Claim over sex acts settled

By Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat February 13, 2013 08:23 am

Columbia Elementary School’s insurers have finalized a $100,000 settlement with the victim of sex crimes perpetrated by Brennan Pendley, a former Columbia after-school program aide. 

The agreement passed a court review and was approved on Feb. 7 by the Tuolumne Joint Power Authority, which insures local school districts. It was also approved by a larger insurer responsible for a portion of the claims above $25,000.  

 

Brennan Pendley, son of Columbia Union School District Superintendent John Pendley, pleaded guilty in 2011 to having unlawful sex with the eighth-grade victim. The settlement resolves a tort claim served on her behalf by Sonora-based attorney Brad Young. 

The Tuolumne Joint Power Authority board is formed of school officials from four counties, who voted to approve the arrangement. John Pendley, though part of the board, didn’t participate in the Feb. 7 vote. 

Columbia Elementary’s Board of Trustees did not vote on the issue, since it’s an agreement between insurers and the victim. 

Young has expressed hope that it might allow Columbia Elementary and the community to move past a dark chapter in their histories.

The number of complaints at Columbia Elementary board meetings, which were steady for more than a year, ebbed since news spread of the settlement in December. They centered on John Pendley’s role in hiring his son, who was unqualified for his after-school aide job, and the stonewalling that followed Brennan Pendley’s crimes in spring 2010. 

Two leading critics of John Pendley — Paul Girard and his wife, Pat Dean, a retired nurse and teacher — attended Tuesday’s Columbia Elementary board meeting to reiterate concerns about student safety. 

“I have repeatedly asked for (a) safety plan,” Dean said. “(I) trust now that we can go back and look at the plan that was in place … and be assured that our students at this fine school are safe and nothing like this can ever happen again.”

Student safety was a topic of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting — but not sexual assault policies as Girard, Dean and several other community members have requested. 

Instead, Pendley discussed the school’s safety plans in the event a school shooter arrived on campus or a natural disaster occurred. The school has reviewed the roles that staff members would carry out in an emergency.

In light of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Tuolumne County superintendents have also met to discuss school safety plans. 

“There’s just a ton of information,” Pendley said Tuesday, adding that chief concerns were communicating with parents and deciding which information was age-appropriate for students.

His summary touched on details such as the presence of an “emergency backpack” in each classroom and a trend toward school staff carrying guns, which he said Columbia has decided not to pursue. 

Pendley appears to be heavily involved in local discussions about school safety, serving as chairman at a meeting with law enforcement to discuss how it interfaces with schools in “times of crisis.” 

He made no mention Tuesday of safety policies aimed at preventing sexual abuse of students by employees or others.  

Following the meeting, board President Laura Phelan refused to comment on the policies or answer questions about whether new guidelines have been put in place since the 2010 crimes.

Phelan said such questions have already been addressed. But at several 2012 meetings, former trustee Clark Segerstrom deferred them by claiming that Young’s tort claim prevented board members from answering until it was resolved. 

Pendley publicly apologized for his son’s crimes at a packed board meeting in September 2011. The district issued a letter to parents the same month, accepting responsibility to prevent future sex crimes on campus but failing to acknowledge Pendley’s role in the situation. 

After Tuesday’s meeting, Girard reiterated his dissatisfaction with Pendley as the district’s leader and called for public clarification of its hiring practices.  

He said he was alarmed by the apparent ease with which the Board of Trustees finalizes Pendley’s choice of school staffers, having approved several employees in recent months without asking questions about their backgrounds. 

“I expected them to tell me that they would have something in place to guarantee that people who were hired would be able to protect the children,” Girard said. “I’m a little bit leery of that, given past experience over there.” 

In other news, Pendley will continue working as a “shared superintendent” for both Columbia and Belleview school districts through June 2015, pending approval by Belleview.

The two districts have a combined enrollment of roughly 720 students. 

Belleview Elementary School pays for 25 percent of Pendley’s total compensation, including business expenses, health benefits and retirement contributions. He works there at least one and one-quarter of a weekday. 

He has said he intends to retire in 2015. His base salary currently stands at about $167,000. His health benefits amount to $8,200, and his compensation for business expenses is $3,600.

Last year, Pendley’s base salary was the second-highest of any superintendent in a six-county Central Sierra region including Amador, Calaveras, Inyo, Mariposa and Mono counties. 

Columbia Elementary trustees on Tuesday agreed to continue sharing Pendley with Belleview. Belleview’s board will consider the arrangement on Friday.