Union Democrat Editorial Board

It's Thanksgiving, and what better time to skewer the biggest turkeys in Tuolumne County - Columbia Elementary Superintendent John Pendley and his board majority.

The latest embarrassment involving the district's so-called "leadership" entails tens of thousands of dollars in employee bonuses.

Pendley proposed the payments - about $2,000 for each employee - to "reward" his staff for reasons he's never specified.

More likely, it was just another lame attempt to win friends and manipulate people.

The board, slippery as ever, approved the $100,000-plus allurement.

The first question the public should ask: Can the district afford it?

Pendley and the board seem to think so.

Hard to imagine when Trustee Laura Phelan claims the district can't even afford to hold a $2,000 special election to put a new person on the board, to replace resigning Trustee Jeff Costello. (The board majority, of course, would rather cherry pick another stooge than risk asking voters).

Is it affordable:

• when school budgets statewide are being pinched?

• at a time when Columbia students are routinely asked to peddle candy to raise money for field trips?

• when an expensive legal settlement or lawsuit is surely in the wings - the result of a legal claim from the girl sexually exploited on campus by the superintendent's son?

Saying the district can pay this largess clearly signals one of two things: Columbia's leaders are stiffing voters and students, or they're lying about the district's finances.

Second question: Can this be legal?

Bonuses paid to public school employees are very rare, but not without precedent.

At the larger Summerville High School District, staffers last summer split about $45,000 in bonuses.

Columbia Elementary trustees rubber stamped their district's bonuses in a "closed session" meeting with the district's union representatives.

The Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law, very narrowly allows boards to meet behind closed doors for very specific reasons. Among them: to discuss an actual or very probable lawsuit; to negotiate land or labor contracts; or to conduct an employee evaluation.

Attempting to buy the love of staffers who have been tarred by a leadership's bad judgments is not mentioned anywhere in the act.

Our legal advisers say it was likely legal if construed as a labor negotiation.

So the bonuses may pass the legal test, but certainly fail the smell test.

They'll certainly play well with employees, who are unlikely to refuse this gift of public money.

But don't be fooled into thinking this is anything less than the shallowest of bribes.