MY State of the Union Address

Around the same time that President Trump was presenting his state of the union address, I was speaking to the school board club. This is what I said, after a few words commending the district’s Student Services Dept. for the work they do:

“I’m here tonight  to follow-up to my comments from two weeks ago. At that time, I tried to point you in a particular direction but I failed. So tonight, I will be more clear and direct and will make some specific recommendations.

“Tonight, hopefully, you will be approving a pool budget of 9 million dollars, two million dollars over the original budget.

“So what happened? Poor project management, that’s what happened. But you know that. Between all of the staff in the administration, plus the superintendent, plus the consultants, no one determined at the outset months ago that the equality in the aquatics center that you now seek would cost 9 million dollars. As a result, you wound up with an additional $100,000 expense, a wrecked aquatics program, an irate community, and the tragic waste of tens of thousands of gallons of a precious resource.

“Mrs. Yelsey, you said at the special meeting of Jan. 11 that you would like somebody to take responsibility for this. Well, so would taxpayers and so would the aquatics teams, who, by the way, are still waiting for a formal public apology.

“Mrs. Yelsey, trustees, I am going to try to save you the time and trouble of an investigation and let you know that the superintendent is responsible, just as he is responsible for everything that happens on his watch. As an example of this, just a few hours ago, the head of Hawaii’s Emergency Management Association [sic] just resigned, even though he was not the one who actually pushed the button causing the missile alert.

“The buck stops with him. But you will never hear him accept the full weight of his position and that brings me to the real problem in the administration you oversee.

“There is a crisis in leadership. There is an atmosphere of fear and retaliation and that is, in part, why it takes so long to hear about problems such as the math program and the pool. No one dare speak up for fear of being sent to Siberia. Laura Boss and Ann Huntington tried to tell you this.

“In an attempt to end on a productive note, I will leave you with the following recommendations, based on work I have conducted in my career:

  1. Conduct a privacy-protected survey of all district employees, without any involvement by the superintendent.
  2. Start conducting privacy-protected exit interviews with every district employee who leaves and do so without any member of the administration present or only those required by law.
  3. Stop asking people to sign non-disparagement agreements – different than a non-disclosure agreement. If anyone has anything negative to say, you should encourage them to speak up, not reward or intimidate them for being silent.

“Until you do any or all of these, the district’s employees will suffer, taxpayers will suffer, and, ultimately, your collective reputation will suffer.

“Thank you.”

After the public comments section, there was more discussion about the lack of Wi-Fi (another mess) and more excuses for the lack of videos that are ADA-compliant. Probably need to hire a few consultants to figure this out, too.

The superintendent chose to respond to my remarks, without mentioning me by name. He said, approximately, that sometimes the members of the community are uniformed, or words to that effect, and even said he would love to meet – or like or be pleased to meet – with members of the community who have ideas or concerns about our schools.

During his remarks, he completely avoided acknowledging that I provided three proven recommendations last night, none of which will be implemented.

I’m happy to meet with the superintendent. But I’m tired of being the one taking the first step. He has my e-mail address and knows how to reach me.

For any trustee who wants to take a moment to reflect on my comments and those of the super’s – I mean REALLY reflect – they may find these thoughts and questions useful as prompts:

  1. Steve has a lengthy track record of reaching out to trustees and staff and meeting with them to try to improve things.
  2. Steve has a has offered multiple times to help improve district programs – and to do so at no cost to the district.
  3. What would cause a respected member of his community to speak out like this?
  4. Why do we hear so little bad news from teachers or classifieds? Is it really because everything is going so well? Or is there some merit in the lawsuit filed by Laura and Ann?
  5. These problems that Steve keeps bringing up – the baseball poles, the pool, the math program, John Caldecott, the Area lawsuit, the Mariners Gold Ribbon application, the ADA/closed caption mess, and many more – Are these just typical problems that come with running a school district, or are they evidence of mismanagement?
  6. Is it true that the superintendent has never taken ownership of any of these problems? Should the superintendent take responsibility for these?
  7. How do I determine whether Steve is right or the superintendent is right or whether the truth is somewhere in the middle?

My expectations for last night were low and realistic. I have no hope whatsoever that anything will change until there are new trustees. I am as sure of that as I am that the fake investigation into the pool mess will be just that – fake, with no real changes to anything about the process or accountability.

This is not a matter of personalities; of liking or not liking the superintendent. I don’t know him and can’t say one way or the other. No, this is strictly a matter of management.

If you need just one easy example of how far this administration has drifted, just note that neither the superintendent, nor any trustee has offered a formal public apology to the student-athletes on Estancia’s aquatic sports teams.

