A Shorter Summer?

There is a board meeting tonight. As usual, the agenda was posted late Friday afternoon so that you won’t have enough time to determine whether you want to go. I’ve been promoting this prime example of organizational dysfunction for years and once got the board to discuss some improvement but nothing has happened.

And nothing will.

The agenda includes a lot of contracts for various services. Most of the trustees have no clue as to exactly what these people and companies are paid to do. For them, staff approval is all that matters. Besides, it’s a lot easier to just rubber stamp stuff and go home around 9 p.m. than it is to be a fiscal watchdog on behalf of taxpayers.

Trustee Ashley Anderson is almost the only trustee who asks questions such as “Why…” and “What…”

I reviewed the check register submitted for board approval and found about $50,000 payable to a law firm. Ask the district how much they’ve spent in legal fees to date and you’re likely to get the shuffle, stall, and stymie. It’s a sensitive topic because in some cases, legal fees can be avoided through good management, such as not preventing the union president from entering the NHHS campus for a week.

But district management is in a shambles, as anyone can see from reviewing the list of blunders, which you can read here:


The list hasn’t been updated for awhile but it makes the case nonetheless. The case these days is more money for the super, whether it is a raise, the tax-deferred annuity of his choice that he gets to pick every year, or some increase in benefits.

He’s going to get more taxpayer, dough, despite the protestations of a board minority and despite the fact that the district’s CFO said not too long ago that the district is “financially stretched.”

Not only should the super not receive any more dough, his contract should undergo a drastic revision to delete all the squishy requirements of his job (“report,” “ensure” “oversee,” etc.) and replace them with actual goals… Improve academic performance by XX%, reduce hate incidents by XX%, decrease spending by XX% without affecting academic performance or employee morale, etc.

That’s how the rest of the working world operates.

Save the date. Or don’t.

The super’s latest self-inflicted mess is a message he recently sent to parents and the community regarding a change in the school calendar for 2020. It’s a do-over of the letter he sent in July. Here is what he wrote:

“The purpose of this letter is to clarify the facts sent in a communication on July 3, 2019 regarding the student start date for the 2020-21 year. As stated in the prior letter, it is anticipated the start date for students will be August 24, 2020. Newport-Mesa Unified School District (NMUSD) and the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers (NMFT) began negotiations regarding a revised teacher work calendar in March and continue to meet.

“To reiterate this was a recommended start date by the Calendar Review Committee in the winter of 2017. As you may know, the Committee was comprised of certificated and classified staff, parents, district administrators, and employee bargaining units, and recommended starting school prior to Labor Day beginning with the 2020-21 school year.  The Calendar Committee identified multiple benefits to students and families. All other unified school districts in Orange County have implemented a Collegiate Calendar.

“An overview of the student benefits with a Collegiate Calendar is attached and available online – Collegiate Calendar: Student Benefits.

“The 2020-21 calendar will be posted online when negotiations are completed and the calendar is adopted by the NMUSD Board of Education.”

Both communications are blatant attempts to manipulate public opinion in favor of the new calendar which, BTW, about 2/3 of those surveyed do not want. The best way to understand the misrepresentation of the so-called Collegiate Calendar is to watch this video featuring N-MFT president Britt Dowdy:


OBTW, the super’s letter was posted on the district’s website yesterday.

It would seem that the issue is the calendar, but it’s not. The calendar is a symptom. The problem is the district’s development and seeming appreciation of an adversarial relationship with the N-MFT. Time after time, the district negotiators have treated union leadership – and by proxy, all member teachers – as the enemy.

The task of the Task Force

Concurrent with the board mulling over more money for the super, the district’s Human Relations Task Force has been meeting to help develop a program that will create more inviting and inclusive environments on our campuses.

The real challenge is not the program development – you can do that. The challenge will be the stickiness of the program, that is, ensuring that it is in force year after year. Until that is set in stone, all the talk about making this a forever endeavor is just that – talk.

Make no mistake, the Task Force is a welcome development. But without some sort of permanent oversight, it is like steam: There is a burst of energy, then it disappears.

So, yes, there is a meeting tonight, but no, I do not expect anything other than business as usual.

Steve Smith


Nothing special

Once upon a time, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District was held in high regard throughout the state. Despite the fact that many of the district’s Costa Mesa schools were underperforming, there was still much good news.

The district was a safe place in which to work if you were a teacher and safe for kids. That is still mostly true, though it is disturbing to learn of hate incidents on campuses.

Money was not an issue. Despite several financial blunders, the district has been able to operate sufficiently. Improvements to schools have largely been due to the funding provided by two bond measures (taxes to you and me, despite the spin you’ll hear from others). Today, however, despite the fact that we are “financially stretched,” the trustees are about to give the super more money for a mediocre performance. Some administrators have recently received more compensation and the process was not as transparent as it should have been.

The other half of the district – the Newport half – was performing well, academically. While it’s still doing relatively well, it’s not what it used to be. See past posts for the new numbers of kids who did not achieve the state thresholds for math and English.

So, there is all that. What’s different is the environment. Teachers do not want to speak up for fear of retaliation, and there is an ongoing struggle to create our identity and reclaim our once-proud status. Today, we are middlin’ – that’s the best we can say:

That’s us – smack in the middle of all the school districts in the county. But you won’t see this fall from grace being addressed by the board majority or the administration because it’s bad news and they don’t like to talk about bad stuff.

Here we go again

I thought of all this as I read the news of the latest Nazi-salute in a local school. This one, captured on video, was performed by students from Pacifica High, part of the Garden Grove USD.

