Here’s What

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

But wait, there’s more!

Just got a notice that the Mesa Verde Community, Inc., has scheduled its next meeting for – wait for it – Wednesday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m.

That’s the night that the CMMS principal meeting is being held and the night that the CM edition of the trustee boundary meeting is being held. So if you are a parent, concerned taxpayer, or particularly a taxpayer who lives in Mesa Verde, you’re going to miss two important meetings.

Maybe we can get all these groups together to do everything in one meeting. We can call it something like  the “Costa Mesa Efficiency Meeting.”

Nah.Too logical.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Rewriting History

The district wants your input on something else besides determining the characteristics you’d like to see in a new principal at Costa Mesa Middle School.

(What happened to the ex-principal? There is nothing on the district website – no fluff about a promotion or retirement or moving on to something else.)

The district is also going through the motions to pretend as though they want your input on the new district boundaries they’re considering. The announcement on the website reads, “As part of the adjustment of trustee area boundaries, the District will conduct two initial public hearings to review trustee area boundaries and receive public input. Upon receiving and considering from the two public hearings, the Board of Education will have two additional public hearings prior to adoption of the seven new trustee area boundaries.”


The real problem is the rationale for spending $100K of your tax dollars on the boundary redrawing in the first place. The district wants you to know that, “Due to the extensive population growth on the east side of the district, the superintendent convened a committee to review trustee areas.”

Eh, not exactly. The district wouldn’t be thinking about new boundaries or voting by area representation had they not been threatened with an expensive lawsuit. So I’m not buying the population shift excuse and I don’t believe a lot of other people are, either.

Why didn’t the district come clean? What harm would it have been to tell the truth and say that in order to stave off a lawsuit that could cost a lot of money, the district is making substantial changes in the way the trustees are elected?

To you and me, that’s the right thing to do. It’s straightforward and it’s honest. Instead, the district defaulted to their usual response, which is that everything is great and we’re actually making these historic changes because we’re nice people who are truly concerned about our district and the way it’s represented.

Apparently, that concern stops at the border of Costa Mesa. If you live in the city and particularly if you have a student attending Costa Mesa Middle School, you’re getting the un-royal treatment on Wednesday. That’s the day when you are invited to offer your thoughts on the characteristics you’d like to see in a new principal but, unfortunately, if you attend that meeting, you’ll have to miss the meeting to offer your input on area representation. According to the district’s website, the area meeting starts at 6:30 at Rea. According to the CM Middle School site, the principal meeting starts at 6. So if you’re a CMMS parent or an interested taxpayer, your only option to attend both meetings is to go to the principal meeting on Wednesday, then fight rush hour traffic to attend the area meeting the next night in CdM. That’s two nights in a row away from your family at the dinner/homework hour.

Why are these meetings held at just about the same time? There are two quick answers:

  1. They just plain ol’ screwed up. It was an honest mistake because two different people or groups were scheduling the meetings and did not bother to coordinate. It happens.
  2. The schedule was set to overlap on purpose.

Those are the only two reasons that come to mind but regardless of why it happened, it should be fixed today. But it won’t, because neither of these meetings will provide the district with any take-aways that will cause them to do anything different from what they already have in mind.

Maybe the real meeting we need is community input on the characteristics we’d like to see in our trustees.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Here We Go Again

In another attempt to make taxpayers believe that their opinion matters, the N-MUSD is hosting another community forum to receive “input regarding the qualities and attributes they would like to see in their next [Costa Mesa Middle School] principal.”


The forum is at the school’s library on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 6:00 p.m. According to the school’s website, the district “encourage[s] you to attend the meeting at Costa Mesa Middle School; however, if you are unable to attend you may provide the input online at:

They also want you to know that “The Community Forum and Online Input will be used in the selection process to identify the best candidate to fill the position of Intermediate School Principal.  We look forward to receiving your input/suggestions.”

Eh, no they don’t, not really. As I’ve written previously, these community forums are all for show. The district doesn’t really look forward to receiving your input/suggestions and doesn’t really care what you think. One case in point is the hiring of Estancia’s principal. The district pretended to want to know your thoughts there, too, but before you had a chance to say “independent thinker,” they made up their own minds without your help, thank you very much.