They won’t because they can’t – it’s a blind spot. It would mean inviting the coaches and athletes to the next school board club meeting – and not doing it in any other forum! – and saying, “I am sorry for the hardships you have had to endure because the pool was drained. Our intentions were good, but that doesn’t lessen your burden, I know. I just want you to know that we appreciate your patience and your hard work and know that when we are done, the school – and you – will be rewarded with an aquatics center that will make everyone proud and will make these tough times a distant memory.” 

Is that really so hard to say? It would not be hard for me and it would not be hard for anyone who understands what it means to provide true leadership.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD





School Board Club Meeting Tonight

Tonight’s compact agenda includes the allocation of another $2 million for the Estancia pool to do what should have been done in the first place.

The addiction to consultants continues. This time around, there’s money being spent to, “…develop an understanding of the shifts in mathematics, assessments and admissions. Focus will also be on insuring Newport-Mesa USD students have multiple, quality opportunities to engage in rigorous mathematics curriculum that will prepare them for college and career.”

Why? Why do taxpayers need to pay a consultant to do what a member or members of the cabinet should be doing as part of their jobs? And if they are not doing this basic work for the district, what are they doing?

If you want to get an idea, watch the hilarious interview scene from “Office Space” here:


It’s funny, but it’s not.

OBTW, it’s curricula, not curriculum.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD


She still doesn’t get it

On Jan. 16, I spoke at the school board club meeting and tried to explain to the trustees the difference between a symptom and a problem. The Estancia pool, Swun Math, and the Estancia poles, to name a few, are symptoms, not problems.

The problem is the missing or inadequate information that the highly-paid bureaucrats and their highly-paid consultants are providing – or not – to the trustees.

Now, there is evidence that in addition to missing or inadequate information, there could also be information that is – gasp! – incorrect.

On Jan. 11, I was one of many people who attended the 8 a.m. secret special meeting intended to hide the breadth and depth of the closing of the Estancia pool. While I waited for the superintendent to take the opportunity to assume even a modicum of responsibility for decimating the EHS aquatics program, wasting tens of thousands of gallons of precious water, and wasting over $100,000 of taxpayer dollars, we were told that there was “wonderful news” – the pool could be completed with the same scope and a new design for $7 million.

That, at least, was the commitment by one of the consultants hired to sort out this mess. “Same scope, new design.”

But now, the board is poised to rubber-stamp the pool project for $9 million.

So what happened? The highly-paid bureaucrats in whom the school board club has placed their full faith and confidence have screwed up. Again.

Trustee and school board club president Vicki Snell – the one who has blacklisted me from her Facebook comments – stated the following in a recent post (forwarded to me), in response to a question about the $2 million dollar increase:

“Yes…if you watch Tuesday’s meeting, you can see exactly what was added and what it is expected to cost. We expect to get more for our money as we bring Estancia’s aquatic center equal to the other three high schools.

Once again, Snell is missing the point, and I am guessing her colleagues will miss it as well. The extra $2 million is not the issue here. Everyone wants a good aquatics center for the school. That’s not the issue. The issue is incompetence and horrible communication. Taxpayers were told in no uncertain terms that the center could be built for $7 million. Now, two weeks later (the agenda with the $2 million request item was released last week), the costs ballooned to $9 million.

If there are new upgrades to the center, great. But all of this should have been factored in at the outset. $10 million or $9 million should have been budgeted from the get-go, not $7 million. But it wasn’t, and that led to massive bid discrepancies, the draining of the pool, and the terrible handling of the EHS aquatics program.

This much I know:

  1. Revising an aquatics center upwards by $2 million in two weeks is suspect. A $2 million upgrade means a lot of additional work. Estimating these costs in such a short period of time should raise eyebrows on the board. But it won’t.
  2. No one on the board will ask why we were told on Jan. 11 that the center could be built for $7 million if the cost is really $9 million.
  3. No one, least of all the superintendent, will take ownership of this blunder.

And it is a blunder, despite Snell’s weak attempt to spin the extra $2 million as needed to make everything equal.

That should have been done from day one. Instead, taxpayers and the aquatics teams got one of the worst bunglings we’ve seen in a long time, and there have been many of those.

But, hey, it’s just another $2 million of your hard-earned money, right? And it’s for the kids, right?

At the end of the day, someone on the dais, preferably the superintendent, should issue a sincere apology to the student-athletes in the EHS aquatics program because once again, kids suffer due to adult blunders.

Tennis, anyone?

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

More bad news and more immaturity

I recently reported that half of all of the students in the entire district failed to meet the 2017 state standards for math.

There are no doubt plenty of readers who saw that figure and assumed that it was diluted due the performance of the schools in Costa Mesa, that is, Costa Mesa’s math scores drove up the district score.

That assumption would be mostly incorrect. Overall, the Newport Beach schools performed better than the Costa Mesa schools, but the Newport scores are nothing to celebrate.

I reviewed math results for the following Newport schools:

CdM High
Newport Harbor
Harbor View
Newport Coast
Newport El
Newport Heights

Then I calculated the number of students in each school who failed to meet the state math standards for 2017, which requires a brief explanation.

