State - INACTIVE

Modesto School board replies to grand jury report

Simmering tension between Modesto City Schools' trustees surfaced Tuesday as they formally responded to Stanislaus County civil grand jury recommendations for improving the district.

The grand jury last winter investigated numerous complaints about trustee actions and management practices. In its April report, the grand jury suggested five operational changes the district should make.

Trustees on Tuesday unanimously approved a five-page written response to those recommendations, but their verbal comments made it clear that they remain in conflict.

Trustee Steve Grenbeaux called the grand jury's investigation "remiss" because it did not summon him to testify. "They had one side of the story, but they never interviewed me for the other side of the story," said Grenbeaux, the board's president last fall.

Grenbeaux said he wanted to explain why he had the school district's attorney write a letter rebuking Trustee Cindy Marks for not governing "in a dignified and professional manner." That letter, signed by Grenbeaux and then-Vice President Kim Spina, was delivered Sept. 30, 2009, about a month before Marks faced re-election.

The grand jury determined that Marks was reprimanded without any public notice or opportunity to respond, giving "the impression of backroom dealing that is troublesome and should be avoided in the future."

In their written response, trustees agreed any future reprimands will be discussed at a public board meeting.

"I'm pleased we have owned up" to having made a mistake, Trustee Nancy Cline said at Tuesday's meeting. "I would just like to apologize (to Cindy Marks) for how you were treated."

"I disagree," responded Grenbeaux, noting how the grand jury was wrong for not having interviewed him.

Grenbeaux told The Bee on Wednesday that five of the seven trustees at the time — including Spina, Gary Lopez, Steve Collins and Belinda Rolicheck — would have voted to censure Marks had the reprimand gone before the full board.

Grenbeaux said he knew he had the board majority's support for a reprimand because of closed-door discussions involving personnel issues.

Those issues, concerning disputes between Superintendent Arturo Flores and former Deputy Superintendent Debbe Bailey, led to the letter of reprimand against Marks and the grand jury investigation.

Among the things cited in the reprimand letter was a comment by Bailey to Marks in which she said Flores is "a minority and plays it to the hilt, including that no Hispanic can now be truly held accountable for performance in this district."

The reprimand letter criticized Marks for not having reported Bailey's "insensitive remark" and for not renouncing Bailey's statement.

Voters, meanwhile, re-elected Marks and Cline and replaced Collins and Rolicheck.

Now Flores, who was paid $228,166 last year, is lobbying to have his superintendent's contract renewed. It expires in June 2011, and superintendents traditionally get their contracts extended at least one year in advance. If Flores doesn't get a new contract, the district soon may start searching for a new leader.

Grenbeaux told The Bee he encouraged at least one community member, Acme Construction Co. President Phil Mastagni, to voice public support for Flores. At Tuesday's meeting, Mastagni praised Flores for his efforts overseeing construction of the new $140.7 million Gregori High School.

Several Latino community leaders also spoke in favor of Flores at the meeting.

Trustees have been debating Flores' contract for weeks in various closed-door meetings. When the issue will be scheduled for a public vote is not known.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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