At Costa Mesa Middle School, they will hire someone who will toe the district line and who will make sure that everyone else on the staff does, too.

The larger point is that the community is not in a position to offer input because beyond the basics, we have very little understanding of what is necessary to be a middle school principal. At the community forum, attendees will say they want the same qualities they’ve said they want at every other community forum: Someone who is hard-working, fair, honest, experienced, listens to parents and teachers, and wants what’s best for the students.

Done. No forum needed.

Nevertheless, they’ll be there with their pens and paper taking notes and acting interested in what the attendees have to say. Oh, and you may even get to put stickers on a flip chart! Fun!

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

A Question

I received this comment today:

“In the last 2 posts, you refer to the Mariners principal as “being thrown under the bus.” If she was innocent of the charges against her (as the district’s investigation found), then why was she demoted by that same district? If she is guilty of fraud (as the staff of the school assert) then why isn’t the disciplinary action appropriate (although in the “real world” she would have been fired instead of simply moved to another location)?

“The superintendent’s eschewal of culpability does not exonerate the principle – the one who initiated, researched, assembled, submitted, and signed her name to the document in question. How is she being thrown under the bus?”

All good question and comments. Here goes: First, she was demoted and sent to Siberia before there was any evidence of a willful intent to deceive or, in fact, any confirmed evidence of any errors at all. That is what the investigation was supposed to show.

Second, the concept of throwing someone under the bus means that one person – typically – takes the fall for another person or a group of people. The person being thrown may be guilty or innocent – doesn’t matter. What matters is that the other people who were involved are not punished. In this case, the superintendent signed the document. At the very least, he needs to acknowledge that he should have done a better job of confirming the information in the application before he signed it. Without his admission of responsibility, she is perceived as the only person who did anything wrong. She is not.

She is being thrown under the bus because to date, she is the only person employed by the district who has suffered any consequences from this mess. She is being thrown under the bus because neither her boss/her direct report nor the superintendent chose to issue a syllable in her defense when this incident occurred. Contrast that to at least two school board club members who spoke out publicly in defense of ex-Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard during his trial five years ago. Both proclaimed his innocence long before a verdict had been reached. (He was found guilty.)

She is being thrown under the bus because the superintendent is more concerned about his reputation and legacy than he is about doing the right thing. What he doesn’t realize is that there are many people in the district who know what he has done and instead of protecting his reputation, he has damaged it.

This is not an isolated incident. Since he has been in charge, the superintendent has failed to take responsibility for ANY of the many problems the district has experienced on his watch. He should be admitting, for example, his key role in adopting Swun Math and telling us that he chose the wrong program.

I hope that helps. Thanks for writing.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD



A Must Read

There is a new Daily Pilot column by Patrice Apodaca that perfectly sums up the frustration a growing number of people are feeling with the N-MUSD. In it, Apodaca covers the Swun Math mistake  and the Gold Ribbon mess, about which she writes, “Citing employee confidentiality, the district released no details – not one –about the investigation findings. There was no apology, no admission that mistakes were made, no promises to submit future award applications to greater scrutiny and no statements about improving ethics training. Conversely, there was no expression of confidence in the accuracy of the original award application.”

That’s really the heart of the matter: It was bad enough that the Gold Ribbon debacle happened in the first place, but the refusal of the district to take even a morsel of ownership or reveal plans to prevent future faulty applications is unbearable. This one stops at the desk of the superintendent: He signed the Gold Ribbon application and he owes the school and the district an apology.

Don’t hold your breath.

Here’s the link to the column:

For anyone who is not at all familiar with the school board club’s rubber-stamping, Apodaca’s column expertly sums up the arrogance and waste that has plagued taxpayers for far too long.

In a district with a $262 million budget that is supported by nearly half a billion dollars in bond money, it should be running itself, but it doesn’t. Instead, it has lurched from controversy to controversy, problem to problem, all because it lacks someone at the helm with the appropriate experience and temperament to stop problems before they happen.

Really, what it comes down to is abiding by the reply that Chicago Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon gave early in last year’s baseball season when he was asked what the team’s game plan would be for the next few months. Maddon said, “Try not to suck.”

