A Fresno County grand jury report published Wednesday lambastes three Selma Unified School District trustees who voted to oust former superintendent Mark Sutton, saying the trustees acted outside the board’s authority on numerous occasions.
But the grand jury left the door open regarding the original allegation against the board: whether the trustees violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires government agencies to conduct the public’s business in open meetings, in ousting Sutton. Without access to personal email accounts and phone records, jurors could not determine whether the trustees discussed Sutton’s dismissal outside the board room.
The grand jury received its complaint after the superintendent was fired on a 3-2 vote during a special meeting in February 2015. Board members made the decision after two hours of community comments mostly expressing satisfaction with Sutton.
Members of the public subsequently petitioned for a recall election against the three trustees who voted for the superintendent’s removal: John Lorona, then the board president, Gilbert Lopez and Roger Orosco. They were recalled in a November election.
The grand jury investigation sought to answer whether the trustees followed standard policy, discussed their voting intentions with other trustees or considered the financial ramifications before deciding to release Sutton.
We don’t anticipate any problems moving forward – we’re already on track to implement the recommendations.
Selma Unified Superintendent Tanya Fisher
The grand jury found that the Board of Trustees did not communicate clear goals to the superintendent and that the board’s then-president, identified in the grand jury report as Trustee A, met privately with the superintendent five days before his dismissal.
The unresolved conclusion to the initial investigation did not prohibit the grand jury from critiquing the actions of the three trustees – particularly Trustee A.
Trustee A, and in certain cases board members identified as trustees B and E:
- Issued disciplinary directives to administrators that were unauthorized by the board and sometimes based on false rumors.
- Violated board policy that defines specific roles and authority of trustees.
- Shared information regarding the personal activities of district staff and administrators, especially in the months leading up to the recall election.
- Violated district policies regarding campus visits and ignored procedures that ensure student safety – despite declaring students’ safety a top priority.
- Created a fear of being fired among staff and administration.
- Trustee A engaged in disrespectful behavior, verbal abuse, poor communication and lack of collegiality toward fellow trustees, staff and administration.
The grand jury recommended adequate training in the Brown Act and standard policies and procedures regarding campus visitation, complaints and requests. It also recommended that trustees be issued secured email addresses for conducting district business and secured district email accounts for public access.
As long as we can adhere to our handbook and make sure we’re always keeping with what’s best for students, I think we’re going to be OK.
Jennifer Winter, Selma Unified board president
Most importantly, it recommended the superintendent remind the trustees and the board president of their responsibility to act as a collective, collaborative and collegial body – not as individuals.
“The findings gave us a clear direction for where things need to be fixed,” said board president Jennifer Winter. “The report supports a mandate for a clear understanding of the role of the board. As a board, we don’t have individual authority.”
Winter said the board created a new governance handbook that specifically addressed the grand jury’s findings prior to its publication.
In a press release Wednesday, Selma Unified said that with the appointment of Tanya Fisher as superintendent and the election of a new board, many of the grand jury recommendations are already being addressed. For example, the board, superintendent and staff members have participated in workshops and training on the Brown Act.
Fisher said the report was helpful for reiterating her role, along with that of the Board of Trustees. She’s optimistic about her future as Selma’s superintendent and her relationship with the board.
“We’re adjusting,” Fisher said. “We don’t anticipate any problems moving forward – we’re already on track to implement the recommendations.”
Winter added there are always challenges anytime there is a change in leadership or education, such as Selma Unified is experiencing now. But she believes these challenges are surmountable.
“As long as we can adhere to our handbook and make sure we’re always keeping with what’s best for students, I think we’re going to be OK.”