Sparks fly at Columbia meeting

Written by Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat October 10, 2012 12:27 pm

Sonora resident Robert Dorroh (right), addresses (from left) Superintendent John Pendley and trustees Clark Segerstrom, Laura Phelan, Jeff Wittman and Jeff Tolhurst. Brenna Swift, Union Democrat/copyright 2012
 The Columbia Union School District Board of Trustees called sheriff’s deputies to its meeting Tuesday after a community member disregarded a three-minute limit on public comments, instead continuing to criticize Superintendent John Pendley’s educational background and conduct.

Robert Dorroh, a Sonora resident who has attended most Columbia Elementary board meetings within the past several months to protest Pendley’s handling of a 2010 sex scandal on campus, said he would not obey the three-minute limit on public comments established by Board President Clark Segerstrom.

 

At Pendley’s direction, Segerstrom called a break to the meeting. He later quoted a board rule that allowed “disruptive” individuals to be removed from the space. 

Two Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived and waited outside the school library, where the district’s board meetings are held, after Dorroh said he would engage in an act of civil disobedience and neither stop addressing the board nor leave.

No arrest was made.  

“I think your actions as board president are cowardly and shameful,” Dorroh said, addressing Segerstrom. 

”What’s happened here is a disgrace. Mr. Pendley, you need to resign. Don’t you have any respect?” Dorroh said. 

Public meetings 

Pendley has faced criticism from the public at every regular Board of Trustees meeting since news broke in late 2010 of a crime perpetrated by his son, Brennan Pendley, then an after-school program aide.  

In spring 2010, Brennan Pendley, now 25, exchanged a series of sexually explicit 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 now lives in Sacramento County, according to court documents.

The elder Pendley helped hire his unqualified son for the position in the program, funded by a competitive federal grant. 

He later minimized Brennan Pendley’s crimes, orchestrating a superficial “internal investigation” of the incidents and allowing his son to take a job at another school he oversees.

He also had school staffers write letters to the judge on Brennan Pendley’s case, maligning the eighth-grade victim. A letter by school counselor Tina Cruz called her a “willing participant” in the crimes. 

Several community members, including Dorroh, have repeatedly called for Pendley’s resignation and that of four out of five board members. 

Segerstrom says Columbia Elementary’s lawyers advised the board not to discuss its handling of the crimes or their aftermath until a legal claim against the district is resolved. 

Earlier this year, Segerstrom also attempted to prohibit community members from “repeating” previously made points about the scandal during public comment periods at board meetings. 

Sheriff called 

During the recess in Tuesday’s meeting, Dorroh approached Pendley and called him “shameful.” 

Pendley said he was feeling “threatened” and asked Dorroh to “leave him alone.”

Dorroh, who uses a wheelchair, said he made no threats.

“I’m in a wheelchair, and I’m threatening him?” he said.

Columbia Elementary Principal Ed Pelfrey called the Sheriff’s Office and conferred with two deputies outside the building, joined by Pendley and board members. The deputies remained outside the building and ultimately left the scene.

“We didn’t want there to be a conflict,” Pelfrey said. 

Dorroh allowed other community members to speak before interrupting the proceedings again, saying he wasn’t done talking.

After the meeting was halted and convened a second time, Dorroh approached the board members where they were seated at a set of tables.

He took a plastic water bottle from board member Laura Phelan’s hand and threw it on the floor, also unplugging an overhead projector that Pelfrey quickly retrieved. 

“You’ve been wasting my time for months,” Dorroh said. “I want my questions answered.”

Dorroh waited in front of the tables while the Board of Trustees attempted to ignore him completely. He left at the end of the meeting, saying he had made his point.

Board and public concerns 

Many of the most recent complaints from Dorroh and other community members have centered on Pendley’s doctoral degree, which came from a former diploma mill in Mandeville, La.  

Public records show that in 2000 and 2001, Columbia Elementary paid Pendley two separate “stipends” for the degree. Dorroh asked whether Pendley planned to give the sum back to Columbia Elementary. 

Segerstrom has said the district isn’t planning to seek the return of the money. 

Board member Jeff Tolhurst asked Tuesday why his recent request to place a discussion of Pendley’s doctoral title on the meeting agenda was shot down, a decision made by Pendley and Segerstrom. 

At Pendley’s recommendation, the Board of Trustees will now seek legal advice on whether the discussion must be placed on a meeting agenda after formal requests from both Tolhurst and members of the public. 

Tolhurst has a doctorate in geology from the University of South Carolina and teaches at Columbia College. His term as a Columbia Union School District Board of Trustees member is ending this year, and he is not seeking reelection. Neither is Segerstrom. 

In addition to a range of comments made Tuesday on Pendley’s educational background and policies to prevent further sexual abuse on campus, a few community members spoke about the board’s decision to call the sheriff on Dorroh. 

“This has turned into such a public relations fiasco,” said Jo Rodefer, a candidate for one of two seats that are opening up on the board. “You guys have just mishandled so many things. It didn’t have to spiral this far out of control.” 

The opinion was seconded by community member Sarah Little.

“I think it’s too bad you had to run out and talk to the police,” she said. “That was kind of silly.”