Settlement best way to end Bailey fracas

Two things are obvious from the inch-thick report that Modesto City Schools Superintendent Arturo Flores and the district's contract attorney put together after Flores' disciplinary action against deputy superintendent Debbe Bailey.

The first is that Bailey and Flores never came close to having a successful working relationship. As the report shows, she criticized him in e-mail exchanges and occasionally in more open venues, such as a list serve of school finance officers.

Many of the e-mails were petty and indefensible, even though they were the modern-day equivalent of water cooler conversations — only traceable. Bailey's job includes oversight of information technology, and she fully knew that there is no such thing as an expectation of privacy on a district computer.

But as Bailey says now, and as her e-mails reflect, she also believed that Flores was cutting her out of the decision making, going to others with budget questions within her purview.

The second thing that is obvious in the e-mails and memos: Bailey frequently raised legitimate issues about district spending and accounting.

On April 20, a week before she was put on leave, Bailey wrote a memo expressing serious reservations about the impact of the contract that the school board was about to sign with the Modesto Teachers Association. It called for no layoffs in 2009-10.

Bailey wrote that "subsequent decisions will, I believe, have a negative effect on the budget and fiscal solvency. Had those subsequent staffing decisions been made while we were still at the negotiating table, I would have pressed for further contract concessions in order to protect the district's financial stability."

Flores cites this memo prominently in the disciplinary report. He didn't like Bailey's timing, nor that she hadn't made an appointment to talk to him.

We hope the school board is taking more note of the substance of this memo than the protocol.

As we said more than a month ago, the board needs to get this matter resolved. The uncertainty has contributed to anxiety at the district office, leaving some administrators hesitant to speak up.

And it's costly. The district is paying Bailey her regular salary, almost $14,000 a month, and racking up thousands of dollars in legal bills.

The choices are few. Given all that has transpired, there's no reason to think Bailey and Flores can get along. She has to go.

To dismiss her for cause, the board must prove she committed a "material breach" of her contract. That's a big hurdle, especially given how poorly this situation has been handled.

A year ago, Bailey got a satisfactory evaluation and a new two-year contract. Within six months, Flores sought outside help in improving their relationship, and then he abruptly put her on leave and retroactively cited e-mails, some of which were written before her 2008 evaluation.

Flores and the board should have documented any performance concerns, spelled out the improvements Bailey needed to make and given her a specific time period to correct her ways. That's standard personnel practice.

At the same time, Bailey did not show Flores the respect that he and his position deserve. She sent some questionable e-mails to the MTA. But will those constitute "material breach"?

We urge the board to find a way to end this relationship as fairly and inexpensively as possible — which probably would be through a settlement.

One of the side issues that emerged in the investigation is that Bailey and Trustee Cindy Marks exchanged a number of e-mails. Some suggest that those were illegal. We don't see it that way. We don't advocate elected officials micromanaging, but they do need to be able to ask hard questions and thoroughly understand how organizations operate and how public money is spent.

The district's current protocol — requiring that all information go through or by the superintendent — discourages critical openness and discussion.

In fact, we would like to see Modesto school board members regularly asking more and tougher questions about money matters — especially given the serious financial issues the district faces during the state budget crisis this year, and even more so in 2010-11, when it opens Gregori High School.

A successful school district needs a strong superintendent, an engaged board, a knowledgeable and skilled staff that is empowered — and expected — to raise concerns, and a working environment built on respect, trust and professionalism.

Right now there is a need for improvement in all those areas. Resolving the Bailey situation is a good place to start the process.