Questions raised after ex-Turlock school district trustee takes job with district

For more than five years, Barney Gordon served as one of the Turlock Unified School District’s seven elected trustees, but he soon will be working for the very district he once oversaw. The development has raised questions of whether the district and Gordon acted ethically.

Gordon resigned as trustee April 16, and 12 days later applied for the job of assistant superintendent of business services. Trustees voted 6-0 on May 21 to hire him. He starts July 1 at an annual salary of $179,143.

Public officials have a duty not only to follow the law and conduct themselves in an ethical manner but to put the public’s interest above theirs and avoid any behavior that appears to be improper so they can keep the public’s trust and confidence.

Gordon acknowledges his transition from elected official to district employee is not typical, but he and the district say it was done in a legal, transparent and ethical manner.

Gordon is director of information systems for the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District and has worked for California State University, Stanislaus, and Modesto City Schools. The Turlock district says that he was the most qualified of the 15 applicants and that two independent, five-person panels rated him as their top choice.

“It’s an unusual pathway to being hired into the position,” Gordon said in a phone interview. “That’s why I wanted to make sure everything was done in the most ethical way.”

But that did not stop an anonymous letter, purportedly written by school district employees and teachers, from being sent out in May claiming the district violated state law governing conflicts of interest and similar matters. It also says the district and Gordon acted in a manner that at the very least creates the appearance of impropriety.

The letter suggests Mike Trainor, the current assistant superintendent for business services, may have been forced out of his job.

“This is highly inappropriate to hire Mr. Gordon for a position within the very District that he formerly represented,” according to the letter. The letter writers said they could not use their names because they feared retaliation from the district. “... This move calls into question the ethics of the Superintendent, Mr. Gordon and leadership at TUSD.”

The letter calls for Gordon to step down so the school district can avoid this “black eye” and to prevent a former school board member “from profiting from his time as an elected official.”

The district says Trainor, who has been assistant superintendent for business services since 2011 and has been with the school district since 1993, told Superintendent Dana Trevethan in February of his interest in returning to teaching in the next school year. He officially made his request to the district and school board in March.

“Mr. Trainor was not demoted nor was his decision ... forced upon him by the (school) Board or Administration,” according to a public statement read at the school board’s May 21 meeting when it hired Gordon.

Trainor is paid $179,143 as an assistant superintendent and will make $105,552 as a teacher. He did not respond to requests for comment made by email and with his office and the school district.

The assistant superintendent for business services oversees transportation, maintenance and operations, child nutrition, contracts, facilities planning and construction, and informational systems for a school district with about 14,000 students.

When asked about Gordon’s qualifications, David Lattig — the Turlock district’s head of human resources — wrote in an email: “Mr. Gordon’s experiences in education include district office and post-secondary assignments. His roles in IT served to support a variety of other departments including transportation and food service.

“He has extensive work in negotiating contracts with outside vendors and contractors. ... The position has also evolved over the past decade into a non-instructional related role due to an increased focus on technology and safety. Mr. Gordon is currently finishing his contract as a district level administrator in another school district.”

Gordon said once he learned the assistant superintendent job would become vacant, he spoke with the superintendent in March about his interest in the job.

He said that was done so if he did apply, it would be done in a way that was aboveboard. He said the district consulted with its legal counsel to ensure everything was done correctly, which included his resigning from the board before applying for the job. Gordon said he was given no special consideration or treatment.

“I believe that TUSD acted with integrity, honesty, and transparency in the entire hiring process of Barney Gordon,” school board President Lori Carlson said in an email. “With continuous participation from our legal counsel, TUSD sought to be above reproach in all aspects of the posting, interviewing, and hiring for the position.”

Gordon has been with the Mountain View-Los Altos school district since November 2015. He made $194,212 at the Bay Area district in 2017, according to the website Transparent California, which tracks public employee compensation.

He said his current job includes a commute of more than 100 miles each way, though he stays in the Bay Area a few nights a week. He said the plan was for his wife to move to the Bay Area after their daughter graduated from high school this year, but rising Bay Area housing prices made that a less attractive option.

“I had no intention of taking a job back in Turlock,” Gordon said. “It’s not what I was striving for, but when the opportunity presented itself, it was something I wanted to compete for. I like my job out here.”

But even as the district, Gordon and board President Carlson say his hiring was done the right way, there still is the issue of public perception.

“We can’t control the public’s perception or opinion of our actions,” Carlson wrote in her email, ”but I am confident that Mr. Gordon’s excellent performance after his start date on July 1 will prove the 10-person interview panel recommended the best candidate for the job.“

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.