Perhaps thanks are due to the superintendent and the school board club because their arrogance and business-as-usual behavior has awakened a new and growing group of people who are fed up.

The superintendent will never apologize and the board will not hold anyone else accountable, save for the one person they’ve thrown under the bus. What I’d like to see now is a signed declaration from the Mariners’ teachers that they would like to return the Gold Ribbon Award to the state.

That would be the proper example to set for the students at the school and restore the credibility that the district isn’t even aware it has lost.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD


One Wonders

One wonders how a school board can rate the performance of its superintendent as “excellent” when the preceding three years have been filled with missteps, poor judgment, scapegoating, and bad management.

The latest example is the application by Mariners Elementary School for the state’s Gold Ribbon status.

The N-MUSD wants you to believe that it was a lone person responsible for what the N-MFT referred to as “untruths and inaccuracies.” This was the predictable response and the shortest path to sweeping this mess under the nearest available rug.

Unfortunately, the truth has gotten in the way. Even if we accept their claim that one person – the school’s principal – completed the application, the reality is that it was approved by the superintendent: His signature appears on the document. Further, a three-person team from the Orange County Department of Education came to the school to verify certain information, which they did, and gave the application their OK.

What happened after that is a disgrace. The principal was removed from the school and demoted, forced to live out her time until the dragged out “independent investigation” was completed. I’m guessing that she probably knew, as did the district, that the investigation was a fait accompli; that it would support evidence of errors, in whole or part, and provide information to support the responsibility of the principal – directly or indirectly – while failing to mention the role of the superintendent.

So let’s assume. Let’s assume that the purpose of the investigation was to report only the facts and not report what should have been done instead or not report any responsibility by any person involved.

Fine. But even with that assumption, the ultimate responsibility still falls squarely on the superintendent – in this case not only because he is the district’s head guy and the buck stops at his desk, but also because he put his John Hancock on the application. By signing it he blessed it and with that comes credit if it works and culpability if it does not.

When the news broke of the possible “untruths and inaccuracies,” the superintendent had a choice: He could either admit his prominent role in the application process – the high road – or he could ignore it and hope no one notices his signature – the low road.

Unfortunately, he chose to hide. Over the next nine months while the investigation was in progress, the principal was left twisting in the wind, perhaps knowing that others shared the responsibility but unwilling to say anything without risking damage to her career.

It’s not too late for the superintendent to admit his complicity, but he won’t. Past behavior is the best predictor of future performance and if he has not admitted responsibility for other problems, he certainly won’t do it this time.

For some in the district, his poor leadership example should be a wake-up call. Those in a position to speak for the district on any subject now know that they will not have the support of the superintendent should any issue go south. It’s better to know now that your boss doesn’t have your back than to find out after the bullets start flying. But like the school principal, they won’t learn this lesson. They will believe that they are an exception and that the principal’s fate will never be their own.

My guess is that if polled, the teachers at Mariners would vote to return the Gold Ribbon Award. I believe this because I believe in the integrity of the teachers in the district. But no such poll will be conducted because the district is trying to make this scandal disappear as soon as possible.

Besides, returning the award would mean tarnishing the reputation of the superintendent and put a blemish on the school board club, which has just given him high marks and more of your money.

As they hoped, the Gold Ribbon scandal is about to disappear. But as with so many similar incidents since this superintendent has taken the helm, it is important to let the school board club know that there is at least one person in the district who knows that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD


What a Difference

The N-MUSD Board of Trustees and I disagree on what makes a good leader. They have rated the superintendent’s performance as “excellent,” when I would have rated it “poor.”

The list of the various problems have faced under this superintendent includes but is not limited to:

CdM cheating scandal – Taxpayers still have not been told what measures, if any, have been taken to prevent a reoccurrence.

Prom draft – When this national news story broke, the superintendent let subordinates do the talking. That’s not what a strong leader does.

Estancia poles – First there are no poles, then there are, then there aren’t. And it all started with the poor decision to place solar panels in an area known to be a magnet for baseballs hit from the adjacent field. Who paid the price? Not the superintendent – he hasn’t said a word. Once again, taxpayers paid for this blunder.

