Eh, so maybe they’re not really scandals. But they certainly are not “distractions,” which is the way one school board candidate chose last year to describe the mounting problems facing the school district. They’re somewhere in-between. “Challenges” is too little, “scandal” is too much.

I’ve chosen to call them “controversies” until I can find a better description. Regardless, the list is long and growing weekly.

There are more controversies today than at any time I can remember, and that goes back 28 years. All of them could have been averted – and should have – but breadth and depth of the problems is due to weak leadership. Unfortunately, there is no Wendy Leece or Katrina Foley – no Jiminy Cricket – on the school board to provide another perspective; someone to help the board understand that transparency is not the enemy and that honest, open communication can be beneficial to morale and improves taxpayer satisfaction.

What taxpayers have instead is leadership that is unable or unwilling to meet challenges directly and deal with them. Instead of proactivity, taxpayers get reactivity, which causes problems to fester. It has for years been the board’s M.O. to let problems fester until the public forgets about them or is distracted by something else. That is, unless the public outcry is so great that they are forced into action, which is what happened with air conditioning.

The poor leadership performance is supported these days by the strange lack of coverage of school board meetings by both the OC Register and the Daily Pilot. The meeting last week was certainly worthy of coverage, with two unions complaining loudly to the board that negotiations were not going well. (FWIW, the board doesn’t care about the negotiations. They have their negotiators do the dirty work, then approve whatever they recommend. All that talk about how much they appreciate teachers and classifieds is just that – talk. Which is really cheap, as you know.) I cannot recall the last time the Pilot printed a recap of a school board meeting, which has been good for the popularity of this blog, but it does not support open communication.

More hot air…

Last year, when the summer heated up classrooms to the point where teachers couldn’t teach, you complained loudly and often and finally, something is being done about it. (Nothing was done before because teachers were the only ones complaining, which supports my belief that the board cares far less about teacher welfare than they say. I don’t know how the Super feels about teachers because he rarely says anything of substance.)

Before too long, air conditioning will not be a problem in our classrooms.

And how about all those fans that teachers were authorized to buy last year? That’s not the first time fans have been bought to cool down classrooms, so you’re probably wondering what happened to all of the fans from the previous heat wave. You should be wondering because they’re gone. Vanished, in a scenario that would make David Copperfield proud. No explanation, no investigation, just a lot of fans paid for with your tax dollars that no one in the administration or on the board cares about. About $40,000 by my rough estimation.

And why should they? It’s only your tax dollars they’re spending, I mean, it’s not like it’s real money. Each year, there’s another batch of taxpayer dollars to play with. No one is held accountable for mismanaging funds or making bad decisions because accountability doesn’t exist. So while Wilson Elementary teacher Nancy Gonzalez is being persecuted for allegedly soliciting a few bucks from a few parents for an end-of-school party and gets suspended, no one at District HQ is being disciplined for the worst financial management since Steve Wagner embezzled about $3 million almost 20 years ago.

These days, in fact, the worse you do, the more money you make.  Case in point: Deputy Super and CBO Paul Reed quietly got a contract extension last week despite the fact that the budget is in the red and the bus transportation system you pay for has been operating millions of dollars in the red each year for years – $6 million short this fiscal year. In a few short months, Supt. Fred Navarro will get his rubber-stamped contract extension and pay raise, too, all because there isn’t a single person on the board or anywhere else who wants to speak up and tell him what he is doing wrong. The board won’t give him an honest performance evaluation, they’ll throw him a party.

To get along, go along…

But that’s how it goes at the N-MUSD. As long as you keep your mouth shut, go along with the top people and do the minimum amount of work required to get your job done, you’ll get raises, perks and promotions.

John Caldecott found this out the hard way. He had the audacity to raise his hand last year and ask questions about what he believed were improprieties in accounting. For this, he claims, he was fired last January. Now, his demand for the release of documents supporting his position is making its way through the court system, with the next round coming up soon.

“You can’t tell the controversies without a scorecard…”

Before some baseball teams put names on the backs of jerseys, that was what the program vendors at Wrigley Field and other stadiums used to say. I remember them barking that when I was at Cubs games as a boy in Chicago. Back then, people would attach a pencil to the 4-page paper scorecard and drop the whole thing down over the ivy in the outfield. Visiting outfielders were invited to autograph the scorecards between innings.

Today, you can’t tell the N-MUSD controversies without a scorecard. So, here you go. (And if you send me a pencil with a printed version of this post, I’ll be happy to sign it.)

1. John Caldecott – Caldecott is the ex-HR head at the N-MUSD. He was fired last January for his curiousity about what he claims are financial improprieties within the district. Caldecott is pressing for the supporting documentation to be revealed. The case is moving along slowly, but Caldecott has won the latest round. In the meantime, the case is costing more and more taxpayer dollars. It could have been resolved for free had the board listened to Caldecott’s side of the story last January. But the board chose not to hear Caldecott. Why? Weak leadership.

2. Underperforming schools – There are four elementary schools on Costa Mesa’s Westside that need serious help. Other than a feeble attempt to mimic a charter school proposal for dual-language teaching, very little has been done to support these schools. And I have to smile when I recall that the fake “dual language program” at two schools – which is not a program, just one class at each of two schools – was unnecessary because the charter school proposal was dropped. And now that there is no charter school threat, does anyone notice any substantial attempt – a plan – to turn these schools around? The teachers at these schools deserve better.

3. Cyber security – Timothy Lai is accused of assisting some CdM High students in a grade-changing attempt and is awaiting trial. When the grade hacking was discovered, it revealed a serious lapse of security in the district: Instead of running a software program to detect hacking, “Corona del Mar High School teachers were involved in an audit of 52,000 grades in February, Newport-Mesa Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss said Wednesday.” (Daily Pilot, 10/8/14) The hacking should never have happened. Proper cyber security should have prevented it and proper cyber security would have taken a few minutes for an audit instead having to have teachers comb through 52,000 grades.

4. Negotiations – A school board that “loves” its teachers and thinks that the way to their hearts is to remind them that they are the second-highest paid in the county, or whatever it is, blah, blah, blah. The board doesn’t get it. Teachers did not get into the profession to get rich. Money and benefits are important, but what they really want to do is teach. Yet, the board and the administration have repeatedly failed to address their concerns about too much testing, too much regulation, too much paperwork, too much fear on the job and too little respect. It’s not about the money, it’s about proving that you really do appreciate the work they do, because right now, they’re not feelin’ the love. But about the money, there is money for additional high salaried administrators, but not for teachers.

5. Bus program – $6 million in the red this year. No fee increases in about 20 years. No accountability for this debacle.

6. Overall budget – In the red.

7. Fields – Last January, in the only incident I can recall in which he actually took a position on an important issue, the Super and board pres Fluor sent a letter to Costa Mesa’s Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee, of which I was vice-chair and am now chair, complaining of the wear and tear on “school district property” and urging the committee to find a solution, which was a weak attempt to support athletic fields at Fairview Park. Two things: First, those fields are not “school district property.” They were bought and paid for by taxpayers and they belong to taxpayers. Second, Costa Mesans have declared in large numbers that they don’t want fields at Fairview. So, come up with a Plan B.

8. Common Core – OMG. Just ask teachers about this. Oh, that’s right, the district can’t ask teachers because they have created an environment in which constructive criticism is rewarded with a trip to Siberia. Kids lose again.

9. Adams Elementary – The fence residents don’t want is going to be built anyway because the district doesn’t care what the residents want. When residents asked why the plans were altered, the answer was “We changed our minds.” Nice.

10. Prom draft – Here’s a classic example of weak leadership. Instead of issuing a district-wide position on this, the Super let the principal handle it. Her response to the draft was to include the innocent in the punishment, which was to threaten to cancel the prom.

So, there’s your scorecard. More to come, I’m sure.

Steve Smith