of training for new board members creates confusion regarding their roles, responsibilities, and Brown Act requirements.
  2. Participating in a decision to use a travel agency where the board member is an employee constitutes a conflict of interest.
  3. The Board’s lack of trust in administrative staff caused board members to perform administrative functions. This is a violation of board policy.
  4. Board policies and bylaws are out of date and need revision.
  5. Failure of the Board to perform an annual self-evaluation is a violation of the Board bylaws.
  6. Due to incomplete records, necessary data is not available when needed. This can result in a duplication of effort.
  7. The public does not have sufficient access to the board packet at board meetings.
  8. Board minutes are incomplete, cryptic, and difficult to read. This adds to the public’s feeling of distrust and frustration.
  9. The practice of approving checks after they are issued does not allow board members to prevent payment of questionable items.

Recommendations

    1. Revise Board Bylaws to include a policy to require on-site training on the Brown Act and the Board’s roles and responsibilities for incoming board members.
    2. Require board members to review and abide by conflict of interest laws.
    3. Establish clear authorities and responsibilities in writing for the superintendent to carry out board policies. Hold him accountable as the Chief Executive Officer of the Board.
    4. Update board policies and bylaws. The board policy should be a living document, continually updated and revised to reflect current laws and circumstances. Give priority to revising these areas:
    1. Perform annual board self-evaluations as prescribed in the bylaws.
    2. In agendas, include a brief, concise, and understandable description of each issue and the available options the board may use.
    3. Prepare board minutes that are readable and understandable by the public. Make minutes comprehensive and accurately reflect the Board actions.
    4. Approve all expenditures before the checks are issued.
    5. Explore methods to improve communications between the Board and citizens.

Comment Requirements

The Grand Jury requests that School Superintendent respond within 60 days and the School Board respond within 90 days from the official filing date of this report as required by Penal Code 933(c).

Authority to Investigate

Penal Code Section 933.5 authorizes the Grand Jury to review the operation of any special district. As required by Penal Code Section 916, at least twelve Grand Jurors voted to investigate complaints regarding the School Board.

Method of Review

Members of the Grand Jury conducted interviews with the following people:

Additionally, members of the Grand Jury reviewed:

Background

Upon receiving complaints alleging serial meetings by the School Board, the Grand Jury conducted an investigation. The Grand Jury learned that the Board was forced to rescind an action because the action violated the Brown Act. The issue involved the 1998/99-school calendar.

The District Attorney’s Office stated that for many years it has received numerous complaints of Brown Act violations. The District Attorney’s Office has written to past School Boards advising them of this, but results were short lived.

During the selection of a superintendent, the School Board traveled to southern California. The Board decided, without a formal vote, to purchase airline tickets from a travel agency where one of the board members is an employee.

Although board policy encourages board members to attend training workshops, new board members are not required to participate in any school board training. Incoming board members often do not get the opportunity to attend. According to the bylaws, board members and the Superintendent give advice to new board members on their roles and responsibilities. This does not always occur.

Bylaw 9400 states that the Board will annually participate in a self-evaluation and develop goals and objectives against which the board will be evaluated. An important part of the evaluation includes suggestions for continued board member development. Interviews with board members revealed that they are not currently performing this evaluation.

Board policies have not been revised for several years. The Board is currently in the process of purchasing new software to assist them with updating and revising policies.

Records are poorly kept. Some documents requested by the Grand Jury were unavailable. The Grand Jury received testimony that a previous legal opinion provided to the district was also unavailable.

Fiscal practices are a source of concern for the Grand Jury. Board members approve checks at board meetings as consent agenda items after the checks have already been issued. It is more difficult to get money back after spending it than it is to prevent payment in the first place.

The Grand Jury reviewed minutes of all board meetings held during its term. On many occasions it was necessary to refer to the tapes of the meetings as the minutes did not always accurately reflect Board actions. Agendas refer to page numbers in Board packets that board members have. The only access the public has at the meetings is a single copy at the back of the boardroom. Public members the Grand Jury interviewed expressed concern about this lack of readily available information.

This lack of information gives the public the impression that board members decide issues outside the Board meeting or has no interest in the public’s input. This creates distrust between citizens and the School Board. It detracts from the important issues facing the school district.

Supplementary Information

The Brown Act, Open Meetings for Local Legislative Bodies (Attorney General’s Office, Public Inquiry Unit, 1994)

The Brown Act, 1997 Supplement, California Attorney General’s Office, State of California, 1997