City school board must get involved

The Modesto City Schools board will meet in a special closed session Wednesday to review the performance of Superintendent Arturo Flores and his two deputies -- and apparently to determine the status of Deputy Superintendent Debbe Bailey, who is on paid leave for unspecified reasons.

Trustees need to get the Bailey situation resolved -- now. It is bad for morale to have an issue like this festering for weeks, especially when employees already are anxious about their futures due to the fiscal crisis.

Furthermore, at the same time it faces cutting millions more from its budget, the district has been paying a top administrator not to work for the past month. That is just plain stupid.

Flores put Bailey on leave with no warning and no hint of the reason. The move came as a surprise, since Bailey, a 23-year Modesto City Schools employee, has overseen district finances for nine years and deserves at least some of the credit for the district's strong record of financial stability.

It seems unlikely that she suddenly became incompetent, and there is no suggestion of illegal acts. Thus, if this abrupt action was only about a personality conflict, and-or a perceived lack of loyalty to Flores, then it was an expensive -- and questionable -- call indeed. Bailey makes $165,000 a year, which works out to almost $14,000 for the month she was off work. And she is or was expected to retire in June 2010.

Since hiring him almost two years ago, the board has given Flores great latitude in reshaping the administration to his own style, a move that was appropriate given that this was his first superintendency and that he followed the long- tenured Jim Enochs.

But we're troubled that some of the seven trustees have become so hands-off with Flores that they are not attuned to what is happening and-or not speaking up when they have concerns about Flores and the directions he is going.

It's not unusual for top executives in any environment to want all information funneled through them. But when this becomes the prevailing practice in a public agency, as appears to be the case with Flores, elected officials are likely to lose touch with constituents and staff concerns. Still, even when board members are legally constrained from revealing details of a personnel matter, they can listen to staff and constituents, which often provides perspective on what is working and what isn't.

Board members should not micromanage -- we can't stress that enough -- but neither should they be so isolated that they lose sense of what is going on in the organization they were elected to guide -- and for which they are accountable. And everyone should remember that superintendents, city managers and other top executives always work for the elected boards -- not the other way around.

While we're troubled by the Bailey situation, we're even more concerned that she might not be the last capable Modesto school official to be forced out or aside without due cause.

In these challenging times especially, school districts and other public agencies cannot afford to lose top performers. And they certainly can't afford to pay them for not working.

The board needs to find out exactly what is going on and take the appropriate action.

Wednesday's board meeting begins at 4:30 p.m. in the boardroom, 425 Locust St., Modesto.

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