EDUCATION MATTERS: School board emails
reveal underlying discord
May 27, 2010
By Marsha Sutton
Del Mar Times

I had a bad feeling the moment I read the note saying my emails were
ready to be picked up...

My curiosity to see the emails stemmed from the letter sent out to the
public by
Del Mar Union School District trustee Comischell Rodriguez
on April 26, in which she referred to improper behavior by fellow board
members as a major reason for resigning as board president. Her
allegations sounded quite serious, and alarming.

Knowing that DMUSD Superintendent Jim Peabody had been asked by
his board to investigate some of these disturbing charges, I had hoped
simply to piggyback upon his own efforts to uncover the facts. Hence, my
request to Peabody on May 1 was to see the emails sent between March
28 and April 26 having to do with the issues raised in Rodriguez's
resignation letter...

I said I was interested in the emails pertaining to his contract, "specifically
between Katherine White, perhaps you, Comischell Rodriguez, and any
other board members if it relates to the group that was working on your
contract."

After discussing the matter in some detail with White and Rodriguez, the
source of Rodriguez's discontent appeared to stem primarily from the
work the two trustees were doing to prepare the new superintendent's
contract.

Did White assume the role of board president without proper authority, as
Rodriguez seems to claim? Or did Rodriguez suddenly and unexpectedly
beg off from participating in the contract preparation, leaving White in the
lurch to find a substitute committee member to assist in finalizing the
contract?

The back-and-forth emails would tell the story, I assumed. But what I got,
despite my quite specific request, was more than 200 pages of emails,
only 16 pages of which peripherally addressed the issue at hand.

I expressed my dismay in a May 16 email to Peabody, writing, in part, the
following:

Although there is certainly plenty of material here - 236 single-sided
pages, to be exact - none of the contents specifically addresses what I
was after...

If there is fault here, it does not rest with you, as you were diligent in
requesting the data I sought.

I would still like to review those specific emails that I'd requested, but
please, no more large stacks of single-sided papers that have nothing to
do with the issue. Electronic transmission of the material would be my
strong preference.

So where were the emails? Why were the relevant ones missing? I called
White and asked her if there had been any emails regarding the contract
subcommittee originally composed of her and Rodriguez.

White gave me 15 different dates and times when emails directly related
to this matter were sent - emails she insisted she had given to the district
as part of the request.
The attorney who reviewed the material,
Daniel Shinoff of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, apologized and
vowed to search more thoroughly.

At this point, I became alarmed once more. What had happened to the
emails? And how much more time would it take to find them?

"I have concerns about the time and money being spent by the
district on this," I wrote on May 17 to Shinoff. "I had thought it
would be a fairly simple exercise, which is why I tried to be
precise about what I was looking for.

"Although I'm interested in uncovering how the relevant events transpired
and whether the serious charges leveled at the board [by Rodriguez] can
be substantiated, I'm also a taxpayer in the district and therefore very
much appreciate your cost control efforts."

...Although I still have the lingering sense that not all the emails have
been made available (for instance, emails from several trustees appear to
be completely missing), some of the ones that pertain to the issue have at
last been uncovered and released.

There are 12, beginning with a request on April 15 to White and
Rodriguez from Jeanne Blumenfeld, an attorney with Stutz Artiano Shinoff
& Holtz, to set a time when the three could meet to work on the Peabody
contract.

In the next five emails, the three women discuss mutually convenient
dates and times to meet. It gets more interesting with email #7, when the
civil tone begins to deteriorate after Rodriguez has to bow out for
personal reasons and White tries to find a replacement.

The emails, beginning with the seventh, are printed here, edited for
brevity, with greetings, signatures and non-relevant banter omitted.
Blumenfeld is abbreviated JB, White is KW, Rodriguez is CR and Shinoff
is DS.

#7 -
From: CR
To: JB, KW
Cc: DS
Sent: Sun., April 18, 12:32 p.m.

I cannot do Tuesday until 2 p.m. or later. Actually, if things go south [for
family illness], I may not be here at all this week, but traveling back east. I
have copied Dan on this mail in hopes that he and you can find another
board member to work with Katherine. The entire board will need to
preview and approve, of course.

#8 -
From: KW
To: JB, CR
Cc: DS
Sent: Mon., April 19, 10:14 a.m.

Since Steven is kind of who takes over when Comischell can't run the
meeting, let's see if he can step in.

#9 -
From: CR
To: KW, JB
Cc: DS
Sent: Mon., April 19, 11:52 a.m.

Katherine - I already asked Doug.

#10 -
From: KW
To: CR, JB, Steven McDowell, Doug Perkins
Cc: DS
Sent: Mon., April 19, 3:33 p.m.

Everyone - we are trying to find a time where Jeanne, Katherine and
either Steven or Doug can meet to work on the draft of Jim's contract.
Steven, Dan and I asked you, and Doug, Comischell asked you to join
since Comischell is not available this week.

Please respond to this e-mail with availability and interest. I'm willing to
work with whoever can meet this week. At this point maybe we best look at
Wed morning - would that work for you Jeanne - I can do 10-12. I can also
do early Tuesday morning - 9 or 9:30 - 11. I can offer my home ... or we
can meet somewhere else.

#11 -
From: CR
To: KW, JB, Steven McDowell, Doug Perkins
Cc: DS
Sent: Mon., April 19, 5:02 p.m.

What are you doing!?

#12 -
From: KW
To: CR, JB, Steven McDowell, Doug Perkins
Cc: DS
Sent: Mon., April 19, 7:49 p.m.

Getting a second board member to help with the contract - trying to set up
a meeting.


Lack of communication

Things seemed to be going fine until Rodriguez needed to excuse herself
for family matters and White then tried to replace her and set up the
meeting.

Under amiable circumstances, the tension could easily have been
relieved with simple face-to-face conversation. Communicating by email
can often result in misunderstandings.

But given the history of mistrust and suspicion already simmering, what
White may have done in innocence could easily be misinterpreted by
Rodriguez as overstepping her authority and maneuvering to, in effect,
run the show. A contentious atmosphere - and the recent divisions over
the firing of former superintendent Sharon McClain - likely contributed to
an uneasy wariness among board members.

In an email dated April 17, Rodriguez wrote to Peabody about needing to
leave town to tend to an ill family member, saying, "My concern now is
regarding your contract - as I was supposed to work on this with
Katherine. She told me that she and Jeanne met while I was gone on
spring break to draft one, and Katherine also did your letter of intent. This
was a total self-appointment, but nevertheless it was done so we must
move forward."

Rodriguez then wrote that she wished to find another board member to
serve with White on the contract issue and asked his advice on how best
to proceed.

When I asked White about signing the letter of intent, she said other
board members were either out of town or unavailable, and the letter
needed to be signed immediately to let Peabody assume his duties. Since
White was serving as one of two board members working on the Peabody
contract (Rodriguez being the other one), she felt it was her responsibility
to sign the letter, White said.

In an email to Peabody sent April 26 on her resignation as board
president, Rodriguez wrote, "My desire to serve the district is as strong as
ever and my focus will now clearly be on the children and not on getting
Katherine and [trustee] Annette's [Easton] permission or approval for
every item."

In an email sent April 26 to fellow board members regarding her
resignation as board president, Rodriguez said she felt isolated,
complained about other trustees speaking with legal counsel and signing
documents that the president should be signing, and objected that "the
emails to the entire board have been completely out of hand."

"I fully intend to do my job as a member of the board and will continue to
speak my mind freely," she wrote. "The difference is that I will not have to
field exhausting nit-picking emails, agenda complaints and the
manipulation of situations. This will be someone else's job now."


Accumulated frustrations

The situation Rodriguez describes is clearly an accumulation of
frustrations that would be difficult to substantiate through a review of
public documents. And it is likely that accused board members would
have a different perspective on the matter. Nevertheless, Rodriguez
clearly felt marginalized and - regardless of what the facts are - it is hard
to argue with how one perceives a situation.

Regarding the charges in Rodriguez's April 26 letter, that she felt isolated
and excluded, the evidence from the 236 pages of emails is unconvincing.
Almost every one was either sent to Rodriguez or copied her. She
seemed completely in the loop, at least during this one-month period.

This leads to another objection of hers: that board members are nit-picky.
But trustees, if they are acting responsibly, will copy the board president
on communications to make sure he or she is aware of questions and
concerns. That goes with the job. The definition of what is out of hand
and what is not is likely a subjective interpretation.

Being besieged with details while simultaneously feeling isolated is a
curious, and somewhat contradictory, grievance.

However, in Rodriguez's defense, a board president may by necessity be
overly involved in tedious minutiae while feeling excluded from issues of
greater import, given the prohibition against discussions, even of a casual
nature, with other trustees. Coupled with her responsibilities as school
board spokesperson, this can be unnerving, especially when events are
happening quickly and personal matters demand immediate attention.

When minor misunderstandings are overlaid with pre-existing mistrust of
motives and skepticism of intentions, as these emails reveal, it's not
difficult to see how frustration can build and tensions can escalate...



Showing 3 comments

guest [Moderator] 18 hours ago
Comischell was on vacation, then she was out of town due to family
illness. Filling in on a committee is one thing. Signing contracts is another.
I'm sure Comischell owns a cell phone. I'm sure Katherine White has that
number. I'm sure: "Comischell, how's it going on vacation?" or "I hope
everything's okay with your family. Jim Peabody has to sign a letter of
intent right now; otherwise, he can't assume his duties. What do you think
about that, since you are the BOARD PRESIDENT??" would have made a
world of difference. Even if Katherine White forgot about the by-laws of
her public service, common decency would have just made a world of
difference.

    
DMUSDparent [Moderator] 20 hours ago
DMUSD Board bylaw 9121 specifically states that ONLY THE PRESIDENT
has the authority to "sign all instruments, acts, and orders necessary to
carry out the state requirements and the will of the Board". Katherine
White acted in direct violation of these bylaws.

    
Guest [Moderator] 20 hours ago
Anyone who has ever served on a board for which the Ralph M Brown act
and Roberts Rules of Order apply would tell you that only the President of
a governing body of this sort has authority to represent that body, unless
a vote of all members of the board allows another individual to represent
the board's interest on an issue.

White clearly lacked both the title of President and the vote of the board
to grant her the authority to 1- sign the letter of intent and 2- appoint
another member of the board to the subcommittee handling the contract.
Rodriguez chose Perkins to substitute her in her role with White.

White was clearly out of line. She needs a refresher on board protocol.
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