EDUCATION MATTERS: School board emails reveal underlying discord
I had a bad feeling the moment I read the note saying my emails were ready to be picked up.
Picked up? I was expecting a few emails to be transmitted to me electronically, having been quite specific about what I was after in order to avoid an over-enthusiastic and unrestrained use of attorney time and money to fulfill a simple request.
My curiosity to see the emails stemmed from the letter sent out to the public by Del Mar Union School District trustee Comischell Rodriguez on April 26, in which she referred to improper behavior by fellow board members as a major reason for resigning as board president. Her allegations sounded quite serious, and alarming.
Knowing that DMUSD Superintendent Jim Peabody had been asked by his board to investigate some of these disturbing charges, I had hoped simply to piggyback upon his own efforts to uncover the facts. Hence, my request to Peabody on May 1 was to see the emails sent between March 28 and April 26 having to do with the issues raised in Rodriguez’s resignation letter.
“This is just an informal request, not a Public Records Act request,” my note to Peabody read. “I’m hoping you are planning to do this anyway, as part of making public the results of your investigation into this affair. I’d just like to add my name to the people who would like to see these emails.”
See sidebar: The 236 pages
I said I was interested in the emails pertaining to his contract, “specifically between Katherine White, perhaps you, Comischell Rodriguez, and any other board members if it relates to the group that was working on your contract.”
After discussing the matter in some detail with White and Rodriguez, the source of Rodriguez’s discontent appeared to stem primarily from the work the two trustees were doing to prepare the new superintendent’s contract.
Did White assume the role of board president without proper authority, as Rodriguez seems to claim? Or did Rodriguez suddenly and unexpectedly beg off from participating in the contract preparation, leaving White in the lurch to find a substitute committee member to assist in finalizing the contract?
The back-and-forth emails would tell the story, I assumed. But what I got, despite my quite specific request, was more than 200 pages of emails, only 16 pages of which peripherally addressed the issue at hand.
I expressed my dismay in a May 16 email to Peabody, writing, in part, the following:
Although there is certainly plenty of material here — 236 single-sided pages, to be exact — none of the contents specifically addresses what I was after.
I was making an informal request … for information related to the charges Ms. Rodriguez raised in her April 26 resignation letter when she wrote that “certain members have taken it upon themselves to sign official documents without authorization” and that “these same board member(s) meet with legal counsel without authorization.”
I tried to be as specific as possible, not wanting to waste district time and resources on communications unrelated to the issue at hand.
If there is fault here, it does not rest with you, as you were diligent in requesting the data I sought.
I would still like to review those specific emails that I’d requested, but please, no more large stacks of single-sided papers that have nothing to do with the issue. Electronic transmission of the material would be my strong preference.
So where were the emails? Why were the relevant ones missing? I called White and asked her if there had been any emails regarding the contract subcommittee originally composed of her and Rodriguez.
White gave me 15 different dates and times when emails directly related to this matter were sent — emails she insisted she had given to the district as part of the request. The attorney who reviewed the material, Daniel Shinoff of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, apologized and vowed to search more thoroughly.
At this point, I became alarmed once more. What had happened to the emails? And how much more time would it take to find them?
“I have concerns about the time and money being spent by the district on this,” I wrote on May 17 to Shinoff. “I had thought it would be a fairly simple exercise, which is why I tried to be precise about what I was looking for.
“Although I’m interested in uncovering how the relevant events transpired and whether the serious charges leveled at the board [by Rodriguez] can be substantiated, I’m also a taxpayer in the district and therefore very much appreciate your cost control efforts.”
The heart of the matter
It would seem that requests for public documents, whether formal or informal, are subject to interpretation, and full disclosure is clearly an imperfect science. Although I still have the lingering sense that not all the emails have been made available (for instance, emails from several trustees appear to be completely missing), some of the ones that pertain to the issue have at last been uncovered and released.
There are 12, beginning with a request on April 15 to White and Rodriguez from Jeanne Blumenfeld, an attorney with Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, to set a time when the three could meet to work on the Peabody contract.
In the next five emails, the three women discuss mutually convenient dates and times to meet. It gets more interesting with email #7, when the civil tone begins to deteriorate after Rodriguez has to bow out for personal reasons and White tries to find a replacement.
The emails, beginning with the seventh, are printed here, edited for brevity, with greetings, signatures and non-relevant banter omitted. Blumenfeld is abbreviated JB, White is KW, Rodriguez is CR and Shinoff is DS.
To: JB, KW
Sent: Sun., April 18, 12:32 p.m.
I cannot do Tuesday until 2 p.m. or later. Actually, if things go south [for family illness], I may not be here at all this week, but traveling back east. I have copied Dan on this mail in hopes that he and you can find another board member to work with Katherine. The entire board will need to preview and approve, of course.
To: JB, CR
Sent: Mon., April 19, 10:14 a.m.
Since Steven is kind of who takes over when Comischell can’t run the meeting, let’s see if he can step in.
