Over the past three years, there has been an unprecedented number of problems in the N-MUSD – too many to list here.

Problems are not new – every district has them and every district manages them in their own way. What makes problem management at the N-MUSD different from other districts or other similarly arranged government bodies is the integrity of the people in charge.

Creating and maintaining the public trust is one of the most important duties facing anyone in government, whether you are elected or hired. Managing that trust at an appropriate level cannot be accomplished without people who understand the chain of command and who understand and appreciate the enormous responsibility they have been given.

When I ran for office in 2016, I attended a candidate meeting at district headquarters, during which the hierarchy was explained: The superintendent works for the board and the board works for voters. In the N-MUSD, that may be the case on paper, but in reality, the superintendent is in charge and whatever he says goes. And the board doesn’t really care about their boss, the public, because with rare exceptions, their re-election has been certain.

This is not speculation, it is a fact based on years of observing the district dynamics and interacting with various district employees over the years.

Though there are many local examples of this reverse accountability, the single best example of how much the tail is wagging the dog is the termination of John Caldecott back in 2015.

A short recap: Caldecott was a highly respected, dedicated N-MUSD employee who was the head of the district’s HR department when he uncovered some not-so-kosher financial dealings and raised his hand to question them. At that precise moment, he became an enemy of the superintendent, who likes to keep all of his ducks in line all the time. Question anything and you risk being transferred to the district equivalent of Siberia.

With Caldecott, the superintendent presented a case for termination to the N-MUSD trustees, who approved it unanimously without even getting Caldecott’s side of the story. Once the supt. got the OK to axe Caldecott, he notified him via text to check his e-mail.

That e-mail was Caldecott’s termination notification.

Ten years of work. People who are at a job for ten years are there for one of three reasons:

  1. They are really good at hiding out. (No joke – I have reported on a famous company with employees who have done that for years.)
  2. They know something or someone that/who protects them.
  3. They are really good at their job.

Caldecott was really good at his job. I have heard as much even from someone who was in a historically adversarial position with him.

More recently, we saw the transfer and subsequent silencing of Laura Sacks, the former principal at Mariners who was demoted and forgotten while the charade they called an investigation was underway. Sacks has since resigned, having taken the fall for the school’s Gold Ribbon application despite the fact that the superintendent’s signature was on the application as well. Has he assumed any responsibility? No. Has he offered to do the right thing and return the award? Not a chance.

There is more, but all of it points to a complete breakdown in the way the district was expected to be managed when it was established decades ago.

To be fair, this superintendent is not the first to enjoy trustee rubber stamping and complete autonomy – it has been this way for many years. But the dichotomy is amplified now because the management by this superintendent is so consistently detrimental to the morale and well-being of district operations that one can only wonder how the trustees can allow him to continue to operate in this manner.

Managing by fear is a trait of weak leaders. As a former senior VP for a national advertising firm, I developed a good relationship with the company’s CEO, but we disagreed on one key point. “I don’t care if my people love me,” he told me privately, “I want them to respect me.” Respect, for this fellow, was a euphemism for fear.

In the N-MUSD, things are the same. Retaliation, pettiness, and back-stabbing are the rule. Teachers stay in their jobs and keep their mouths shut because they love teaching and it is a small price to pay for working in a district that is safe and secure. Administrators, especially the cabinet members, keep their mouths shut for almost the same reasons: They know that these highly-compensated jobs don’t grow on trees and silence is a small price to pay for the money they make.

The trustees allow the superintendent to operate this way because they are presented with a sanitized view of everything they see: Their school visits are the proverbial dog-and-pony shows and the board meeting presentations by the supt. and the staff are scrubbed to ensure that the trustees never hear negative news. One could make the case for their rubber stamping based on their lack of knowledge of the full scope of the problems in the district.

That is not to exonerate the trustees. At the end of the day, regardless of whether they have happily deferred judgment and responsibility to the superintendent, they are accountable for everything.

Over the past few weeks, I have tried to help some taxpayers understand the nature of this bureaucracy and the challenges faced by those who seek greater accountability, transparency and fiscal responsibility. This is an entrenched organization that will make a substantive change in their modus operandi only when threatened by a lawsuit and even that, sometimes is not enough.

Over the nearly three years this blog has been in existence and over the many years I have reported district affairs via my former Daily Pilot column, nothing has changed. Many times, I write news or offer opinions only because I want the district powers-that-be to know that there is at least one person in the two cities who knows that a particular decision or action is wrong.

Nothing will change unless there are new representatives on the school board. The people we need may or may not have kids in our schools. What is most important is that the new leadership has the integrity, courage, and moral compass we lack at this time.

No experience necessary.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

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