Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

A new school year has started, but many of the same concerns about administration and a two-year-old campus sex scandal persist at Columbia Elementary School.

At a Columbia Union School District board meeting Tuesday night, several members of the public continued to call for Superintendent John Pendley's resignation and questioned the value of a Ph.D. he says he earned from LaSalle University, a since-shuttered diploma mill that operated in Mandeville, La.

A few others criticized the hiring process for the coordinator of the after-school program where a former student was sexually abused on campus. The person taking the position is a board member's wife.

In a sequence of events referenced at every Columbia Elementary board meeting for the past several months, Pendley helped hire his unqualified son as an after-school assistant and later minimize his actions.

During spring 2010, Pendley's son Brennan, now 25, exchanged a series of sexually graphic text messages with a 14-year-old girl in an after-school class he oversaw. He pleaded guilty in June of last year to having sex with her in one of the portable classrooms used for the program.

Brennan Pendley was released from Tuolumne County Jail in March and currently resides in Sacramento County, according to court documents.

The elder Pendley orchestrated a superficial "internal investigation," allowed his son to take a job at another school he oversees after authorities began investigating, and had school staffers write letters to the judge on his son's case, maligning the eighth-grade victim.

Board President Clark Segerstrom said a legal claim against the district, filed on behalf of the victim, still prevents him and other trustees from answering the public's questions about the case.

It even keeps them from providing information about the policies currently in place to protect students or prevent further sexual abuse, according to Segerstrom.

"The audience seems to forget, and we've mentioned many times, that it's a subject we can't respond to at the board meetings because of the tort claim," he said. "They keep repeating that we haven't answered questions … when we absolutely have been prohibited by legal counsel from talking about those subjects."

This spring, Segerstrom requested that the public stop repeating points previously made on the issue.

But a few have persisted in demanding that Pendley resign.

"This thing is going to keep festering," Columbia resident Sarah Little said Tuesday.

"What it really comes down to, once more, is the safety of the children. … The board's refusal to step forward, state where (it) went wrong … says to me that the kids are still not safe."

Addressing Pendley, she finished: "Your legacy is already made. This is going to follow you. If it were me, I would resign and move away where nobody would recognize me."

Other comments centered on Pendley's LaSalle University degree. The school was closed by the FBI in 1996 and its operator jailed for fraud.

Pendley has given different accounts of when he enrolled and graduated from LaSalle, but insists he completed the work required for the advanced degree.

Community member Carol Malispina,a social worker, wondered aloud about "the kind of background check" done before Pendley joined the district.

"I just want to emphasize that Dr. Pendley should resign, and I know this is an ongoing feeling for some of us," she said. "I still think he should take 'doctor' off of his name."

Outgoing Columbia Elementary board member Jeff Tolhurst, a geology professor who has also voiced concerns about Pendley's title, asked Malispina whether she wanted it removed from school district stationery and business correspondence.

"Yes," Malispina said. "It's not legitimate."

Paul Girard and his wife, Pat Dean, a former member of the Yosemite Community College District Board of Trustees, questioned the hiring of Cindy Costello - wife of board member Jeff Costello - as coordinator for the after-school program.

Costello removed himself from the discussion of his wife's employment at the district. The board approved her as after-school coordinator, making just over $16 an hour for six-hour workdays. She has worked for the district for about eight years as an office assistant and after-school program aide.

The board also hired two new after-school assistants, named as Lori Stewart and Cobie Wehmeyer.

The after-school program at Columbia Elementary, the same one attended by the victim of Brennan Pendley's crimes, is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Columbia has gotten almost $158,000 a year for the program since 2008. After the program's fifth year, the total of the grant money received will be about $789,000.

A spokeswoman for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which administers the grant money for Columbia and other after-school programs in the region, said that Columbia's grant will expire in 2013.

Its after-school program currently enrolls 100-plus students and has a waiting list.

In other business Tuesday:

• Pendley gave a budget report that he characterized as "great news." About $46,000 in state transportation funding absent in the 2010-11 school year arrived in 2011-12 and raised the district's bottom line, he said.

Staff also contributed to savings by using fewer classrooms and office supplies.

"Across the board … everybody tightened their belt and we spent less in just about every supply category," Pendley said. "That's one thing I appreciate about the staff."

Combined with savings, higher-than-expected state and local revenues have led the district's fund balance to rise by almost $207,000 over previous estimates, according to Pendley's report.

Pendley suggested using the apparent windfall to "recognize" employees in a way that didn't raise ongoing costs. Board members said they would like to meet with employees and discuss forms the recognition would take.

•Principal Ed Pelfrey said the 2012-13 school year has started off on a good note, citing a well-attended "Back to School Night" on Aug. 30 and an anti-bullying education effort.

•Three Columbia Elementary board candidates attended Tuesday's meeting: Jo Rodefer, Danese Pimentel and Jenny David. They are running in the Nov. 6 general election for Tolhurst's and Segerstrom's seats.

Segerstrom announced he is retiring from the board. Tolhurst declined to run again.

Pimentel and David, both parents of Columbia Elementary students, introduced themselves but did not comment at the meeting.

Rodefer, wife of Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors candidate Karl Rodefer, has joined in calls for Pendley's resignation and read a statement Tuesday.

"As a trustee, I will have no conflicts of interest," she said. "John Pendley answers to the board. … At least, that's supposed to be how it works. And the board answers to the people who elected them."