PASO ROBLES – The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District (PRJUSD) Board of Trustees met on Saturday, Jan. 9, to review, in detail, the entire Grand Jury Report titled “Paso Robles School District: A Cautionary Tale,” dated Nov. 17, 2020.
The report reads like a fictional story; however, it explains the events in detail that led to the school districts’ financial crisis.
Board members spent several hours reviewing, discussing, and giving insight into the findings of errors found by the Grand Jury.
Board President Christopher Arend started the meeting by requesting a change to the order of the agenda. The Board voted 6-0 to move the discussion about retaining the council to the end of the agenda.
Trustee Lance Gannon was not in attendance.
The report starts by giving a brief overview of the school district’s financial problems between 2015 and 2018, which led them to become subject to a second Grand Jury investigation, with the first being in 2012.
The report is broken down into three parts; School District Leadership, District Reserve Management, and The Aquatic Complex.
According to the summary, the report was “self-generated, prompted by news reports in accordance with the guidelines for the Grand Jury.”
Burkley Baker called in for public comment on item F1 prior to the board starting. “I hope that this will finally come to a conclusion. I also hope that the board takes this very seriously; the fact that this took two months for this meeting is a little concerning to me. The voters take it seriously; the voters rejected four incumbents that were involved in this Grand Jury, everyone that they possibly could they voted out of office.”
Barker continued, “The grand jury did not really touch too much on what I would say the human factor in terms of the intimidation, retribution, harassment, bullying in general abuse of employees in this school district. I hope that the School Board looks at that because it was a big big part of what happened under the Williams administration, not him but also some of his staff, and the whole Board had an attitude lets move on, not look back rather a cavalier attitude, I thought so I hope it changes now, and again I hope that this board recognizes what the people want… I hope that this is done and I hope that it is transparent and I hope that it is specific, and I hope that it is put to rest once and for all so that this district can move forward in a positive atmosphere that is has in the past it is a great school district.”
After a slightly heated conversation between Trustees Tim Gearhart and Chris Bausch regarding a motion allowing Board members to disclose information from a closed session proposed by Trustee Arend, it was decided to not to allow authorization.
The chapter on leadership focused on three “key elements,” the district superintendent and administration: two, the School Board of Trustees and third, the County Board of Education.
The report states that the purpose of this chapter is to report on the investigation into the impact of leadership failures at all three levels.
At the Dec. 7, 2018, PRJUSD Special Board Meeting, Joan Summers, Former Board President, announced, “Superintendent Williams initiated his resignation, and we are sad to say that the Board and Superintendent Williams came to a mutual agreement effective 60 days from today, Dec. 7.”
Summers thanked former Superintendent Williams on behalf of the Board for all of his hard work since coming to the district in August of 2014. “I want to thank you for your moral integrity, your one team one dream, your passion for student success.”
The vote back in 2018 was 6-1 to accept the resignation of Williams. Trustee Chris Bausch voted no and did not want to see Williams leave. “I don’t want to see Mr. Williams resign,” Bausch said. “I want to see the good work that he started continue, albeit within our financial limitations. Mr. Williams has done some great things. He has done everything the board has asked him to do, and that is why we are in a financially compromised situation. He will be missed.”
According to the Grand Jury report, Williams negotiated a lucrative severance package as a condition of his resignation without the approval of the San Luis County Office of Education (SLOCOE). SLOCOE reported that the former superintendent did not meet his contract’s requirements that would entitle him to any severance package; however, the resignation was accepted and remunerated by the outgoing Board of Trustees.
The SLOCOE monitor stated they were not a part of the first negotiation and should have been, and they would not have approved the original agreement. The County Superintendent ended up negotiating a new agreement with smaller terms that saved the cost of a protracted lawsuit.
As the Board reviewed the document details, several members’ mishandlings by the Grand Jury could be traced back to Williams.
Board members Chris Bausch and Tim Gearhart were both board members when former Superintendent Chris Williams was in position. Both members expanded on their experience with Chris Williams and corroborated the corruption that was occurring.
Trustees Bausch and Gearhart were able to provide insight into the district atmosphere while under Chris Williams. Both provided examples of miscommunication between the former Superintendent and the Board of Trustees.
Several accusations were made that insinuated Chris Williams hired many unqualified people out of the district who had ties to Chris Williams, rather than hiring qualified individuals within the district.
The yet-to-be-built Aquatics Complex was heavily discussed as the Grand Jury highlighted the plan as an example of the School Board failures.
From the Grand Jury report, “The purpose of the report is to illustrate how the administration of the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District (PRJUSD) erred and created financial blunders that impacted the entire district operation. The Grand Jury (SLOGJ) believes that nothing illustrates these failures better than the example of the Aquatic Complex plan, which to date, is not close to being constructed.”
The Grand Jury report mentioned in their findings of Chapter 3: The Aquatics Complex, that there is a lack of support from the community for the complex.
This idea was refuted by a public caller and Trustee Nathan Williams (no relation to Chris Williams), and Tim Gearhart.
“There is plenty of evidence out there showing the community has a great deal of support,” said Trustee Williams.
The report stated a lack of funding for the complex proved community support was evident, which was explained by Trustee Williams and a public caller that COVID-19 had prevented fundraising efforts not because there is no interest in the complex.
Before reaching the report’s recommendations portion, the Board motioned to table agenda item F.2 and F.4 to be discussed at the Jan. 12 meeting at 4 p.m.
Recommendations on how to proceed will be discussed at the Jan. 12 meeting; updates on the progress and outcome will be forthcoming.
PRJUSD Second Special Meeting Jan. 12
The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District (PRJUSD) met for a second time on Tuesday, Jan. 12, at 4 p.m. to continue their special meeting from Sat. Jan. 9, which focused on the Grand Jury Report: Paso Robles Schools: A Cautionary Tale.
The board continued their discussion of the recommendations made by the Grand Jury in the report.
The board must submit its responses to all findings and recommendations to the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court no later than Feb. 17.
In regards to the second recommendation, which states:
“The District shall require comprehensive training for new hires who are responsible for financial accounting and business operations.”
Trustee Tim Gearhart commented on the recommendation saying, “We’ve done that.”
Trustee Bausch commented that he hadn’t seen any training for financial employees. Although he trusts there is training in place, he suggests everyone knows and understands what the training entails.
Bausch said, “I think what happened last time, during Mr. William’s tenure, people knew and saw what was happening, but they were terrified to come forward and tell anybody. If somebody called me, it was under penalty of secrecy, and I could not tell anybody.”
Recommendation three suggested a revamp of board meeting structures to allow for a more focused agenda.
Board president Arend, agreed they need more focused agendas but mentioned that it couldn’t be done depending on the circumstances. A great example of this was how COVID brought a brutal amount of agenda items to the table, all of which were time-sensitive.
Related to meeting agendas, Bausch brought up, “We get all of the information to help say yes, and agree with staff suggestions. We get very little information or shown where to find information for something that opposes staff recommendation. That’s not fair. We’re led to make a positive decision in the staff’s favor. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing in every case, but it goes back to Tim’s point of rubber-stamping it-there are negative things, and we need to know what happens if we say no, we need to know what happens if we say yes.”
Superintendent Curt Dubost responded to Trustee Bausch’s statement saying they would work on bringing more information to the table.
Trustee Bausch motioned to adjourn the special board meeting to be continued Jan. 19 at 4 p.m. to resume discussion on Recommendation 10 and conclude the rest of the agenda, seconded by Dorian Baker and passed 7-0.