State

Modesto school district decisions review finds no offenses

Stanislaus County's civil grand jury found smoke but no fire in certain decisions made by Modesto City Schools officials.

Leaders should have taken steps to ensure a better transition between longtime Superintendent Jim Enochs and his successor, Arturo Flores, but their failure to do so did not reveal any wrongdoing, the grand jury reported Wednesday.

The stress of that changeover in 2007 led to public shuffling among the district's leaders and to a public "reprimand" of board member Cindy Marks in the midst of her re-election campaign in the fall.

The six-page report reviewed tension between district employees and Flores. The discord boiled over in 2009 when the board bought out then-Deputy Superintendent Debbe Bailey's employment contract a year before it expired. Bailey is seen as a supporter of Enochs, who was superintendent for 20 years.

A 12-page complaint was filed with the grand jury in September alleging illegal hiring practices, a hostile working environment at the district office, personal use of district resources, "exorbitant" spending of district money on consultants and lawyers, and a lack of board oversight of Flores.

Board President Kim Spina was pleased by the report and said she's looking forward to improving communication with employees and community members.

"I felt like (the jury) did a really in-depth review of the complaint. I thought it was a very positive report," she said.

Spina noted officials have room to improve and that she's noticed a more positive culture in the district over the past six months.

'A little confusing'

Flores said he wants to move on from the controversies in the report and focus on how to handle deep spending cuts and steep targets for academic improvement.

Megan Gowans, a leader of the district's teachers union, agreed with some of the grand jury's findings, but found parts of it inconsistent.

"I think it's a little confusing. It doesn't cite specific breaches, but it gives advice on how to do things on a more professional level," she said.

For example, the report states board members did not violate the state's open meetings law, but suggests the board hold training about its requirements.

Other aspects of the report:

The grand jury spent three months reviewing thousands of pages of documents and interviewing 11 witnesses, including Flores; Chris Flesuras, the district's chief of human resources; Bailey; present and former board members, employees and representatives of the Modesto Teachers Association.

The report states that board members' "decision to quickly implement sweeping changes districtwide" contributed to Flores' bumpy transition.

Jury recommendations include giving new leaders more time to study the culture of the district and adopting a "whistle-blower policy" to protect employees who come forward with information about possible wrongdoing.

Bailey said she was punished for bringing her financial concerns to Flores' attention.

Gowans said whistle-blower protection could have prevented some of the district's dysfunction. She said the union receives occasional tips about concerns from administrators who are afraid to speak up themselves.

The jury also took up the public reprimand of Marks in October 2009. Then-board President Steve Grenbeaux, then-Vice President Spina and Trustee Gary Lopez decided to rebuff Marks for e-mails between her and Bailey that appeared to undermine Flores.

The official letter of reprimand was never taken to the full board for an official vote. Rather, it was signed by Grenbeaux and Spina.

The jury report states that if the board wants to make a similar move again, the item should be placed on the board's meeting agenda with notice to the appropriate board member.

Though Grenbeaux said Wednesday he felt the report exonerated the board and district, he was frustrated with the process. He was not one of the 11 witnesses interviewed even though he was board president during most of the time probed by the jury.

The board has 90 days to submit a written response to the report.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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