The higher-ups in education – those beyond our own district – are masters at sleight of hand. Every few years, they introduce a new testing protocol or new standards, then test kids. This makes it almost impossible to develop a long-term view of the trends in education, i.e., it’s hard to know what is working and what is not when the rules keep changing.

In the case of the “Smarter Balanced” assessments, scores go back only to 2015, so if you wanted to see whether your generation was doing better than your child’s, or your grandchild’s, or your niece or nephew, you can’t.

The other trick is the labeling of the test results. There are four:

Standard Not Met
Standard Nearly Met
Standard Met
Standard Exceeded

For the purposes of my analysis, I stood firm on my contention that there is no such thing as “Standard Nearly Met.” That is simply a way of watering down bad news. “Nearly Met” is like nearly pregnant: There is no such thing. Either the standard was met or it wasn’t. So the figures you will read include “Standard Not Met” and “Standard Nearly Met.”

Besides, it is folly to think that the parents in Newport would look at a category labeled “Standard Nearly Met” and think, “Oh, well, nearly met – that’s good!”

Among these 11 schools the average percentage of students who failed to meet the state standard for math in 2017 is 31%. Yes, according to official state figures based on the criteria explained above, nearly one-third of the students in these 11 Newport Beach schools failed to meet the 2017 state standard for math.

One-third. Let that sink in for a moment.

The winner was Anderson with a low of 15%. But I’ll bet Anderson parents aren’t celebrating.

The highest percentage is at Newport Harbor High, where 62% of the students failed to meet the 2017 math standard.

But for this, the superintendent’s performance was rated “exceptional” and he was given a bonus of $34,450 of your tax dollars.

If you are wondering why I support new faces on the school board, these dismal scores are at or near the top of the list of reasons.

If you live in Newport, it’s not much consolation to know that overall, the scores were better than Costa Mesa’s. It is, as you now know, a crisis.

BTW, at the school closest to Trustee Vicki Snell – at Adams El – 65% of the students failed to meet the 2017 state math standards. There are still parents in the Mesa Verde section of the city where Adams is located who are sending their kids elsewhere because their standards are higher than those of the trustees. I wonder how much the poor performance at Adams is affecting home prices…

“The beatings will continue…”

I recently received word that Snell is at it again and has blocked yet another person from a Facebook post or posts.

And as I recently wrote, Snell believes that there is a “small group” that wants the superintendent fired. That’s how a small mind works: Focus on people and personalities and not on issues and ideas.

It has not occurred to Snell to consider why there is a small group of people who want change, whereas just three years ago, it was only the “lone wolf” Steve Smith. Nor has she has not considered the make-up of this small group. It should matter to her,for example, that most of the people in the group do not have kids attending schools in the district. This is a sea change, but neither Snell nor her colleagues can understand the importance of this because they are too busy circling the wagons around their failed leadership.

There is no defense for these terrible math scores. But in his recent memo to district employees, the superintendent addressed the academic requirements of those Newport-Mesa students who choose to forgo college for a career in new technologies such as “brick laying robots” (yes, that’s what he wrote) or “driverless cars.”

Of these students, he wrote, “Students who choose to go directly into the workforce will need to be able to read and comprehend at a high level. They will need excellent mathematical skills.”

Let’s repeat that, shall we? “They will need excellent mathematical skills.”

Unfortunately, the N-MUSD cannot provide those math skills for 50% of the students at this time. And I have no faith in the superintendent’s leadership that he is able to right the ship. Once again, as he did in November, 2015, the superintendent is exhorting teachers to perform better than they have been. He closes this memo by writing, “So thank you for your amazing dedication to redouble our efforts to ensure that all students who graduate from our district do so with the skills to succeed. We can do it!”

Who is this “we” he mentions? There is no “we,” there are only teachers – smart, dedicated people who work in an environment of fear and retaliation and who are not inspired by this superintendent to work any harder than they are.

This is yet another Hail Mary, similar to the one he lobbed in November, 2015 when he told teachers, “The challenge for our entire district is clearly evident: can we get our third graders to read at a fourth grade level by April?”

In both cases, it’s talk. Words. There is no mention of any additional resources to accomplish these lofty goals, just talk.

This memo reminds me of the words on a T-shirt I saw at the souvenir store just outside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland. The T-shirt reads, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD


“A million here, a million there…”

The actual quote is, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about some real money.”

It has been attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, but when asked about it, he told a reporter that he said “a billion here, a billion there,” but never uttered the second half.

From Wikipedia: “Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it.”

Still, the “here and there” applies to the N-MUSD. And now, there’s a whopper of real money to discuss.

The topic of the secret special school board club meeting at 8 a.m. on Jan. 11 was the Estancia pool: Open it or keep it closed, and what to do about the fact that the bids for the new pool complex were $3 million over what the district had budgeted.

