Columbia El bids farewell to trustees

Written by Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat November 14, 2012 12:33 pm

Community members delivered parting words to two outgoing Columbia Union School District trustees at a meeting Tuesday, weaving their comments with either criticism or support for Superintendent John Pendley.

Some meeting attendees praised trustee Jeff Tolhurst, who did not seek reelection, for his resistance to the school board’s handling of a sex scandal on campus involving Pendley’s son. 

 

Others thanked exiting trustee Clark Segerstrom for his service in the face of the public outcry. He has been on the board for about 17 years and spent five as board president. 

Tuesday’s board meeting was the last for both Segerstrom and Tolhurst. 

Meanwhile, Pendley announced that trustee Jeff Costello resigned on Oct. 31, less than a week before the Nov. 6 general election that decided who would fill Tolhurst and Segerstrom’s seats.

A review by the district’s legal counsel prevented Costello’s wife Cindy Costello, who works in the Columbia Elementary School office and the after-school program, from taking a promotion to after-school program supervisor in September. 

Absent Jeff Costello, the Board of Trustees approved Cindy Costello for the paid position at its September meeting. The arrangement was later reeled back. 

“There’s a potential conflict of interest that exists with (Costello’s) wife working here and him serving as a board member,” Pendley said Tuesday. 

Rules about nepotism in hiring for the after-school program haven’t always been so clear at Columbia Elementary. 

In 2009, Pendley hired his own son, Brennan, as an aide for the program, which is now in its third year and funded by about $162,500 in annual grant money. 

While working for Columbia Elementary’s program in spring 2010, Brennan Pendley had sex with a 14-year-old girl in a classroom. 

After it was reported to the authorities, John Pendley orchestrated a flimsy “internal investigation” that found nothing wrong had occurred. He later had staff members including school counselor Tina Cruz write letters to the judge on his son’s case, with Cruz’s letter calling the victim a “willing participant” in the crimes. 

Community members have referenced Pendley’s handling of the situation at every meeting since news of the crimes became public, with almost 200 people attending a meeting in September 2011. 

Segerstrom, who didn’t seek reelection this year, has said the board and district are “very sorry” for the crimes.

However, he also insists that a legal claim filed on behalf the victim prevents the board from discussing its handling of the fallout. 

In March, Segerstrom tried to prevent members of the public from repeating previously made comments about the scandal. At the next meeting he rephrased the new requirement as a request, which several community members continued to set aside on Tuesday. 

“We’ve been here over a year only to be stonewalled,” said community member Paul Girard, one of Pendley’s most vocal critics. “This board has showed (Tolhurst) total disrespect on several occasions.”

To Tolhurst, he added: “Thank you for your valiant effort.” 

Columbia resident Sarah Little voiced her ongoing discomfort with Pendley and the board’s handling of the crimes on campus.

“The more I come here, the more I am creeped out,” Little said. “We will not back off. If anything, we will continue to watch you squirm, as (Pendley) sits here and writes and tries to ignore us.”

Other community members praised board president Segerstrom. 

“The argument that this so-called scandal is going to be the legacy of the board, that’s not,” said Pendley supporter Robert Frobose. “(It’s) you guys hiring Dr. Pendley, and standing by one of the best superintendents this county has ever seen.” 

Frobose also restated his belief that board members are “not accountable” to Pendley critics who live outside the district, many of whom do. 

“The question is, have they committed to something that positive and long-term? No. You’ve done a great job, Clark. My hat’s off to you.”

Dan Ward, a retired firefighter with family members who attended and work at Columbia Elementary, joined in complementing Segerstrom. 

“You’ve withstood the withering criticism that has occurred,” Ward said. “You’ve done an excellent job.” 

Segerstrom, a local real estate broker, is a longtime board member who helped hire Pendley in 1999. Tolhurst is a Columbia College geology professor with two daughters at Columbia Elementary, and this year was his fifth as a trustee due to the timing of elections. 

Tolhurst clashed repeatedly with fellow trustee Laura Phelan on issues of protocol and requirements of California’s open-meeting law, the Brown Act, stating in a March 2011 email that rules against schoolyard bullying should apply to interactions between board members. Phelan took issue with the comparison. 

At a board meeting earlier this year, Tolhurst said he hoped the board can reconsider its refusal to address public concerns about the sex scandal and steps taken to prevent abuse. 

On Tuesday, he also repeated his call for Pendley to remove the title of “Dr.” from all district stationary and communication, since Pendley obtained his “Ph.D.” from a Louisiana diploma mill. 

Segerstrom conceded to Tolhurst’s request to place a discussion of the doctorate on a meeting agenda. However, it was listed cryptically as a “Superintendent Evaluation” and an item to be addressed behind closed doors. 

At the end of the meeting’s closed session, Segerstrom announced no action was taken on the issue.

“There will be no comment on closed session,” he said when asked whether the board had indeed decided to keep Pendley’s title on district literature. 

“It went pretty much how I expected,” Tolhurst later said of the conversation. “I wish I could comment.” 

Segerstrom and Tolhurst’s seats will be filled Dec. 11 by Jo Rodefer, wife of Tuolumne County District 5 supervisor-elect Karl Rodefer, and Columbia Elementary parent Danese Pimentel. 

Over Tolhurst’s objections, the remaining trustees decided Tuesday to appoint a board member to replace Costello, rather than hold a special election at the district’s expense.

Phelan and trustee Jeff Wittman remarked that holding a special election would be too costly. 

Reached after the meeting, Tuolumne County Clerk and Auditor-Recorder Debi Russell Bautista estimated a special election would likely cost between $2,000 to $4,000, depending on the number of voters within the district. A recent special election for Columbia Fire Protection District cost about $2,000. 

Coincidentally, Columbia Elementary’s board decided Tuesday to grant each full-time employee in the district — Pendley excepted — the amount of $2,000 as a bonus. Part-time employees will also get bonuses on a sliding scale. 

Columbia Union School District has about 60 employees, according to an estimate from Tami Ethier, Assistant Superintendent for Business Services at the Tuolumne County Office of Education.  

Pendley suggested the move as a result of the district’s better-than-expected financial position in September, the result of transportation funding that wasn’t included in the budget and what Pendley described as savings from office supplies. 

As for the choice not to hold an election, Russell Bautista confirmed appointing board members to fill surprise vacancies is largely “the norm” for school districts.   

“For most of the special districts, especially the school districts and the fire districts, they’ll announce a vacancy, people will apply, and their board will appoint,” Russell Bautista said. 

Costello would have needed to resign last summer for his seat to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot, she said. 

Columbia Elementary will publish public notices of the vacancy, verify candidates’ eligibility and set a date for board members to interview them at a public meeting. The application process has not formally started, Pendley said.

Potential board members must be at least 18 years old and live within Columbia Elementary district boundaries.

Interviews will take place sometime after Dec. 11, meaning that Rodefer and Pimentel will help decide who will take the fifth board seat. 

Tolhurst remarked that his five-year tenure on the Board of Trustees has taught him a great deal. 

“I’ve definitely learned a lot more than geology,” he said. “I’ve been glad that (my daughters) have observed that I’m not afraid to speak the truth to power.”