October 2, 2009

Modesto City Schools Trustees rebuff colleague

A Modesto City Schools trustee running for re-election is in hot water with some of her colleagues for communicating directly with district employees, a violation of the board's policy.

A Modesto City Schools trustee running for re-election is in hot water with some of her colleagues for communicating directly with district employees, a violation of the board's policy.

That offense could be lost on voters who expect school board members to reach out to district staff, but some officials view the act as detrimental to the board's operations.

Board President Steve Grenbeaux and Vice President Kim Spina sent a letter to Trustee Cindy Marks on Wednesday in which they accuse her of vio- lating the board's Governance Team Handbook, which requires that any communication from board members to staff funnel through Superintendent Arturo Flores.

The letter states Marks has engaged in practices detrimental to the "board's effectiveness" and "public confidence" by asking questions directly of district staff.

In the letter, Grenbeaux and Spina state that if Marks' behavior continues, they will ask the full board for a vote to censure — a formal reprimand — and remove Marks from committees, school assignments and possibly her role as a representative to the California School Boards Association.

It's the first time in recent history that a Modesto City Schools trustee was rebuffed by other trustees.

Marks was still digesting the letter Thursday, but said she doesn't believe Grenbeaux and Spina have the authority to deliver such a reprimand.

"This is rehashing old, already- decided issues and I think it is politi- cally motivated," she said referring to the hotly contested upcoming election to fill four of the board's seven seats, including hers. "This letter contains half-truths and false allegations. They are trying to silence me for disagreeing with them and this is an attempt by two individuals to manipulate the election process."

Much of Grenbeaux and Spina's objections appear to focus on Mark's working relationship with former Deputy Superintendent of business Debbe Bailey. Bailey's contract was bought out in July after officials discovered inflammatory e-mails Bailey sent regarding Flores, and e-mails between Bailey and the teachers union.

The letter cites meetings and e-mail exchanges between Marks and Bailey as inappropriate, unprofessional and disconcerting.

"We feel (Marks) knew about, condoned and encouraged" activities by Bailey and then-superintendent secretary Pat Nan to undermine Flores, Grenbeaux said.

Some trustees think Marks is part of a conspiracy to oust Flores and others think she should be investigated by the county grand jury, Grenbeaux said.

The group of community members and district employees working against Flores is referred to as the "stealth group" by some trustees, Grenbeaux said. The group's goal is to discredit Flores, get him fired, then bring back former Superintendent Jim Enochs to "save the district," Grenbeaux said.

Conspiracy denied by Marks

Marks denied there was any conspiracy, noting that she's supported two of Flores' major changes — developing the district's strategic plan and reorganizing the district office into three learning communities overseen by separate associate superintendents.

The district's lawyer wrote the Marks letter after Trustee Gary Lopez asked Grenbeaux about censuring Marks.

"The board was not pleased when we got the e-mail strings (between Marks and Bailey)," Grenbeaux said. "(Marks) was apologetic, but not very contrite."

When the e-mails were made public, Marks told The Bee she didn't think she did anything wrong.

But trustees also point to Marks' refusal to adhere to protocols she initiated. The rules state trustees should direct questions or concerns to Flores, not district staff.

Trustees also are supposed to defer some public statements to the board president, instead of speaking on their own.

"Why would she ask to establish protocols if she had no intent to follow them?" Lopez said. "For myself, there's a time and a place for disagreements and there's a time and a place to have those discussions. ... This is a chronic issue with her."

Trustees Marks and Nancy Cline, who also is running for re-election, say communication between trustees and staff has been stifled within the last year. They, and other school board candidates and community members, argue that trustees are elected officials who should be allowed to ask questions and talk to the public without notifying the superintendent, whom they employ.

Marks said she didn't initiate the protocols, but that she asked to bring in a consultant to help the board work better together. She does not agree with some of the policies suggested during meetings with the consultant.

"I feel board members should be accessible to all district employees. The superintendent won't allow employees to contact board members," Marks said. "Our duty as a board is to research and oversee the district."

Flores wants communication funneled through him to make sure accurate information gets to board members. Directly contacting employees puts them in an awkward position of choosing to answer trustee questions or to continue with that day's work, he said.

"I'm interested in consistency of message and consistency of information," Flores said.

Despite the strain among board members, Flores said, he and Marks have continued to work together.

"I have a professional relationship with her as I do with all of the board members," he said.

Marks most recently stepped outside of protocol at a board meeting two weeks ago, trustees said, by asking questions of Flores without tipping him off beforehand. She didn't agree with Flores' proposal to reorganize part of the business office.

Communication has become a campaign topic, as challengers promise more transparency and open dialogue if they are elected. Marks is running for re-election to a fourth term on the board, and questions the timing of the letter.

If he wanted to embarrass Marks during election season, Grenbeaux said, he would have made the warning letter part of a board meeting to add more spectacle to the issue. The timing was more a product of finding enough time to focus on how to handle the situation and write the letter, he said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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