Clearly, this secret special meeting should have been folded into a regular school board meeting so that more members of the community could attend and weigh in, but this was too hot a potato for that. Better to hold the meeting while any taxpayers in attendance are still half asleep.

We were told at that meeting that there was “wonderful news” about the pool budget. Yay! We were told that one of the two consultants hired to sort out the mess the N-MUSD bureaucrats created had reported that the pool project can be completed for about $7 million with the same scope, but a new design.

That was, in fact, wonderful news. So what has happened since? Here’s what, from the just released agenda for the meeting next Tuesday:

16.a. Approve Financing and Procurement Plans for the Estancia High School Pool and Aquatic Center Improvements 

And here is the full, exact wording from the “Financial Impact” section:

“The project is currently budgeted in the Special Reserve Fund for Capital Outlay Projects. It is recommended that the budget be increased from $7,000,000 to $9,000,000.”

And here is the rest of the agenda entry:

On January 11, 2018, the Board of Education directed staff to develop a strategy to procure the full scope of the EHS pool and aquatic center in one project to begin as soon as possible. The Board of Education expressed interest and questions regarding options for financing and procuring the project and directed staff to prepare recommendations for the Board of Education’s consideration and approval.

Current Consideration:
District staff, Cumming Corporation, its cost management consultant for the EHS pool project, and construction legal counsel, John Dacey, of Bergman Dacey Goldsmith, PLC, will present their updated budget recommendation and rationale for procuring the project via the design/build delivery method. Staff will also outline the overall project plan and the next steps to be taken upon Board of Education approval of this recommendation.

What’s a couple mill between friends, eh?

Huh? What? Wait… Weren’t we told that there was “wonderful news” and that the pool could be completed for $7 million? Yes, we were: I was there.

But now the project has ballooned to $9 million with no explanation or apology. Is this wrong? If you live and work in the real world, yes, it is wrong. But if you work for the N-MUSD either as one of the highly paid bureaucrats or as part of their addiction to the countless highly paid consultants they hire, no it’s not wrong – it’s business as usual.

So what happened? Why aren’t taxpayers getting the pool for $7 million? We don’t know because they’re not telling and they are note telling because they don’t want us to know. If they wanted us to know, they would have included a rationale for the cost overrun in the “Background” section of agenda item. But adding that would have meant that they screwed up. Again.

Instead, someone is going to have to drag it out of them. Instead of the superintendent or any of the seven trustees owning this mess and just saying “we goofed and here’s what has happened since Jan. 11,” they are quietly spending $2 million more of your hard-earned tax dollars as though it grows on a tree in the backyard.

Oh, and this: This $2 million agenda item – the one that will be rubber stamped as nearly all other votes are? It’s positioned next to last on the agenda which means there is a greater chance that few members of the public will be around to witness their incompetency.

So, let’s recap:

  1. Bid requests for the new pool go out.
  2. $7 million is budgeted.
  3. Pool is drained and closed, ending all water sports at the school and wasting at least 75,000 gallons of precious water, even though no bids had been received.
  4. Bid are received and found to be $3 million over what the highly-paid bureaucrats had budgeted.
  5. Administration and school board realize they goofed – royally – and vote to spend $100,000 of your tax dollars to re-open the pool.
  6. Public is told at the secret special meeting that $7 million was sufficient for the new pool complex.
  7. Public learns from a buried agenda item that $7 million is not enough and that $2 million more is needed.
  8. Neither the superintendent nor the school board club accepts any responsibility for any of this or offers an apology to the aquatics teams for wrecking their season.

So which is it: $7 million? $9 million? Or $10 million? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess and I certainly have no faith whatsoever that the superintendent or any trustee knows what the hell is going on with the pool.

Symptoms vs. problems

Do the Estancia kids deserve the best pool we can afford? Of course. My son played polo at Estancia and my late wife and I sat through many games wondering why these great kids had to play this exciting sport in such shabby conditions.

But while the Estancia athletes deserve a great pool, taxpayers deserve some fiscal responsibility over this mess. These are not mutually exclusive concepts, it’s just that neither the superintendent nor the board has any idea how to get a handle on both of them at one time.

At the Jan. 11 meeting, Trustee Martha Fluor said that she is concerned about the level of transparency, that she is “irate,” and that the mistake [closing the pool] was “unacceptable.” The she took it one giant step further and said that the board was told one thing about the pool but now they are learning otherwise. “There is a lack of trust in our own experts. It boggles the mind,” she said. Then she said, “I am very, very angry over this $100,000 mistake.”

Yes, the kids deserve a better pool. It should have been done a long time ago but unfortunately, they had to wait behind spending for more bureaucrats and for a secret $34,450 bonus for the superintendent.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: The pool is not the problem, it is a symptom. The problem is that the current school board club is reckless and irresponsible and far too trusting of the superintendent and his overpaid administration.

And that readers, in a nutshell, is why we need new trustees this year.

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time as come.” – Victor Hugo

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD

A New Kind of Irresponsibility

Can’t leave you alone for a minute: I go away on vacation and come back to a bunch of new topics.

Chief among these is the recent court decision that forces the district to release the full report on the Mariners Gold Ribbon application. That’s the investigation into the “untruths and inaccuracies” claimed by the teacher union.

The Pilot wrote about it, but the story is not accurate. For example, the Pilot story states that, “An Orange County Superior Court judge this week ordered a private court inspection of a report prepared by a firm that investigated an award controversy involving Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach.”

This is inaccurate. The fact is that the “inspection” is only to determine whether any content needs to be redacted. Other than that, it will be released in its entirety.

For this transparency – this bit of sunshine – you can thank John Caldecott, the district’s former head of human resources, who was fired by e-mail by the superintendent without a hearing after he started sticking his nose into some financial shenanigans.

And I’ll say this again about the investigation and the district’s overall conduct during the Blue Ribbon period: Any responsible and experienced manager would have examined the Mariners Blue Ribbon process and immediately reviewed all other Blue Ribbon applications from other schools to determine whether they, too, contained any “untruths and inaccuracies.”

But there was no such review.

No, I don’t hate to say “I told you so”

Shortly after Caldecott was fired, we met to so I could get the facts of the case. But my other motive for meeting was to determine whether Caldecott was for real, that is, whether he had an axe to grind, or was looking for big money, or something other than simple justice.

I determined then that Caldecott was for real and have since been vindicated. The bad news is that I gave the N-MUSD trustees written notice via this blog that Caldecott was a force to be reckoned with; that the usual approach of wearing people down through delay after delay was not going to work with him.

That was three years ago. Since then, Caldecott has forced the district to become more transparent than at any time in the 31 years I have lived in the area. Caldecott has made multiple public records requests, the district has fought them all, and Caldecott has won every single time.

That’s right – the score is Caldecott whatever, district zero.

You’re an intelligent person and you’re probably asking yourself, “Why? Why would the district keep fighting these public records requests when they have never won?”

There are a couple of reasons. To understand the first reason, it is important to understand the district’s DNA. For decades, they have been successful at faking transparency and whenever they are challenged, they simply drag things out for as long as possible until they die a quiet death. It’s what they have done repeatedly for one reason: It worked.

So you can understand how difficult it is to change decades of behavior. The stall, stifle, and stymie they put on everyone worked so well that there was never any question of doing anything else. That approach became standard operating procedure.

The second reason is that the superintendent – the person who is the lead on all of these fights – has no skin in the game. He’s not spending his own money on legal fees, he is spending YOURS. And these fights against the public records requests are not really to protect the confidentiality of the personnel and blah, blah, blah, because they really don’t care about these people. What they do care about is maintaining the veil of secrecy over just about everything they do.

It is at this point that you should know that after three years, John Caldecott has not profited from the battles he has been waging on our behalf.

When will it end? When will the trustees finally say “Enough!” to the superintendent and order him to stop the tremendous waste of legal fees fighting battles they will not win? This current board will never say that to the superintendent. They can’t. Remember… it’s not in their DNA.

So at the end of the day, the winners are the public, which finally gets to see just how awfully bad the district is being run, and the attorneys on both sides, who make money win or lose.

That’s money, by the way, that could be going to build the new pool at Estancia, to pay teachers more, to put in reserves, or to do a lot of important things.

Thank you, Judge Marks

Thank you, Orange County Superior Court Judge Linda Marks, for your decision. Your decision promotes everything that a growing group of Newport-Mesans have been fighting for. To us, the principles of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility are sacred and it is not often that we see someone who determines an issue with such clarity.

Speaking of investigations… 

In a recent Facebook post, Trustee Vicki Snell wrote something that, well, let’s just say as we used to say, that she “put her foot in it,” if you get my drift.

Snell was responding to a bunch of broadsides from an increasingly disgruntled constituency when she wrote, “[Caldecott’s] case was investigated by a third party and proven to be false.”

Oh, really? There was a third party investigation? Well, that’s news. Big news, in fact. I was not aware of any third party investigation and I sure would like to know who conducted it and when. And please note that this third party investigation – the one that was supposed to get to the bottom of this Caldecott stuff once and for all so we could all finally go to lunch – did not include an interview, verbal or written, with (wait for it)… John Caldecott.

That sound you hear is Caldecott filing another public records request so taxpayers can see for themselves how the fox is running the hen house.

Taking her ball and going home

Not long ago, I reported that Snell’s petty response to my Facebook posts about district mismanagement was to block me from receiving any notice of her posts. You can see how effective that was. (I’ve said many times, “There is a workaround for everything.”)

In another recent post, Snell wrote, “Steve [That’s me! How exciting!] is part of a very small group whose goal is to get Dr. Navarro fired from NMUSD.”

This, readers, is tremendous progress. During my campaign for a school board seat, Snell called me a “lone wolf.” Now, I am part of a “small group.”

As if it matters. (It doesn’t.)

And that firing of the superintendent? Not accurate. I wouldn’t care if the superintendent stood on his head while running the district, or wore his pants inside out, or drove his car in reverse to district headquarters from his home far away in Long Beach. I wouldn’t care about any of that or much of anything else short of proper treatment of the district employees if he operated in a transparent, accountable, and fiscally responsible manner. But taxpayers have seen too many instances of pure mismanagement.

No, we’re not trying to get him fired. With these seven board members, that is like pushing water uphill. Ain’t gonna happen.

No, our sights are on a larger goal: We want new board members. We want people who do not support “special meetings” with little notice, who hold the staff accountable, who want the people’s business to be as transparent as allowed, and who understand that every salary, every staple, and every paperclip in the district was bought and paid for by citizens in the district. (Rumors of a tree with C-notes for leaves in the district headquarters backyard are false.)

The best offense is a good defense.

Or is it the other way around? Snell spent a lot of time on Facebook  in defensive mode, trying to explain to people why there was no Caldecott investigation (though now we know there was – without a Caldecott interview) and why the super got $34,450 of your tax dollars when they are struggling to scrounge up funds for a pool project at Estancia.

She can’t tell these people about progress because there isn’t much these days. In recent posts, I’ve noted the recent pathetic legacy of the once-proud Newport-Mesa Unified School District. Where the district was once defined by academic excellence (even though many Costa Mesa schools were performing poorly) and a sound fiscal house, it is now defined by an incredibly long lists of scandals and miscues, and is even the butt of jokes.

Did you know our district is sometimes referred to as “Capo North?” That was earned by the disproportionate number of personnel who came from the Capistrano Unified School District over the years. The other moniker is “Where administrators go to retire.” That’s a reference to the very generous amounts of tax dollars being thrown at those who are fortunate enough to land a spot in the cabinet.

Snell can’t talk about progress while the aquatics teams at Estancia have no pool in which to swim because someone ordered the pool drained and it’s now costing $100,00 of your money and over 75,000 gallons of your water to fix.

Snell can’t talk about progress when, according to official state Smarter Balanced figures, half of the district’s students failed to meet state math standards in math in 2017. OBTW, at Estancia, a school in Snell’s zone, 83% of the 11th graders failed to meet the 2017 state math standards.

Snell can’t talk about progress while the district ditches a failed math program – one championed by the super – and ignored years of complaints from teachers, parents, and students about just how bad it was. The fallout, that is, the number of kids affected by this failed experiment, is too disturbing to contemplate.

And so much more…

There are four school board seats up for grabs this year. Is it too much to ask to fill them with people who hold the staff accountable, who want to shine a brighter light on district transactions, and who treat every taxpayer dollar with the respect it deserves?

I don’t think so, and neither does this small group.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD



The Fox and the Hen House

Some readers may not be aware of John Caldecott or his ongoing efforts to bring the N-MUSD out of the darkness and into the light of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility. In case you don’t, here is a summary:

Caldecott was a 10-year, respected employee of the district, employed as the head of the human resources dept. Late in 2014, Caldecott was fired for, well, here is how the L.A. Times wrote it:

“Newport-Mesa Unified fired its human resources director Tuesday, less than a week after he asked a court to compel the district to release documents related to a complaint he filed against the superintendent.”

In story, Caldecott is quoted as saying, “The complaint against the superintendent involves multiple occurrences of unethical behavior on the part of the superintendent and the board of education.” 

No way! Really? Wow…

But it’s not just the fact that Caldecott was fired as he was about to expose the shenanigans, it was how he was fired: He got a text from the superintendent – the same one he accused of unethical behavior – telling him to check his e-mail. In the email, Caldecott learned that he had been fired.

Caldecott could not be fired by the superintendent without the board’s approval, which was unanimous. Trustee Dana Black made the motion to support the superintendent’s recommendation to fire Caldecott and it was seconded by Trustee Walt Davenport.

The board did not even allow Caldecott to address them to let them know what he had found.

Caldecott is still fighting the good fight. His website has an important update on his ongoing effort to promote board transparency and you can read about it here:

Now fast forward to the Mariners Gold Ribbon fake investigation and the new fake investigation into who authorized the shut down of the Estancia pool.

Guess who was/is in charge of those two? If you guessed the superintendent, you win a copy of my new book, “Stall, Stifle, and Stymie: A History of the N-MUSD.” OK, there is no book, but you get the idea.

