EDUCATION MATTERS: More turbulence in little Del Mar
Just when people were starting to feel like the Del Mar Union School District could begin to move forward after months of turmoil leading up to the recent firing of former superintendent Sharon McClain, board president Comischell Rodriguez dropped a bomb.
“Today I have informed the superintendent and board that I am resigning from the office of president of the Board of Trustees of the Del Mar Union School District,” her press release dated April 26 begins.
That simple sentence could have been enough, but Rodriguez didn’t stop there. She continued, in her statement, to level some very serious allegations against her colleagues, some that implied a violation of the Brown Act, among other transgressions.
“I’m not alleging Brown Act violations,” Rodriguez made clear this week. “I’m not alleging secret backroom meetings at all.”
But there are other charges that clearly perturbed her and made her feel marginalized by fellow board members. “I stand by my statement that says I felt isolated,” she said.
Rodriguez first complained in her press release that support for her as president of the board has been withdrawn, with the implication — as indicated by her use of the phrase “for the past few weeks” — that this has happened since the vote was taken on March 31 to fire McClain, an action that passed over her lone objection.
“For the past few weeks,” the full sentence reads, “I have been isolated by the majority of the board to the extent that certain members have taken it upon themselves to sign official documents without authorization.”
Furthermore, she said that “these same board member(s) meet with legal counsel without authorization.”
She goes on to say that “attempts have been made to exclude me from closed session conversations,” and she references “behind-the-scenes email conversations and demands.”
Responding to these statements by email, trustee Annette Easton said, “I have not signed any official documents. I am not aware of documents that have been signed.” And she said this, regarding meeting with legal counsel: “I do not know what she is talking about.”
“I didn’t know what she meant by unauthorized signing of ‘official documents’ nor ‘exclusion from closed session’ and am unclear about what ‘behind the scenes demands’ she references,” said a surprised trustee Doug Perkins in an email.
Trustee Steven McDowell wrote to say, “Until I have spoken to Comischell, I don’t feel it would be appropriate” to comment on the press release.
A dispute over timing
Trustee Katherine White, who responded to questions in a telephone interview, was able to give some hint about the possible cause of Rodriguez’s decision to resign as board president.
“I’m sure she’s talking about me when she says taking over the role of the board presidency,” White said. “It’s because I tried to get another member to fill her spot when she couldn’t do it.”
The issue concerns the contract for interim superintendent Jim Peabody. White and Rodriguez had agreed to work together on the contract for Peabody, whose first day at the district was to be April 1, a Thursday. The following week was spring break, when Rodriguez was away on vacation.
“I thought we were going to be doing it together,” White said. “I didn’t know she was going [away]. We hired him on the first. Then everybody went out of town.”
White claims that Rodriguez told White to find someone else to replace her because she was away on vacation and then needed to be gone after that for a personal family matter.
“She was supposed to work on that with me, and she’s the one who said she couldn’t do it,” White said.
White said Rodriguez wanted Perkins to replace her. “But Doug wouldn’t do it, so Steven came in because Doug couldn’t meet on any of the days,” White said.
White said she did sign a letter of intent for Peabody to begin work, but did it legitimately in Rodriguez’s absence. “That was one page that went through the terms that we all agreed on and that allowed him to start working,” White said.
White said she and McDowell met with attorney Jeanne Blumenfeld during this time but that the meeting was about Peabody’s contract. “It was not without authorization,” White said. “We were definitely authorized to do that by the board.”
Rodriguez disagreed with White’s recollection of the timing, saying White was “dancing around some facts.”
“We met very quickly at the end right before spring break,” Rodriguez said. “And it was decided that we would have a committee of two — it would be Katherine and me. It was determined that … I was going to be a part of it as president because that was supposed to be important.”
She said it was agreed that they would begin after spring break.
“I got home after spring break and found out that there had been work already started — not even started but basically done,” Rodriguez said. “I did not know that it was going to happen when I was gone.”
Rodriguez emphasized that she did not want to portray the issue as a dispute between two people, saying there was more going on than this one example. But it’s clear that this was specifically referenced in her resignation letter.
She said while she was away, she checked in with the district regularly, “because there were some items that I was still being asked to do while I was gone. Not at any time at all during that time was I informed that there was work being done in my absence.”
Rodriguez said she did eventually send an email to White telling her she was unable to participate in the contract work any longer, but that it was not sent until two weeks later, after she had discovered that work had already been done on the contract without her knowledge.
“It was almost like I was a formality to be on that committee,” she said. “It was spring break and then the following week went by and it was the third week [when] I said [to] meet without me.”
The subcommittee proceeded without her and the letter of intent was signed before she told them she was off the subcommittee, she said, disagreeing with White’s recollection of the timeline.
At the last school board meeting, White asked Peabody to investigate Rodriguez’s claims and to release redacted emails “where Comischell resigns from the contract subcommittee and where she requests we find another member to take her place as she will probably be out of town due to an illness in her family.”
Peabody said he is in the process of investigating the matter and will release details as soon as he has completed his work.
“I can’t conjecture on what will be included in the report when it’s done because I haven’t even started it yet,” Peabody said last Friday. “I will report it to the board — they’re the ones that asked me to do it. So it will probably become a matter of public record. As soon as I can get a handle on it, I’ll be forthright.”
Rodriguez said she fully supports Peabody’s investigation, which will include this and other concerns raised by Rodriguez, including her alleged exclusion from closed session conversations and behind-the-scenes emails.
White disagreed that Rodriguez had been excluded from closed session conversations, expressing bewilderment.
“Go look through all of our minutes,” White said. “You can see when our meetings started, when our meetings ended, and who was at them. She was at every single second of closed session. I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
Easton seemed equally confused, saying, “Ms. Rodriguez has participated in all closed session conversations. I am not aware of any attempts to exclude her.”
All board members, except McDowell who did not respond to requests for a comment, expressed disappointment over Rodriguez’s decision to step down.
“I’m sorry she did it,” White said. “I nominated her and I stand by my nomination. I believe that she can do the job. But I’ll support her if she decides she can’t do this any more, and I’ll support her if she decides to continue.”
“I was perplexed and disappointed,” said Easton in an email statement. “From my perspective, while not always agreeing on decisions, the entire board was working well together.” She said the resignation announcement “only serves to further polarize and politicize a community in need of reconciliation.”
“My reaction to her resignation is I’m saddened, as I still believe, as I did in December, that Comischell has some unique leadership capabilities to help DMUSD navigate through these difficult times,” said Perkins. “I wish she’d reconsider and complete her office until it’s up in December.”
Despite differences, all trustees agreed that the focus needs to return to the students and district business. Time to move on, was the common refrain. But will this community let them?
- EDUCATION MATTERS: Can we withhold judgment?
- EDUCATION MATTERS: An interview with the attorney
- DMUSD board expected to vote Wednesday to release Superintendent McClain
- Rodriguez resigns as president of Del Mar school board
- Del Mar school board votes to release Superintendent McClain
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