Here’s a link to the video: https://www.thedailybeast.com/pacifica-high-school-students-sang-nazi-song-and-gave-hitler-salute

There are a couple of things to note in the eight seconds of footage. First, I see what appears to be one student getting up and walking out during the salute. If so, good for him. Second, the guy in the far corner appears to be an adult. Can’t tell for sure, but it looks like an adult to me.

None of this is really news anymore – it goes on ALL THE TIME. I reported last May that in an interview, Trustee Karen Yelsey said “I did not know [hate incidents] was so prevalent in our schools” and “This has been happening for a long time – 25-30 years.”

That was one of the most honest and revealing statements I’d ever heard by a trustee. It revealed the fact that if Yelsey didn’t know this after being a trustee for 13 years, the information was kept from her, and possibly from her colleagues.

We only hear about these incidents when a school district can’t hide it from our view. For example, the Pacifica video was shot in November, 2018 and made available to the GGUSD last March.

So why are we hearing about it in August? Because that is the school district M.O., which is to avoid at all costs publicizing any bad news. Better to wait for it to be revealed – and hope it doesn’t – than to get out in front of any problems and keep the public informed.

We can’t blame the GGUSD or the NMUSD as that approach has worked for decades. The difference now is that some of these things are a lot tougher to hide. Back in the 90’s for example, every student was not equipped with a camera and the ability to upload footage for millions to see in just minutes.

That’s a game-changer, but transparency has never been the hallmark of the N-MUSD or most other school districts. They like to play it closet to the vest.

So, here we are, one week from the next board meeting and despite the fact that there has been a break of several weeks between meetings, there is no agenda post online – not even a draft agenda.

We’re also one week past the latest secret special meeting. That one had one item on the agenda: “Public Employee Evaluation: Title – Superintendent (Pursuant to Government Code Section 54957)”

It’s all a set-up for handing out more money to a super who does not deserve it. Not until we’re better than middlin’.

Steve Smith


The Endless Summer

I thought of this excellent movie when I learned from a friend whose wife is a teacher that her first day of school was Monday.

For the rest of us, it will seem like we are in an endless summer.

Not that the M-MUSD isn’t trying to change that. They want to start school several days earlier next year, adhering to the so-called “Collegiate Calendar,” which is supposed to be advantageous for students who are applying to colleges.

They tried to spin it as an advantage to the kids who don’t want to go to college but it’s a collection of weak arguments.

The name is a tell. Despite their feeble attempts to prove otherwise, the district is still wired on that old “everyone can/should go to college” nonsense.

So here’s what: I have a new client whose business is dependent on new and remodeled commercial projects. During my initial interview with him on Tuesday, I asked him if he was having trouble finding skilled labor. “Yes,” he replied, “and so are the other subcontractors on all our projects.”

I have been hearing this from the construction folks for about four years. One former client told me that he was so desperate for experienced roof installers that he was paying 50 percent more in wages just to get jobs completed.

The construction industry is no different than others in that it is subject to the usual laws of supply and demand. Right now, workers have the leverage – big time – and that is not going to change for the foreseeable future. Even if the number of construction jobs decreases 20%, the labor pool is still small enough for workers to demand top dollar.

How top? Before I tell you, let’s go back to my new client. The work he does not require a college degree or a high school diploma. It can be taught over time to anyone who has an eye for detail, a commitment to quality work, and a good work ethic.

For that, he is paying his crew $68 an hour.

But here we are, still sending kids subtle messages that unless you go to college, you have failed.

The district can start by changing the name of the “Collegiate” Calendar. I’m not sure what to call it – maybe they can hire a consultant to come up with a name. After all, it’s only (your) money.

More hogwash

In the current iteration of the district’s priorities, there is this bullet point:

  • Enhance and implement comprehensive communication plan

Keep that in mind as I unfold the latest double-talk…

On June 6, I reported on another of the district’s fake meetings designed to get community input, but which is really just for show. Go back among these posts for several years and you find many examples of these fake meetings.

The fake meeting in June was held at CM High to provide the public with an opportunity to tell the district what characteristics they would like to see in the new principal at Costa Mesa Middle School.

I came so close to going. Had I gone, I would have doubled the attendance:

Actual photo of the attendance at the fake meeting in June. (photo by Barry Friedland)

Yep: One parent came to the meeting.

So, what did the district muckety-mucks do in response to this debacle?

  • Did they schedule and hold another meeting? Nope.
  • Did they promote a new online survey to get the fake desired input? Nope.
  • Did they hold a meeting to pin down exactly why this effort failed and create new protocols to ensure that it doesn’t happen again? Nope.
  • Did they hold anyone accountable for this waste of resources? Nope.

What they did was choose a principal on July 26. No second attempt at another fake meeting. No additional online outreach. No nothing.

Why? Let’s say it together: Because they don’t want your input. The meetings and surveys and communication are just for show.

This blog is not going to stop the fake meetings. All it can really do is expose the fact that at least one person in the area is wise to them; to let them know that Lincoln was right: You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

But I have to acknowledge one honest thing the district did in this regard: In the new 2019-2020 version of their priorities, the communication plan bullet has been deleted.

School starts this week

School starts this week, not for students, but for teachers, many of whom are getting classes and curricula ready for the official 9/3 start. (BTW, it would be helpful if on the district home page there were this prominent but simple statement: School starts Sept. 3)

Each classroom that kids will enter on 9/3 is days and weeks in the making. It’s just one small element of the larger list of duties of a school teacher. A few days ago, I attended a meeting in which a former teacher described the typical N-MUSD school day and semester.

I had some sense of what it was like, but the description was so clear and detailed that I started to wonder why anyone would take this job.

Teaching in the N-MUSD is not a job for the faint of heart. Long before the kids arrive and long after they’re gone, teachers are prepping, responding to countless inquiries from parents and district bureaucrats, and taking care of class business such as grading papers, handling disciplinary problems, attending (too many) meetings, and more.

In return for this monumental effort, they are told by many people in America that their pensions are too expensive, that their health care program costs too much, and that they are responsible for nearly everything involving a child’s failure to maintain a decent academic performance or behavior performance in the classroom.

Couple this with the understanding that NO ONE in the current administration has their backs and you get worse than burnout, you get a firestorm. It is getting so bad in parts of America that teachers are leaving to take those $68/hour construction jobs.

Can you blame them? On that construction job, you start at 6, 7 or 8, go home at 2, 3 or 4, and leave everything on the job site: No e-mails to answer, no phone calls to return, no prepping for the next day.

Thank you, teachers.

One of the most important district priorities is not listed in the old or new version, which you can read here: http://web.nmusd.us/pf4/cms2/news_themed_display?id=1565000503339 is something related to providing support for teachers.

Much of my work involves training people in customer service protocols. I’ve been doing it a long time and I know that a successful customer service program is only as good as the support it receives from the top. The more the owners and managers are invested in the success of the program, the greater the likelihood of success.

When I meet with the staffs of these businesses, either on the phone or in-person, I often end the session with this question: “Do you have everything you need to succeed?”

The answers tell me everything I need to know about the enterprise that is paying me to improve their business. When I don’t get a “yes,” I know there is a problem in the chain of command. The sad part is that when the staff member replies “No” or “Not really,” the thing they need is usually easy to provide. Small stuff.

But they don’t speak up because they know that the bosses don’t care or they may be retaliated against so what’s the point.

Sound familiar?

Steve Smith

Party time!

Talk about taking one for the team: Tuesday night’s board meeting was four hours that those in attendance will never get back.

The fun started with the superintendent filling for Assistant/Associate/Deputy/Whatever Superintendent Kirk Bauermeister to give an update on the status of the district’s Human Relations Task Force.

Before providing the update, the super offered WAY too much information as to why Bauermeister was out. It’s nothing serious – a good thing, actually – but he could have and should have said simply that he was out on a family matter.

Ah, but why say it in seven words when you can say it in seven hundred?…

The super didn’t actually offer any Task Force update, he just introduced someone who did, who introduced other people who did.

The presenters offered the Task Force’s Phase I recommendations. That’s the only summary I will give – no details – because I am not alone in the belief that the final recommendations will be little more than the meetings and programs that are already in place at our schools. Anything new is not of tremendous substance.

The most important trustee comment of the night regarding the Task Force was spoken by Board President Charlene Metoyer, who said,

“What are our [trustees] next steps? Our next board meeting is on August 27. That’s too far. So we need to glean through this, and [decide] what can we jump on and get started right away. I know that we can’t change the entire curriculum and move everything but we also don’t want to say, ‘It’s too late, it will take too long, we can’t get it done.’ We don’t want to do that. We are anxious to get something going. And I absolutely know that all sorts fo stuff is going on in elementary schools. Let’s get it so that it seems like it’s going with a purpose and not ‘all over’ so I’m all over that. And when Mrs. [Trustee Martha] Fluor is done [with her comments] maybe you [looks at the super] can give us direction on that.”

Fluor’s first comment was a question about trying to increase student involvement. This was something that the Task Force fretted about multiple times. It was a really big issue. I guess the super did not tell the trustees, even though he could not have missed hearing it at any of the Task Force meetings he did attend.

And guess what? When Trustee Fluor was done, the super did not give the board the direction requested by Metoyer. I’m shocked!

Metoyer then juggled the public comments section around to allow the board to hear from a few folks who wanted to speak about the Task Force. A good move.

I was the third of four people who spoke regarding the Task Force. I said:

“I’m speaking only for myself, not on behalf of the Task Force. Mrs. Black, you said something that triggered a thought that I expressed at the meeting last week to the subcommittee to which I belong. I want to tell it to you now.

“I think it’s really important that we set expectations for the Task Force. We are not going to end hate on campuses. We are not going to stop hate crimes on campuses. It’s really important that we understand that and all agree that if we don’t accomplish that, we haven’t failed.

“I think the greatest accomplishment of the Task Force is going to be that once and for all, we’re letting staff, parents, students, and community members know what’s acceptable behavior, what is not and that we are not going to tolerate any longer the bad behavior.”

The superintendent should have said this a long time ago at the first meeting, but he did not. He has had multiple opportunities, but he has not. I have attended and participated in every Task Force meeting and he has not contributed anything to the Task Force.

And a side note… During the Task Force presentation, the super did something unusual – something I have never seen in my years of attending board meetings. During the presentation – while someone was at the podium talking – he summoned Assistant/Associate/Deputy/Whatever Superintendent Kurt Suhr to the dais.

Suhr walked behind the trustees and huddled with the super for a couple of minutes while they reviewed some document. Suhr then left the room for about 90 minutes before returning.

Along the way, there were many probing questions on some of the presentations and calendar items, most of them from the newest Trustees, Ashley Anderson and Michelle Barto.

Then it was party time.

The super walked down to the podium and presented a draft of District Priorities, which you can read here:


I noted and took issue with item B4 which referred to the Task Force as the “Superintendent’s Human Relations Task Force.” There was an objection to this from Trustee Anderson who offered a more broad reference and the super, looking a bit irked but recognizing a lost cause when he sees one, simply said, “That’s fine.”

I was not sure that this edit was ratified so I e-mailed the trustees a few minutes ago in support of the change.

Then! It was another bullet under B4 that provided the evening’s finest moments. The bullet reads:

Provide students with meaningful opportunities to participate in a democratic
society and engage in service to the community.

Trustee Anderson mentioned the importance to her of including the existing “democratic society” language.

The fireworks were started by Trustee Vicki Snell who objected to the inclusion of the word “democratic,” even when it is in lower case. At one point, Snell said, “I don’t think we should put that word in there.”

“That word.” Ho boy.

We’re now at four minutes of discussion on whether to use “that word” and it was one of the rare times I felt sympathy for the superintendent who seemed exasperated. I know I was, but I also found it comical: In a typical meeting, the trustees take a few seconds to approve millions of your tax dollars, but they spent several minutes discussing whether the U.S. is a democratic society.

The super tried to end the discussion by saying, “Let us work on it.”

Trustee Martha Fluor expressed her dissatisfaction with the breadth and depth of the document saying, in effect, that it was so much that the goals within it could not be accomplished.

The meeting wound up with members of the public speaking on non-agenda items.

Martie O’Meara commented on the logic behind two sections of Public Comments, one near the beginning of each meeting and one near the end and reqeusted that the section for non-agenda items be moved back to the beginning.

On her way to the podium, I asked her if she is a Democrat or a Republican. A little  levity helps now and then.

Laurie Smith – a retired N-M teacher – spoke on the delay of the super’s evaluation. She noted that the June 11 board meeting included a discussion of the evaluation but that it seems since to have been delayed and/or hidden.

Wendy Leece used an innovative approach to getting more than the allotted three minutes by starting her comments as she approached the podium Wish I’d thought of that. Leece commented on the board’s lack of transparency, particularly with regard to the super’s contract.

There is a checklist, she said, and a missed deadline of June to and the process has not been followed. All of her arguments were supported by documentation, including the announcement required by the government code.

“There are deadlines here, she said, “you missed them.”

I’m shocked.

Steve Smith


The dog days of summer

The whoosh of air you may hear tonight from around the corners of Baker and Bear Sts. is the district administration and the board majority exhaling for having made it through to another long break.

Tonight’s board meeting is the last one before they disassemble for the summer and return on August 27. Kids return to school on Sept. 3. Next year, the new Collegiate Calendar start date is Aug. 24.

So the question now is whether 20-21 school year will start without the school board being back in session. That would not be a good way to start the school year. To avoid that scenario, the board would have to meet on Aug. 11, 2020, which could encroach on the vacations for all the bureaucrats.

Too bad.

Tonight’s meeting will feature a report on the progress of the District’s Human Relations Task Force and the presentation of Phase I recommendations.

I have attended every Task Force meeting.

The board will also approve the spending of several million tax dollars to install more air conditioning at seven schools. Let’s hope there are no hiccups and that all systems are operational before kids start school in the summer heat next year.

The question really is why, after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in bond money starting almost 20 years ago, has it taken so long to complete the air conditioning installations?

Items 11a. and 13 are reports from the superintendent, the first one “informal,” and the second one just a regular report. The difference won’t matter to me because I won’t be paying attention. The super ignores many speakers when they speak, including moi, so I will ignore him when he speaks. Ignoring him is no loss – over the years, I have found very little of substance in anything he has to say.

OBTW and FWIW the Public Comments section is bookended by the superintendent reports. The informal one is just before and the formal(?) one is right after. I wonder why that is… No, I don’t really wonder. Let’s put it this way: It’s not a coincidence.

The board will approve the purchase order list, which includes another $20,000 in legal fees to one firm and another potential (up to) $200,000 for another. That’s on top of the legal fees they’ve already spent.

That’s YOUR money, folks.

The total of the purchase orders is 3,180,042.88 for which there will be little, if any discussion, even about spending $3,000 for food from Newport Rib.

I have nothing against Newport Rib. Love the food, and the Ursini family has contributed much to the community. But the food isn’t cheap and it seems to me that if Jeff Trader, the district’s financial guru, is telling the board and the administration that the district is “financially stretched,” they ought to figure out a less expensive way of catering an event. One suggestion: Sgt. Pepperoni’s in Newport Beach. Great pizza and other food (try the Bronx Bomber pizza and the Big Cookie for dessert) and it’s run by the folks who led the charge to dump Swun Math.

If we’re going to reward good community behavior, let’s spread it around.

Oh, and Trader’s “financially stretched” remark applies to raises and bonuses for all the bureaucrats, too.

Another expenditure on the agenda is $5,000 to Orange County Human Relations. They’re the folks who are leading the Task Force Workshops. This money is for implicit bias training in the district.

That training is going to cost you $1,250 an hour. Here is the bottom line from the copy of the contract buried in the agenda for tonight:

Nice work if you can get it.

Then there are the contracts with the Anti-Defamation League for “anti-bias training.” This training is a bit less, coming in at around $625 an hour.

More nice work if you can get it.

I could go on. And on. The problem is not so much these contracts, though someone should raise an eyebrow over training at $1,250 an hour, the problem is the same one the plagues the entire administration: There is no accountability. Nowhere in any of these contracts does it state any data supporting the way things are now, and there are no projections or estimates for what is supposed to happen – not even guesses.

It works like this: Let’s say that in the last school year there were a hundred reports of hate incidents or bullying or whatever you want to call them. It would be nice if taxpayers had some idea of what they are going to get for their money.

Are the incidents expected to drop as a result of the training? One would hope so. If so, how much? Five percent? Ten? Twenty? Beats me. No one knows because no one in the district has asked. The projection is less a guarantee than it is a goal. As it is, everything is squishy, as usual.

Creating well-defined, measurable goals is not in the DNA of this administration because it’s not in the DNA of the superintendent. In any project, there must be specific, achievable goals, otherwise, there is no way to know whether the program worked.

But like the super’s contract, the implicit bias training goals are not really goals, they are objectives. Squishy objectives:

Want to know what squishy looks like? It starts with words such as “define,” “understand,” “examine,” and “acquire.” See above (and sorry about the fuzziness).

Saving the best for (almost) last

Item 15.e is the latest draft of the document listing the district’s priorities for 2019-20. There are a lot of things missing, including nothing in the Community section about fostering increased communication or seeking additional input, stakeholders, robust, blah, blah, blah. The closest it comes is this: “Solicit input and build two-way communication with advisory councils for students, parents, certificated and classified employees.”

This is such gibberish that it makes the Voynich manuscript look like a recipe for meat loaf.

Solicit input. Build two-way communication (as opposed to… one-way communication???). Advisory councils – these are the committees that the district forms to make recommendations, then ultimately rejects when they don’t agree with what the administration wants to do.

But it’s this one line that really irks me. In the Behavior section, there is this bullet:

● Support the Superintendent’s Human Relations Task Force in promoting
safe, respectful and inclusive school environments.

The Superintendent’s Human Relations Task Force? Seriously? The guy was not at the last meeting. When he has shown up, he has contributed NOTHING. He’ll either sit in the back schmoozing and/or working his phone, or walk around eavesdropping on subcommittee conversations.

The Task Force may have been created with his name on it, but he does not deserve its legacy.

From day one, the super has treated the red cup video like the prom draft or the Mariners Gold Ribbon mess, or any of the many other goofs on his watch with the same three-point strategy:

  • Throw a committee at the problem
  • Ride out the storm
  • Return to business as usual

His name deserves to be associated with the work of the Task Force as much as mine deserves to be associated with sugarcoating one’s opinions.

Steve Smith

“Oh, how the mighty have fallen!”

That’s the modern version of a Biblical exclamation but it applies to the once-mighty Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

We used to be the envy of the state. Or certainly one of a few. But in just a few years, the district has been scalded by an unprecedented string of blunders, wa$te, and mismanagement… and embarrassing test scores. Horrible test scores. See for yourself how we stack up against the other districts in the county:

District Test Scores

This chart was just provided to me by a concerned local. Yeah, that highlighted district in the middle is us.

Middlin’. That’s the best we can do. And based on the lack of concern from the superintendent, that’s the best he wants to do: I have not heard a single word of concern from him this year about the fact that 40% of our students failed to meet the 2018 state standards for English and 49% failed to meet the 2018 state standards for math.

OBTW, that 49%? In 2015 it was “only” 46%.

We are going backward in math.

So where is the outrage? Where is the superintendent who is kickin’ a** and takin’ names? Where is anyone in this administration who is stepping forward with a comprehensive, strategic plan to right the ship?

Nowhere, that’s where.

It’s a lot easier to deflect and defer. So instead of meaningful discussions of why the district isn’t doing better, we get ongoing updates about air conditioning, the start of the Estancia pool construction, or the CdM High School field construction.

All good, of course, but we need more. We need a superintendent, administration, and a trustee majority who understand that while these projects are important, they are no substitute for academic performance. And if they can’t find a way to tackle both these projects and boost academic performance, they should step aside and let someone else try.

That’s the right thing to do, but that won’t happen. The bureaucrats in the administration know a good thing when they see one: A very good salary with great benefits and a job that has no measurable goals. And if the only downside is having to listen to a few disgruntled members of the public once in awhile, well, that’s a small price to pay for the nice compensation.

Tell that to our students.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering whether those 40% and 49% figures are skewed by the usual belief/excuse that Costa Mesa’s schools are dragging down the numbers, consider this sampling of scores from a couple of top Newport schools:

  • At Corona del Mar High, 28% of the students failed to meet the 2018 state standards for English and 39% failed to meet the 2018 state standards for math.
  • At Lincoln El, 34% of the students failed to meet the 2018 state standards for English and 39% failed to meet the 2018 state standards for math.

Shocking, yes? But, hey, all of this is OK because we’re still doing better than Stockton Unified and the Arvin Union School Districts.

How much farther do we have to fall before we see a plan?

Steve Smith

While you were sleeping

At the wee hour of 12:01 a.m. on May 30, Newport-Mesa Unified School District Supt. Frederick Navarro, whose contract was set to expire on June 30, was approved for another year of employment by the district trustees.

There was no public hearing, no secret meeting, and no violation of the Brown Act, which would have meant that a majority of the trustees had met in private to discuss the matter. There wasn’t even any discussion between a minority of the trustees.

The one-year extension was perfectly legal, thanks to the language included in the super’s original contract from 2012 and from an addendum signed in 2015. The amendment language reads:

7.A.8. Unilateral termination by the Board. “The Board may, at its sole option, unilaterally terminate this Agreement and the Superintendent’s employment without cause, upon giving the Superintendent thirty (30) days written notice of termination.”

So far so good: Give the super 30 days written notice and he’s gone in a month.

Unless. Unless the trustees do nothing in which case the super gets another year automatically.

Here’s the language from the 2012 contract:


        8C. In the event such notice is not given by the board to the Superintendent, the Agreement shall be automatically renewed for one additional year under the same provisions.

So, yes, it’s all perfectly legal. But it’s also all perfectly bad management and fiscally irresponsible.

Forgetting for the moment that 40% of the students in our district failed to meet the 2018 state standards for English, that 49% of them failed to meet the 2018 state standards for math, and that our once-proud district is now the object of ridicule and wonder, the decision is still astonishing.

For any enterprise, public or private, there is almost no benefit to an evergreen contract. Public officials, however, love them. That’s the opinion of Girard Miller, a columnist for Governing magazine, who wrote this way back in 2010:

“Evergreen contracts have been around for many years. School superintendents love them. In many cases, it keeps their compensation out of the public eye.

“Some city managers aspire to have them because of the volatile political world in which they live. But they have an evil underside, which the national soul-searching over the [city of] Bell scandal has revealed. It’s just too easy for complacency to set in, and for salaries to escalate on autopilot.”

Sound familiar? Actually, it sounds like he lives here in Newport-Mesa.

So those secret special meetings of the school board that have been held over the years claiming to be for the “Evaluation of the Superintendent” are not for his evaluation at all. Those are fake meetings.

The real purpose of those meetings has been to determine how much more of your money they should spend on him.

The evergreen clause in this contract is irresponsible, financially unsound, and sneaky.

In other words, it’s business as usual.


Steve Smith


“Financially Stretched”

That’s not me talking, that is the fact-based opinion of Jeff Trader, the district’s money man. Specifically, his PowerPoint slide read, “N-MUSD is Financially Stretched.”

So on top of everything else – on top of all the blunders, scandals, and wasted resources that have been the hallmark of this administration, we learned on Tuesday night that we’re also running out of money.

Oh, and enrollment is declining, too.

Oh, also, there is a charter school set to open up, which will absorb approximately $2 million revenue from this “financially stretched” district.

Oh, also, and plus, the district’s bus drivers are seething, as we learned from a few of them Tuesday night.

This administration is a train wreck, plain and simple.

The superintendent heard as much on Tuesday, but he refused to look at any of the speakers who dared to challenge his leadership.

As if all this weren’t enough, early arrivals had to stomach the presentation of the “Superintendent Character Trait Awards.”

“This is one of my favorite events of the year,” the super said, “because we get to recognize our students not so much for what they have accomplished, but what the [sic] kind of human being they are. You know, it’s about their character, it’s about their essence of being.”

Recognizing their essence of being is so important to the super that he then turned over the introductions and award presentations to district employees. He did not come down from the dais to shake the hands of the five recipients or take a photograph with them.

Next, we heard informal reports from the super and the cabinet, heard about LCAP – yikes – and heard about our dismal financial future.

Then we head from the public.

The school bus drivers took the district to task for changes in their benefits that could make health insurance unaffordable.

“We got a notice on May 10 that instead of a benefit week, we’re going to have a benefit month. We had a benefit week for 18-plus years and now they’re going to a month so most likely all of our premiums are going to rise.”

“We’re going to be paying $313.50 to $470 more a month. We have single moms with kids.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. The issue is also one of the classification of the drivers as part-time workers vs. full-time.

“We have the most sensitive job in the school district. We have 70 kids on a 40-foot bus driving around Newport Beach and … people are really aggressive.”

“I work a full-time job and I get paid part-time.”

Britt Dowdy, president of the teacher union spoke about district priorities and mentioned that while the PTA and the student representatives are part of each meeting agenda, the employee associations such as the CSEA (classifieds) and NMFT (certificated) are not, despite the fact that approximately 90% of the budget goes to their salaries and benefits.

Good point.

So how did the super respond? Did he make an attempt to build a bridge or look for some common ground on which to make progress? No, he did not. Instead, he looked down the dais at the trustees and put the blame for stalled labor negotiations squarely and solely on the back of the union.

Then the show started. Here are excerpts from the comments of the members of the public who spoke:

“You need to video the board meetings video and have them streamed on Channel 26 multiple times a week, just like the Costa Mesa City Council does.”

“You need to change your format and have us speakers at the beginning. There is no reason to wait for three hours. Put the speakers back in the front.”

“Dr. Navarro, ultimately all of this is your responsibility because you run this place. I hear you manage by fear and intimidation. Do some research and you will find that in the long run, that management style does not work. It only creates dissent, apathy, low morale, and burn out and ultimately harms our kids.

“Dr. Navarro, I would like it if you would look at me during this presentation. The last presenter got no looks.”

“Fred Navarro has been showing us who he is for a long time and tonight I would like to speak to his ethics and honesty. He has shown us that he has little of either one.”

Kids spoke on Tuesday, too, and made excellent presentations.

“Through this process, it became clear that our district leadership team is dishonest, intimidating, deliberately hides information and is not capable of leading our children’s education.”

“We have seen enough and are making the decision to move our kids out of the district.”

“Real true leaders own [their mistakes] and try to improve them and ask for input on trying to improve them and I just don’t see that here.”

“The best and worst moment of tonight was when the representative of the teachers spoke and Dr. Navroo gave bad excuses and Mrs. Metoyer said the right thing – ‘we want to work with you.’ It was the message that a leader would say and she was the leader.”

“During every speech that has been given tonight – we’ve had bus drivers, we’ve had teachers. we’ve had parents – Mr. Navarro hasn’t looked at anybody. All of you [trustees] have looked at everybody and I can only think that he’s embarrassed or he knows that he’s wrong.”

It could also be that the super didn’t pay attention to any of the speakers because he just doesn’t care. The trustees have led him to believe that his contract has been renewed for another year because they did not give him 30 days’ notice of expiration as specified in his contract so he’s probably feeling comfortable right about now.

Oh, wait, didn’t I mention that contract clause? I’m sorry. Here it is:

8C. In the event such notice is not given by the board to the Superintendent, the Agreement shall be automatically renewed for one additional year under the same provisions.

The contract expires on June 30. So with no public hearing or input – everything about as under the radar as it can get – the super’s contract is renewed.

That’s bad enough, but there is every reason to believe that in addition to this mismanagement of the contract, a majority of the trustees will eventually vote to give him more money, despite the fact that their own CFO has just told them that the district is “financially stretched.”

Can’t wait to hear the reaction from the bus drivers when they learn that their benefits will cost more and the super is getting more money.

Steve Smith

















Fireworks before the 4th

Last night’s board meeting was so eventful that it will take me some time to provide a recap.

Until then, I will provide some teaser copy for you: Multiple speakers told the trustees directly or indirectly that we need a new superintendent.

And the N-MUSD bus drivers were there presenting yet another mess on the super’s watch.

Stay tuned – More to come.

Steve Smith

We are at the spoon in the road

Old-timers like me will remember that headline as a joke used by the Johnny Carson character Art Fern to describe a place on the map where the freeway splits.

Johnny Carson as Art Fern

(Younger readers are thinking, “Johnny who???”)

There is a school board meeting tonight at 6:00. The address is 2985 Bear St. in Costa Mesa. The agenda for this meeting was posted last Friday at 1:56 p.m., not long before the legal deadline. But that’s typical. The “Board Meeting Brief,” which is supposed to give folks the key topics to be discussed, was posted yesterday.

That’s business as usual and not the focus of this post. I’m merely pointing out the late notices as an ongoing sign of this administration’s contempt for those members of the community who wish to become involved in district affairs. I’ve mentioned this disrespect to the board twice at public hearings. At one of those meetings, there was even some talk on some moves to provide more notice, but it was just that: Talk.

There are a few important items on the agenda tonight. And though it is listed in the Board Meeting Brief, the superintendent’s Character Trait Award Nominees isn’t one of them.

Don’t get me wrong: The kids are great and I’m happy they are being recognized. But for this super to be handing out awards recognizing “exceptional character leadership traits,” well…

The elephant in the room

The hottest topic in the district is not on the agenda and is probably set for the June 25 meeting.

Between now and then, the trustees must decide whether or how to amend the contract of the current super.  If future behavior is based on past performance, it’s safe to state that each trustee has already made up her mind.

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s important this time around because next year, three trustees are up for re-election and they will have to explain to voters why they chose to add a year to the super’s contract and (presumably) give him yet another raise when, for example, more district kids failed to meet the 2018 state standard for math than in 2015.

The super owns that one.

The super’s contract amendment – a rubber-stamped item every year in memory except for 2011 when Jeff Hubbard was indicted – is not just about academic performance. The district has never been as poorly managed as it has been over the past few years, which has resulted in a lot of wa$te and in low morale among teachers.

Almost a year ago, I published “The List,” which over time has become the most referenced post of the nearly 800 I have written. Rather than provide a link, I am pasting it below. The List needs more updating than I have done this morning (I need to get to work), but there is more than enough here to help new readers understand why the trustees should not add another year to the super’s contract.

I will be at the meeting tonight and I hope you will, too.

Here’s the list:


  • CdM Cheating Scandal – In the 2012-13 school year, 29-yearold tutor Timothy Lai broke into the school – through an unlocked door – and installed a keystroke-logging device on a teacher’s computer and altered grades for some students. He got a year in jail and a few students involved were expelled. The N-MUSD administrator in charge of discipline at that time was Jane Garland, who has since called the district’s handling of the case “a total farce.” No students were charged with any crimes.
  • Swun Math – A faulty math program. Years of complaints by teachers, parents, and students ignored by the district. Evidence that staff knew the program was bad but did nothing. Only after an intense campaign led by Newport Beach parent Erica Roberts did the district finally change math programs. For her efforts, Roberts did not receive a single “Thank you for bringing this to our attention” by any trustee
  • Adams Elementary Fence – Parents were told of a fencing plan that had been approved by a committee that included residents, but another fencing layout was implemented instead. When asked at a meeting why, the district representative said, “We changed our minds.”
  • Adams Elementary attendance – Parents in Mesa Verde still sending their kids elsewhere. The trustees have had ample time to improve academic performance but have failed.
  • Poor academic Performance at Westside Costa Mesa Elementary and Middle Schools. No plan. Just leave teachers to deal with the mess they inherited. Oh, and don’t ever mention it in public! 2108 statewide math test results are worse than 2105. We’re going backward here.
  • Fields – Youth sports needed more of them, but the N-MUSD administration played Scrooge with access. The needle moved a bit only after it became news and outrage became intense.
  • John Caldecott Termination – A respected 10-year member of the administration questions some financial maneuvers. Three months later he is fired via text and e-mail. No explanation, no opportunity for him to have his day in court before the school board. That’s the story of John Caldecott
  • Bus Fees – After running millions of dollars in the red for years, the Bear St. brain trust decides that it’s time to raise bus fees to twice the price.
  • Boss/Huntington Lawsuit – Two respected former N-MUSD  officials sued the school district and superintendent, alleging that he created a workplace culture of fear and intimidation that compelled them to leave their jobs after the board of education failed to investigate their claims.
  • Banning Ranch Conflict of Interest – To help survey a piece of property adjacent to Banning Ranch, the district hired the same company doing the survey work for the Banning Ranch developers. When this was exposed, the district’s reply was, “There is no legal conflict of interest.”
  • Gold Ribbon Award Application – Superintendent signed the application, which teachers are claimed had 17 “discrepancies, mischaracterizations, and dishonest statements.” Principal was allowed to resign, superintendent got a raise and a bonus. Eh, not so fast: The superintendent signed the application but has never acknowledged any responsibility. Easier to just hold a fake meeting, issue a whitewash report and throw the principal under the bus. Here’s the application doc with the super’s signature:

The Mariners Gold Ribbon application co-signed by the superintendent, who has not acknowledged any responsibility.

  • Lack of Accountability – Few are held responsible for any mistakes, particularly the superintendent. For proof see the “Estancia Three” below
  • Paying the Deputy Supt. hundreds of thousands of dollars not to retire. Yes, they did that. The new money guy, Jeff Trader, is doing a fine job, which shows that there was some very bad decision-making here. And a lot of wasted money.
  • Dump Trump T-shirts – A student wore this shirt to school. Like a deer caught in headlights, the school experts did not know what to do. First they banned them, then they didn’t.
  • Air Conditioning Rain Leaks – Caused disruption of classes for hundreds of kids in 3 schools. Did the dist4rict ever receive compensation for the mess caused by the contractor? Doubt it. Instead, tax dollars paid to have this swept under the rug.
  • Stadiums – The development of not one, but two planned stadiums has been so badly mismanaged that it is hard to find a resident anywhere around Costa Mesa or CdM High Schools who is pleased with the progress.
  • Area Lawsuit – District had to have the threat of a lawsuit to comply with a provision in the California Voting Rights Act they should have implemented on their own years before
  • Rats on Campuses – Kids and teachers demonstrating a NHHS. In response, the district bars a teacher union official from the campus for one week. Yeah, that’ll get rid of the rats.
  • #1 of the “Estancia Three” – The Pool – A new pool was planned but it was drained prior to a firm construction agreement, wrecking the aquatics programs. Worse, the budget for the pool was about $3 million to low. District refills the pool (after Trustee Karen Yelsey said it couldn’t be refilled) after overwhelming complaints and at a cost of about $100,000.
  • #2 – Estancia Poles – In order to stop foul balls from hitting nearby expensive, newly-installed solar panels, the district installs 80′ poles with netting planned, but failed to inform adjacent homeowners of the blight that was going up in their backyards. More complaints from the community and the poles are taken down at tremendous taxpayer expense. Taxpayers were told the poles would be “re-purposed” within the district, but they were sold for scrap.
  • #3 – Estancia Stink – A mystery stink plaguing a section of the campus for approximately seven years. So bad that at least one teacher could not come to work due to ill-effects.
  • Skyrocketing Legal Fees – Fighting multiple public records requests and calling in attorneys at the drop of a hat has redirected funds meant for the education of our students into the pockets of lawyers. The district has lost every legal challenge to records requests, yet they continue to fight them, Forcing parents and community members to hire lawyers.
  • Tainted Musical Instruments – A serious ick. Can’t even describe how bad it is. Read it here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2017/10/01/semen-contaminated-flutes-might-have-been-given-to-children-california-school-officials-warn/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0727dd7f0699
  • Campus Safety Delays – Once again, the community had to force the district to beef up security beyond just installing fences. And still, there is no discussion of a plan to help teachers and identify the most likely perpetrator. (Hint: The tallest fence in the world won’t keep this person off the campus.)
  • Poor Smarter Balanced Scores – No good news here. Check any school by visiting https://caaspp.cde.ca.gov/sb2017/Search
  • Fake Meetings – The trustees like to hold their “Special Meetings” on days and at times when it is difficult for members of the public to attend. Plus, the notice for most of the meetings is posted just hours before the legal deadline. Is there a pattern here? Yes, and I have spoken to the board about this multiple times to no avail. Why don’t they change? Because this is the way they want it, that’s why.
  • Fake Meetings #2- The trustees claim to want your input but their actions belie their words. After at least two high profile campaigns to get public input, the district took action that was not what taxpayers wanted.
  • Lack of Parent Participation and Communication– Too many times, parents of students in the district have been informed of changes after the fact, forcing them to demand change.
  • No Air Conditioning for Schools – It took community outrage to get the district to change the A/C timetable, despite the fact that voters approved almost half a billion dollars in bonds (which are really taxes) that should have been used for A/C a long time ago.
  • Facilities in Decrepit State –  Once again… close to half a billion dollars in bonds approved by voters, yet too many schools are in sorry states. Reports of horrible bathrooms at Ensign, classrooms with holes in the walls, and girls locker rooms in disrepair.  Rats. Where did all that bond money go?
  • Budget Oversight Committee“In accordance with section 4 above, the Oversight Committee shall meet at least quarterly to provide an Annual Report to the Board of Education.” But they haven’t. The committee has met for about half of the required time. Why? Because they don’t need no stinkin’ oversight, that’s why.

We’re at a spoon in the road.

6:00 tonight. If you come, make sure your phone is fully charged.

Steve Smith