No investigation into any wrongdoing will ever result in a fair and impartial conclusion as long as the N-MUSD administration – particularly the superintendent – is directing it or is in anyway involved. That is simply not going to happen.

And don’t count on the board to have a mass moment of clarity and understand this point. After all, these are the people who just rated his performance as “exceptional” and gave him another $34,450 of your tax dollars, a bonus, by the way, that was not approved in one of the twice-monthly board meetings. Doing that would mean that the board would be transparent and that is not standard operating procedure.

The credibility of the school board has suffered greatly over the past five years. They have placed their trust in an administration that makes the Keystone Cops look like a well-run organization. (I’m dating myself here… From Wikipedia: ‘The name [Keystone Cops] has since been used to criticize any group for its mistakes, particularly if the mistakes happened after a great deal of energy and activity, or for a lack of coordination among the members.”

Despite a pattern of missing or inaccurate information, the trustees continue to rely on the members of the administration to deliver appropriate recommendations. Is it any wonder why a growing group of people is disgruntled and disgusted with the actions of the board? It shouldn’t be, and unfortunately, the board does not know how to distance itself from the mess they have created. But I have a recommendation.

The trustees can take a huge leap forward to restore their lost credibility by removing the superintendent and any members of the administration – all of them – from any involvement in the pool investigation.

They should instead hire someone with no financial interest in the district,  someone who:

  • Is not and has never been employed by the district, whether full-time, part-time, or as a contractor
  • Has a broad and deep knowledge of the district
  • Has a history of important civic involvement
  • Has experience in interviewing, investigating, and reporting
  • Will perform the investigation at no charge
  • Will sign a non-disclosure agreement or confidentiality agreement
  • Can probably complete the investigation in less than a week
  • Has no agenda other than reporting the truth

I know someone with these exact qualifications. But the board will not move to engage this person because that would mean a vote of no confidence in the super and they can’t do that just after they told us he is exceptional.

Besides, the board is not interested in knowing who closed the pool. If they were, they would have given the superintendent specific instructions on how it is to be conducted and when it is to be completed and they would have assigned it to someone as described above. But they did not, choosing once again to let the fox run the hen house.

This fake pool investigation will be stalled for at least two months until the pool reopens. At that time, everyone will be happy to be back in the water and this massive blunder that cost $100,000 and wasted tens of thousands of gallons of precious water will have been forgotten.

These people wouldn’t last a day in the private sector…

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD



Enough! Enough, Already!

Had enough yet? Had enough of the phony cheerleading? How about the failure of the superintendent to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong in the district? How about the mystifying support and protection he is given by the trustees, who just cannot or will not see what you and I see?

How about the bad grammar in messages that come from a person with a doctorate?

Here’s the latest. It’s from the Dec./Jan. edition of “School News”:

“In keeping with the goal of raising student mastery of the new standards, our secondary schools have launched the process to select new core instructional math materials. This compliments the efforts that elementary has previously undertaken to select math materials in recent years.” 

Yes, you read it correctly: The superintendent writes that the secondary schools are talking to the elementary schools and saying very nice things about them. They are, as he wrote, “complimenting” them.

Oh, brother. I wrote about the mangling of the language many times years ago when the super would issue those DOTS memos that were full of mistakes. After I wrote about it a few times, the memos improved but now this… “Compliments.” Really???

That’s the small point. The larger point is a horrible rewrite of history, major denial, and a prime example of the aforementioned inability of the superintendent to own mistakes and apologize to the people who pay for all this, including his big salary.

Reading the excerpt from School News, an uninformed person would think, “Gee, the secondary schools are being proactive and searching for a better math program.” But that’s not what happened.

The new math program search was initiated not by the superintendent or any of his also highly-paid bureaucrats, but by a community of teachers, parents, and students, all of whom complained for years about the old program while the district did nothing. Actually, worse than nothing: They ignored input from the very people whose opinions they claim to respect.

The superintendent can use all the fluffy language he wants and try to spin this his way, but there is a bottom line. Ready? According to the official state results, half of the students in the N-MUSD did not meet state math standards. You can see for yourself and check your own school here:

But that low bar is what passes for success these days.

Teachers, parents, and students are responsible for the new math programs, not the superintendent.

And that’s a compliment.

Steve Smith
N-MUSD Taxpayer


And Let Me Say This About That!

Tonight’s school board meeting was uneventful. Business as usual, as usual. The superintendent, a master at staying out of the limelight, actually got out of his chair to review the extremely important topic of language changes in the district’s facility use agreement.

I spoke during the public comments section and tried to capitalize on the outrage expressed last Thursday morning when some board members realized that the information they had been given on the Estancia pool situation did not match what they were hearing from other sources. This is what I said:

“I want to help you understand something very important about the closing of the Estancia pool.

“The sequence of events that led to this costly mistake are not the problem – they are merely a symptom. The problem is that you are consistently not receiving the information you need to make timely and informed decisions. It is a chronic problem. Let me give you some examples by asking you three rhetorical questions:

  • Knowing what you know now, would any of you have voted to close the Estancia pool?
  • Knowing what you know now, would any of you have voted to erect the poles at the Estancia baseball field?
  • Knowing what you know now, would any of you waited years to end Swun Math? 

“In each of these cases, information was either missing or was grossly inaccurate. And in each of these cases – and more – it was the community that brought the problem to your attention, not your administration.

“There is a pattern here, and where there is a pattern, there is a problem.

“The problem is a breakdown in the leadership of the administration in this district. A well-managed organization of any type, public or private, is proactive and takes steps to avoid errors that could affect the budget or the mission.

“You do not have that proactive leadership in your administration.  For example:

  • The district should have been in compliance with the CVRA years ago. Instead it took a lawsuit to effect change.
  • There are now no archived meeting videos because the administration failed to comply with an old ADA regulation.
  • There was no intention of dumping Swun Math until the hue and cry became so great the administration had no choice.
  • There was no investigation into the Mariners Gold Ribbon application until the union raised the question of untruths and inaccuracies.

“Which leads me to my final observation. Another component of this problem is the failure of anyone in the administration to take ownership of serious mistakes. In the case of the Gold Ribbon scandal, I want to point out that Laura Sacks no longer works in this district, but the superintendent, who approved the Gold Ribbon application [holding up a copy of his signature on the application], was just rated exceptional and was just given a bonus.

“This is the type of disconnect that dismays a growing segment of the community. Throwing $100,000 at the pool and allowing the fox to run an investigation of the hen house doesn’t solve the problem, it only makes it worse.

Thank you.”

So there you go. I did not expect any response and none was given. The purpose of my remarks was only to have a public record during a school board meeting of the failings of the current administration under this superintendent.

As fate would have it, however, I caught a break. Just before the public comments section is the time in which the students representing various schools give their reports. They let the board know about what’s going on in their school and when the last one is done, they leave.

Tonight, for whatever reason, they stayed. They stayed and got hear a member of the community express outrage at how things are being run. My expectations are low here too, that is, I don’t expect students to start picketing Bear St. anytime soon. But it was nice to offer a contrast to the happy talk they’re so used to hearing.

There was nothing of note to report from any of the board members or the bureaucrats in the cabinet, designated in the agenda as “Associate/Assistant Superintendents and Executive Directors.” Those designations of the various bureaucratic positions are all you need to know about and administration with a major case of mission drift.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD








Naive and Petty: A Dangerous Combination

N-MUSD Trustee Vicki Snell and I used to be Facebook friends, but a little while ago, she “unfriended” me or blocked me from receiving her posts or whatever. In any case, I can no longer directly communicate with her through FB.

I can only guess, but my guess would be that Snell did not like someone constantly raining on the district parade.

But, as I’ve written many times, there is a workaround for everything. In this case, here is a recent Snell post regarding the closing of the Estancia pool and a couple of other issues. The pool closure is the  blunder that wastes $100,000 of taxpayer dollars, wasted at least 75,000 gallons of precious water, and decimated a healthy EHS aquatics program.

Snell wrote:


Snell FB


Let’s take these by the numbers:

  1. District staff and board apologies? News to me! Haven’t read or heard ONE.
  2. Stop with the consultants already! Why are we paying millions to an army of assistant superintendents if all they ever do is hire consultants?
  3. “w/o proper authorization and will be handled internally.” That is code for “We’re done talking about this embarrassment so don’t ask about it anymore.” Snell is clearly unable to understand a fundamental management concept: The name of the person who closed the pool is irrelevant. Taxpayers want someone to take ownership of this mess. The bottom line is that EVERYTHING that happens in the district is the responsibility of the superintendent. The board’s consistent support and protection of the superintendent is helping more people to understand why we need four new trustees this year.
  4. This is a response to why the super was recently rated “exceptional” and got more taxpayer dollars when he missed approximately 8 weeks due to illness. What she is saying is that the illness period is not covered by the recent rating. But we know the truth: Next year, he’ll get yet another “exceptional” rating and more of your tax dollars.
  5. Another expert! If the first two were “experts,” why do we need a third?

So, here’s the bottom line: Snell’s petty display of retaliation by unfriending me is too little, too late. There are now too many more people who are furious at the waste of taxpayer dollars, the lack of transparency, and the absence of accountability that regardless of where she posts, there will be a response.

Tonight: The School Board Show

There is a school board show tonight. If you go, keep your expectations low, that is, don’t expect any follow-up to the ire that was expressed at the special meeting last Thursday over the EHS pool closure. As far as the board is concerned, they’re conducting a fake investigation and giving you back $100,000 of your money to fix the pool mess so just get over it.

Tennis, anyone?

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD