A district teacher and a Tuolumne County agriculture advocate called on Sonora Union High School District Trustee Jeanie Smith to resign following the release of email records in which she stated her intention to block new board members from interfering in the sale of the district-owned Wildcat Ranch to the The Park Foundation.
“I understand your frustrations. I've had the courage to step into the arena and do what's best for kids,” Smith said, responding to public comments from Debbie Hopper, certificated teachers union president, and Shaun Crook, a member of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, an agriculture advocacy organization that sued the district over its handling of the sale of 112 acres at the ranch to The Park Foundation for $1 million.
“I understand your request to resign, but I have no intention of resigning,” Smith said.
Debbie Hopper, president of the district’s certificated teachers union, referred to Smith as a “common thread” in the “turmoil that has smothered our school district” since the Sonora Aquatic Center Measure J bond project, a financial crisis during the 2016-17 school year and with the sale of Wildcat Ranch.
“You have a history of making decisions and pushing agendas that have been harmful to our school and doing so with dishonesty and willful lack of transparency,” Hopper said.
Hopper said district staff believed their concerns about Smith’s “shady” involvement in the ranch deal were validated by the release of the documents.
“I ask you to please step down and let our school move forward and heal,” Hopper said.
Shaun Crook, the second vice president of the California Farm Bureau, the state organization associated with the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, said Superintendent Mark Miller and trustees who voted for the sale are responsible for the financial impact of the lawsuit against the district.
“None of this should have happened. You were warned what the consequences could be. You were repeatedly asked not to go down this path, yet you forged ahead. Jeanie Smith, you pushed this deal from the beginning and tasked Mr. Miller with executing it at all costs.”
The lawsuit alleged the board violated the Brown Act, a state law meant to preserve the public’s right to participate in meetings of legislative bodies, in its negotiations with The Park Foundation and also violated the surplus property sale requirements.
The board with the newly seated members canceled the sale on May 14 after a protracted lawsuit, which cost the district approximately $200,000, including $90,000 paid to the Farm Bureau’s representation as a result of a settlement agreement. Smith was the only board member to vote against canceling the deal.
Crook also laid blame directly on Miller and The Park Foundation.
“Your conduct has been atrocious, and nothing that has come out of your mouth has been beneficial or positive for this district,” Crook said. He cited Miller’s statements in a radio interview and that he cut up a piece of a picture of a barn at a board meeting to represent the cost of the litigation.
Crook called on Miller to cooperate with efforts by the agriculture community and the career and technical education department to develop a multi-step plan for the Wildcat Ranch and construct a barn.
Later in the meeting, Smith requested an update on what happens at the ranch each week.
“I just don't know what goes on down there,” Smith said.
Crook also accused The Park Foundation of “bullying and coercing this district into a bad and illegal land deal.”
No members of The Park Foundation were present at the board meeting.
Park Foundation president/founder Ron Jacobs has declined to comment on the board other than to call the decision to cancel the purchase and sale agreement illegal.
According to the board’s agenda, trustees talked in closed session about anticipated litigation related to the Wildcat Ranch, but reported no action was taken.
Earlier in the day at a board evaluation meeting, Smith was confronted by Trustee Erik Andal for appearing to give Miller a “directive” as an individual trustee to close out the sale before the new trustees were seated.
Smith wrote in an Oct. 17, 2018, email to Miller and Cindy Costello, administrative assistant to the superintendent, “Please let our attorney know that we need to have this deal done, approved and out of escrow before the new board is seated on December 12. That’s the day they get seated, right? I know this seems like we are trying to keep them from having a voice … and I suppose that’s true. But I really think if it isn’t complete and irrevocable before they come in, it will all fall apart.”
At the board evaluation, Smith defended her comments as an “opinion.”
She said her comments to The Union Democrat on Oct. 24, 2018 — that the board was not “actively trying” to complete the deal before the new board members were seated — were representative of the entire body.
Smith, who was president of the board at the time of the emails, said on Oct. 24, “We are moving forward cautiously on a good settlement or good agreement. If it gets done before the election, then it gets done, and if it doesn't, we move forward from there.”
To Andal during the evaluation, she said, “I had been to some of the candidate forums and heard the candidates indicate they had some real concerns about the deal, so I was concerned they would vote against it.”
Smith said she stood by her decision as “a good thing for kids” and private support for the deal in the emails matched her statements at public meetings.
She added that the board who voted for the purchase sale agreement in a 3-1 vote on Dec. 4 — Smith, former Trustee Rob Lyons and former Trustee Jeff Norstrom all voted for the deal, with current Trustee Kim Norton voting against and former Trustee Kathy Ankrom absent — was “qualified to make that decision” because they had dealt with the property and it's eventual sale over two years.
“I feel like it was good and still do,” she said at the evaluation.
Miller and the other board members did not comment on the calls for Smith’s resignation during the meeting.
At the evaluation, they said they submitted statements before the deadline of July 1. The story was published in The Union Democrat on July 4.
The references to the ranch in the documents were few, but President Jim Riggs wrote in an area designated for suggested improvements that he believed the former board took an action that divided the community.
“I believe the current board would have been able to build on the efforts of the former board but were not given the opportunity to do so,” he said.
Hopper also said in her statement it was a conflict of interest that Smith’s husband was “on the board” with a “parks and rec” group. During her statement, Smith said the claim was untrue and she believed other “erroneous” information was being discussed.
Hopper said during the closed session she was referencing Smith’s husband making a public statement in support of the ranch sale at a meeting.
According to Union Democrat records from Dec. 17, Smith’s husband, Don, and Rob Lyons, then a former district trustee, made public statements in support of the project at a meeting where the new board intended to review the sale.
An undated statement included in a Jan. 31, 2019, email with the subject “Rob Lyons - Texts for Records Request” was sent from Costello’s personal email to her district email.
“In order to avoid the new board to be involved, the deal has to close and not just be a signed contract. I’m told the escrow is usually at least 15 days. Our attorney recommended that a title search be started ASAP to help expedite the process. Even a signed contract could be voided by a new non-aligned board says our attorney,” the message said.
The three-hour board self-evaluation held Tuesday afternoon focused on the philosophical view of the board as a guide for decision-making and as a sounding board for the concerns of district stakeholders, but a few substantive discussions focused on the board and Miller’s shared role of governance.
Andal said campus morale is at an all-time low because of a lack of administrative leadership and the perception Miller is not responsive to staff concerns.
“I think there is another core group of teachers that aren’t burnt out and have pretty good morale and want to do the right thing, and I think tapping into that is key,” Miller responded.
Andal also sought to dissuade concerns from Smith that he was biased because he was “recruited by the two unions” to run in the 2018 election.
The evaluation was facilitated by Terry Clark, Sonora High School principal from 2001 to 2007.
The board approved the formation of an advisory committee tasked with determining whether the district alternative education campus at Cassina High School should be declared surplus.
Smith and Trustee Nancy Scott met with Alan Zimmerly, president of the Historic Dome Preservation Group, to determine the parameters of committee members who should be selected.
Smith said the group did not discuss specific names.
The group determined there should be seven members, the minimum amount required for a 7-11 committee, and include community representatives such as a landowner or renter who lives in the neighborhood, a parent of a district student, a teacher, a realtor, an administrator, a representative of the city of Sonora, an appraiser or attorney who could act as an expert in building code, and a person with knowledge about needed maintenance at the dome.
Smith said applications will be due by Aug. 31, and the committee will be formed by the second September meeting. The committee will be tasked with developing a recommendation in 60 days, Smith said.
“Our hope is this committee could be individuals who don't have any sort of leaning any way or other that can address this issue in a neutral manner,” Smith said.
Smith said the discussion would be on the entire seven-acre property, which includes the campus and the ball field below the dome.
The dome and two adjacent buildings, which were declared surplus in January 2018, will remain surplus.