“Dump Trump” – Caught in a potential free speech confrontation, the district told a student to change his t-shirt, then decided it was OK to wear. No word from the superintendent, who let the school principal take the heat on this one.

Bloated bureaucracy – He hired them, you’re paying for them. In the meantime, the district will cry poor in the upcoming negotiations for additional teacher compensation.

Rats in 2 schools – The district has a budget of approximately $262 million dollars and is further supported by nearly half a billion in bonds, yet, at least two schools have had major rat infestations, one so bad that the OC Health Dept. closed a portion of one school.

Intoxicated kids at football game – What has been done? Where is the super’s take on this one? Good luck with that…

Lawsuits – One is by two respected former employees who are claiming the equivalent of a hostile work environment.

Low employee morale – This is due in part to the leadership at the top. When the top person in any organization consistently refuses to watch the backs of his or her staff, the result it an “every man for himself” approach to work.

Swun math – Despite what will be attempts by the district to claim ownership of the end of Swun math, it is due to a core of tenacious parents and teachers. The super should have either never allowed it in classrooms or stopped it once the complaints started rolling in, which was not longer after the program was introduced.

And though this is a partial list, there is one standout…

The Mariners Gold Ribbon application debacle is a perfect example of poor district leadership. The approach this time was to stall, stifle, and stymie, then throw someone under the bus. The real truth of the matter is that this entire mess is the responsibility of the superintendent.

When you review this list, plus a few more entries, one trait emerges loudly and clearly:
The superintendent is either unable or unwilling to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong on his watch. That’s not what good, strong leaders do.

We don’t have a good, strong leader, yet, despite being in charge of the most problem-ridden era of any N-MUSD super I have seen, he was just given a merit bonus of $26K in a tax-deferred annuity and will get a raise after today’s special meeting starting at 4:30 at Bear St.

Nice work if you can get it.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD




Speak Up

As you may recall, there was a special session of the board last Friday at 9 a.m. The announcement of this meeting was posted on the district’s website at 8:22 a.m., just 38 minutes before the deadline.

I was the only member of the public at the meeting and I asked the board one question:

“What was the date and time that this meeting was first recommended?”

I was told that it had been discussed weeks prior.

What followed was a reminder to them that even though there may have been a perfectly good reason for not posting a notice of the meeting until the last minute, the perception is that the board was trying to sneak one by the public.

There was a brief discussion about how to provide more notice, even if only on a preliminary basis and I was told that an effort would be made to provide more notice in some way and I believe that it will.

Friday’s meeting was about the superintendent’s review. I did not spend a moment discussing whether the superintendent deserved more money because they’d already rated his performance as “exceptional” in order to give him a $26K tax-deferred annuity as a merit raise.

That portion of the meeting was over after our exchange and everyone left to go next door where they would hear from others what a great job the superintendent is doing.

FWIW, the notice of tomorrow’s study session was posted last Friday at 4:21 p.m. Granted, a study session on an EIR is not the same as a superintendent review, but we should be pleased that sufficient notice was given.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

Sneaky is as Sneaky Does

Yesterday at 8:22 a.m., the N-MUSD posted a notice of a special meeting at 9 a.m. today – 38 minutes before the deadline for notifying the public.

There is only one item on today’s special session:

7.a. Public Employee Evaluation: Title – Superintendent (Pursuant to Government Code Section 54957)

Yes, that’s correct: Days after they awarded him a tax-sheltered annuity of about $26,000, the school board club is preparing to lavish him with more of your money. They have to: They just rated his performance as “exceptional” in order to give him the maximum merit raise category that resulted in the annuity.

Good timing, too. The district is entering negotiations with the teacher union and the superintendent’s increased compensation will prove to the rank and file that there is plenty of money to spread around.

Calling this “special” meeting on such an important topic with 24 hours notice is a calculated attempt to prevent the public from presenting any comments for the record that may reflect badly on the superintendent. I know because hastily arranged announcements by the board has been standard operating procedure for years.

Really, now… Is there anyone out there who believes that this meeting was a sudden brainstorm at 7 a.m. or so yesterday morning?

It’s disrespectful to taxpayers and sneaky and the trustees should be ashamed of themselves.

But I gave up any hope of that a long time ago.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD