Columbia Elementary needs to stop stonewalling

By Union Democrat staff May 16, 2011 11:39 am
    For years now, The Union Democrat’s coverage of Columbia Elementary School has been much like that of other local schools.
    We strive to report and recognize the talent, creativity and academic achievements of the students; the dedication and excellence of the teachers; and the on-going operational and budget challenges facing administrators and trustees.
    At Columbia, we’ve written about students’ academic achievements in math and algebra; the talent of the local school band; the skills students acquired in a recent stock market simulation class. A few weeks ago, we wrote about Columbia’s John Russel who was honored with Tuolumne County’s Career Achievement Award for Teachers. He has taught at Columbia for the past 32 years.
      But in recent months, our normal coverage about Columbia Elementary has been overshadowed by an unusual and disturbing turn of events. Following the lead of Sheriff’s detectives and the District Attorney’s office, we’ve reported on the alleged actions of after-school aide Brennan Pendley, 24. He has been charged with three counts of unlawful sex with an eighth-grade girl, a 15-year-old who was in Pendley’s after-school class at Columbia Elementary. He is also charged with exchanging sexual text messages and photos with the same girl.
    Pendley has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
    Following up on some documents released to The Union Democrat under the California Public Records Act, we learned that Brennan’s father — Columbia Superintendent John Pendley — participated in his son’s hiring along with program director Samantha White. Those same documents revealed that Brennan Pendley was poorly qualified for the job. Only after starting work did he pass an exam legally required of those entering aide programs without sufficient college units.
    You would hope and expect school districts — led by highly educated administrators — to embrace the concept of open records, transparency, First Amendment principles and the public’s right to know.
    Not at Columbia School District.
    Over the last five months, The Democrat had to make several Public Records Act requests and secure the services of an attorney to get documents, grudgingly provided by the district.
    In the case of Columbia’s “internal investigation” of Brennan Pendley’s alleged conduct, the district first did not acknowledge that a document existed. When Democrat reporters found, via court documents, that Columbia administrators told sheriff’s detectives on May 11 that an investigation was being conducted, the school district recanted. When released to the newspaper, the bulk of the one-day investigation was “redacted” — or blacked out. The school district also initially refused to produce Brennan Pendley’s job application, then released it with all portions blacked out except for Pendley’s name and signature. After more attorney engagement — a more complete version was released.
    We’re disappointed in the stonewalling of the Columbia School District and their attorney Byron Smith. He’s paid about $125 an hour (according to the Tuolumne County Office of Education) to keep information from the press and the public. That can hardly be justified as good use of taxpayer dollars.
    Columbia School District has an obligation to act honestly, openly and responsibly on an issue of this importance. Taxpayers and parents at Columbia deserve to know how their hard-earned money is being spent and how their school is being run.
    Administrators like John Pendley have chosen to be in the public arena. In making that choice, their actions and decisions are subject to dispute and scrutiny by the public and the press. From Pendley — and other public officials — we have a right to expect greater accountability, transparency and ethical conduct.