Modesto City Schools Trustee Cindy Marks earned a rebuke from her colleagues this week because of the content of her messages to former Deputy Superintendent Debbe Bailey, not necessarily for breaking school board practices that govern how elected officials interact with public employees.
Several trustees said Friday that they are free to contact school officials without Superintendent Arturo Flores' permission despite a district protocol that requires them to communicate through him.
That protocol was the centerpiece of the reprimand Marks received Wednesday from board President Steve Grenbeaux and Vice President Kim Spina. Trustee Gary Lopez wanted an even tougher letter and had asked Grenbeaux about censuring Marks.
Trustees now stress that Marks overstepped her bounds when she exchanged e-mails with Bailey that appeared intended to subvert Flores.
For example, Bailey sent an e-mail in January saying: "I can make a recommendation for two management cuts -- Arturo and Daisy (Lee, an associate superintendent of curriculum). We wouldn't miss them workload-wise and not having their unrealistic means of doing business would put us well ahead."
Marks responded by writing, "You made me smile at your last comment about A and D."
Marks is up for re-election next month and said this week that the reprimand was an attempt to "manipulate the election process." Trustees Nancy Cline, Steve Collins and Belinda Rolicheck also are up for re-election in a nine-way race for four seats.
Marks said she's being attacked for disagreeing with other board members and voicing concerns about the district's finances and operations.
Rolicheck said Marks "crossed the line with some of her communications, with the content of some of the things. She didn't put a stop to it when she should have."
Rolicheck and Collins said Friday that they didn't know about the letter to Marks before this week, but agreed with making the statement.
"I think it was the proper thing to have done," said Collins, adding that he feels Marks violated her role as a trustee.
Trustees said Marks should have cut off conversations such as the one she had with Bailey in January. Trustees bought out Bailey's $165,000-a-year contract in July after they determined Flores and Bailey did not trust each other and could no longer work together.
The disagreement over how much contact school board members can or should have with school employees is a common debate across the state. Members of city councils and school boards generally communicate only with executives and attorneys, not employees.
Two pictures painted
Though Marks and Trustee Nancy Cline said their communication with staff has been restricted over the past year, other trustees paint a different picture, saying they communicate directly with district employees. Rolicheck said she sometimes e-mails employees with questions and copies Flores on the correspondence.
"I think everybody should do their homework and I think we all do it in different ways," she said.
Funneling communication through a superintendent is common, and often is taught by universities and support groups such as the California School Boards Association.
"It's about efficiency vs. openness," said Douglas Johnson, a local- government expert from Glen- dale who advised Modesto on its ballot measures that shifted City Council elections from citywide votes to district elections.
He said conflicts such as the one involving Marks and other trustees are symptoms of larger issues, such as the apparent disagreement over Flores' performance.
Lynn Beck, dean of the Univer- sity of the Pacific's Benerd School of Education, said it can be difficult for elected trustees to represent the public interest if they must go through the superintendent with questions and concerns.
Speaking in general terms, Beck said it's a good idea to keep the superintendent in the loop.
"There's nothing wrong with going to employees, but you run the risk of not getting the full picture," she said. "Trustees are elected, that's certainly their prerogative."
But she noted the importance of asking questions and staying informed so trustees don't get a one-sided "glossy picture" from a superintendent.
Modesto trustees said they hope to move on and work together, especially as they confront tough topics such as budget cuts.
Pacific's Beck said her chief concern is how distracting these issues are for board members and district staff.
"I feel saddened that the issues with adults can become so rancorous that the best interests of children get lost altogether," she said.
The board meets Monday at 6 p.m. in the district office boardroom, 425 Locust St.