School trustees call themselves into question with reprimand

October 5, 2009 

In the midst of a lively campaign season, two Modesto City Schools board members issue a public rebuking of a fellow trustee who happens to be up for election.

Does such an action appear politically motivated? Of course it does, especially the timing, a week before vote-by-mail ballots go out and months after they've known about the e-mail exchanges they're complaining about.

Besides timing, we have several concerns about the letter that Steven Grenbeaux and Kim Spina sent to Cindy Marks and made public last week:

The Brown Act: This item was never listed on a board agenda, but Grenbeaux acknowledges there were several conversations involving at least four board members, raising the question of whether this violated -- at the very least in spirit -- the Brown Act, the state law to ensure that the public's business is done in public. Serial conversations, whether in person or by e-mail, can constitute a Brown Act violation.

Standing: Grenbeaux and Spina signed the letter as board president and vice president, their current roles. But these positions are rotated among the seven trustees and mostly involve presiding over meetings and establishing meeting agendas. There's no state law or formal board policy giving the person holding the president's gavel any standing to reprimand another trustee.

When asked about his authority to rebuke a colleague, Grenbeaux consulted the district's contract attorney and the attorney cited the board handbook. "As the governance spokesperson, the board president has the duty to enforce the board's policies relating to board member conduct. This duty includes the inherent authority to advise a board member when he or she may have violated a board adopted protocol or principle."

It appears to us that at least some board members have become obsessed with these protocols, which are simply guidelines in a handbook that the board agreed to early in Arturo Flores' tenure to ease his transition into the job as superintendent.

These protocols are discouraging the full and healthy discussions that need to take place -- and that citizens want from their elected officials.

At a school board meeting two weeks ago, Flores suggested Marks was breaking that protocol when she questioned his recommendation to divide the budget duties between two directors rather than to have a single chief budget officer. Marks was doing what board members are elected to do -- asking questions and looking out for the best interests of the district.

If Grenbeaux, Spina and Gary Lopez wanted an official action -- whether a reprimand or a censure -- it should have been discussed and voted on by the full board. But it wasn't.

Expense: Grenbeaux relied on the district's attorney, who is paid by the hour, in drafting the almost three-page letter to Marks. This expense was not authorized by the board; this raises questions about appropriateness and wisdom.

Substance: In their rebuff letter, Grenbeaux and Spina cite three e-mail exchanges between Marks and former Deputy Superintendent Debbe Bailey, which they say were "disconcerting" or "inappropriate." These e-mails became public as a result of an investigation that followed Bailey being put on leave last spring. The letter does not acknowledge that many of the exchanges between Marks and Bailey were questions about budget, specifically expenditures.

The letter also complains that Marks spoke to The Bee about Bailey being put on leave, in their minds "violating" the principle that the president speaks for the entire board. While it may be important for the board to issue common statements on some matters, such as property purchases or union negotiations, we think it's absurd -- and frightening -- to think that board members won't have their own opinions and the freedom to voice them.

Nine articulate people are running for four seats on the Modesto school board, including four incumbents. We would expect lively debate among them. We also would not be surprised if one or more of the three board members who are not up for election makes an individual endorsement.

But this letter to Marks, at this time, appears political and demonstrates to the public that there are serious issues in the leadership of Modesto City Schools.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service