To: KW, JB
Sent: Mon., April 19, 11:52 a.m.
Katherine – I already asked Doug.
To: CR, JB, Steven McDowell, Doug Perkins
Sent: Mon., April 19, 3:33 p.m.
Everyone – we are trying to find a time where Jeanne, Katherine and either Steven or Doug can meet to work on the draft of Jim’s contract. Steven, Dan and I asked you, and Doug, Comischell asked you to join since Comischell is not available this week.
Please respond to this e-mail with availability and interest. I’m willing to work with whoever can meet this week. At this point maybe we best look at Wed morning – would that work for you Jeanne – I can do 10-12. I can also do early Tuesday morning – 9 or 9:30 – 11. I can offer my home … or we can meet somewhere else.
To: KW, JB, Steven McDowell, Doug Perkins
Sent: Mon., April 19, 5:02 p.m.
What are you doing!?
To: CR, JB, Steven McDowell, Doug Perkins
Sent: Mon., April 19, 7:49 p.m.
Getting a second board member to help with the contract – trying to set up a meeting.
Lack of communication
Things seemed to be going fine until Rodriguez needed to excuse herself for family matters and White then tried to replace her and set up the meeting.
Under amiable circumstances, the tension could easily have been relieved with simple face-to-face conversation. Communicating by email can often result in misunderstandings.
But given the history of mistrust and suspicion already simmering, what White may have done in innocence could easily be misinterpreted by Rodriguez as overstepping her authority and maneuvering to, in effect, run the show. A contentious atmosphere – and the recent divisions over the firing of former superintendent Sharon McClain — likely contributed to an uneasy wariness among board members.
In an email dated April 17, Rodriguez wrote to Peabody about needing to leave town to tend to an ill family member, saying, “My concern now is regarding your contract — as I was supposed to work on this with Katherine. She told me that she and Jeanne met while I was gone on spring break to draft one, and Katherine also did your letter of intent. This was a total self-appointment, but nevertheless it was done so we must move forward.”
Rodriguez then wrote that she wished to find another board member to serve with White on the contract issue and asked his advice on how best to proceed.
When I asked White about signing the letter of intent, she said other board members were either out of town or unavailable, and the letter needed to be signed immediately to let Peabody assume his duties. Since White was serving as one of two board members working on the Peabody contract (Rodriguez being the other one), she felt it was her responsibility to sign the letter, White said.
In an email to Peabody sent April 26 on her resignation as board president, Rodriguez wrote, “My desire to serve the district is as strong as ever and my focus will now clearly be on the children and not on getting Katherine and [trustee] Annette’s [Easton] permission or approval for every item.”
In an email sent April 26 to fellow board members regarding her resignation as board president, Rodriguez said she felt isolated, complained about other trustees speaking with legal counsel and signing documents that the president should be signing, and objected that “the emails to the entire board have been completely out of hand.”
“I fully intend to do my job as a member of the board and will continue to speak my mind freely,” she wrote. “The difference is that I will not have to field exhausting nit-picking emails, agenda complaints and the manipulation of situations. This will be someone else’s job now.”
The situation Rodriguez describes is clearly an accumulation of frustrations that would be difficult to substantiate through a review of public documents. And it is likely that accused board members would have a different perspective on the matter. Nevertheless, Rodriguez clearly felt marginalized and — regardless of what the facts are — it is hard to argue with how one perceives a situation.
Regarding the charges in Rodriguez’s April 26 letter, that she felt isolated and excluded, the evidence from the 236 pages of emails is unconvincing. Almost every one was either sent to Rodriguez or copied her. She seemed completely in the loop, at least during this one-month period.
This leads to another objection of hers: that board members are nit-picky. But trustees, if they are acting responsibly, will copy the board president on communications to make sure he or she is aware of questions and concerns. That goes with the job. The definition of what is out of hand and what is not is likely a subjective interpretation.
Being besieged with details while simultaneously feeling isolated is a curious, and somewhat contradictory, grievance.
However, in Rodriguez’s defense, a board president may by necessity be overly involved in tedious minutiae while feeling excluded from issues of greater import, given the prohibition against discussions, even of a casual nature, with other trustees. Coupled with her responsibilities as school board spokesperson, this can be unnerving, especially when events are happening quickly and personal matters demand immediate attention.
When minor misunderstandings are overlaid with pre-existing mistrust of motives and skepticism of intentions, as these emails reveal, it’s not difficult to see how frustration can build and tensions can escalate.
Peabody said this week that he has concluded his investigation into Rodriguez’s charges and will provide a report at the first board meeting in June. His report will be of great interest, no doubt. But more eagerly anticipated is his steady hand and calming presence, and the cessation of internal hostilities.
- EDUCATION MATTERS: The 236 pages
- EDUCATION MATTERS: More turbulence in little Del Mar
- Rodriguez resigns as president of Del Mar school board
- EDUCATION MATTERS: An interview with the attorney
- McClain asks board to make promised changes to contract
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