By Brittany Miller & Jonathan Whitaker
The Times has obtained a copy of a letter that Allen Brooks, the president of the Merced City School District Board of Trustees, promised would explain the reason for the board’s recent firing of McPherson and Jacobson, the firm charged with helping to find the district’s next superintendent.
“I write on behalf of the Board to tell you of our perception that the actions of your consultants constituted a breach of trust, sowed discord, and created a major distraction in our community,” the letter signed by Brooks reads. “Moreover, all of these actions were completely outside the scope of what the Board retained you to do: initially, to identify the characteristics the District Community desired in the next Superintendent and, subsequently, to assist us in identifying the right person to fill that role.”
The Board of Trustees endured harsh criticism from teachers, staff and residents after the vote to terminate McPherson and Jacobsen on Sept. 22. The decision was made on a split 3-2 vote, with board members Beatrice McCutchen and Priya Lakireddy voting against the move. The move also coincided with the controversial release of a “stakeholder input report” from the firm after meetings were held with members of the MCSD community, including teachers and staff. Critics of the board have suggested in public that the firm was fired because of unflattering comments made about the board and district management that showed up in the survey responses. Brooks says that’s not true.
According to the letter signed by Brooks, and obtained by the Times through a Public Records Act request, McPherson and Jacobsen consultants reached out to the district prior to a board meeting on Sept. 12: “They informed MCSD of concerning information they received from various individuals during their community meetings that, if true, could create significant exposure to potential liability. The consultants stated that they wanted to bring these concerns to the Board, and this information was included in a draft report they had created. Although the Board has not seen or reviewed this ‘draft report,’ the Board heard the concerns of the consultants at a closed-session board meeting.
“The Board took the concerns identified by the consultants seriously,” the letter goes on. “However, it is not in the practice of releasing confidential personnel information, especially without proper investigation into the allegations, as is required by law and District policy. The Board plans to address concerns that were unrelated and outside of the scope of the Superintendent search, separately and appropriately, in accordance with its policies and the laws surrounding employee privacy. The Board directed the consultants to provide it with the high-level summaries requested in the contract. These high-level summaries were the same type of summaries the District had requested and received during its last three Superintendent searches.
“Instead of heeding this direction, the consultants decided the ‘draft report,’ which included the raw data they asserted would expose the District to potential liability, constituted a public record. This was a legal determination that they had no authority or authorization to make. Your consultants then took the unprecedented and unilateral action of releasing the “draft report” to an outside agency without consultation with, or notice to the District, and without the Board ever seeing this ‘draft report.’ The District only learned that your consultants had taken this action because the outside agency informed the District. Despite repeated requests, your organization refused to provide any information about who this draft report was provided to, and when it was provided.”
The name of the “outside agency” that initially received the report has not been named by Brooks or the MCSD administration. A representative for McPherson and Jacobson declined to comment when contacted by the Times. At the MCSD Board meeting last week, Brooks stated the report was spread among district employees, and indicated one trustee had seen the report.
This week, the Times also obtained documents that show Board Trustee Lakireddy and Merced City Teachers Association President Diane Pust made separate Public Records Act requests by email for the “MCSD Stakeholder Report” on the same day, the morning of Sept. 14, less than an hour apart from one another. The requests were directed to Steve Tietjen, the superintendent of schools for the Merced County Office of Education.
When asked this, Lakireddy told the Times: “I received information that the report was in public hands. I believed it was a public document so I made the request.”
Lakireddy said she did not share the stakeholder report.
According to a Times source who have knowledge of the matter, the document appears to be part of a service contract between the search firm and the MCSD Board; however, other sources have described it as a public document paid for by taxpayer dollars. There doesn’t appear to be any confidential data or protected student information in the document.
At last week’s Board meeting, several public comments claimed that the district paid $25,000 to McPherson and Jacobson for the superintendent search. The contract between the search firm was approximately $25,000; however, to date the district has only paid approximately $9,000. The district has terminated the contract with the search firm and no more payments are forthcoming at this point.
According to the letter Brooks wrote to the firm, the three reasons for terminating the agreement were: 1. Breach of Contract, 2. Breach of Confidentiality, and 3. Going against the Board’s directives in closed session.
Brooks noted that they believe that the actions of the search firm would justify legal action, but that the School Board intends to focus their efforts on continuing the search for a new superintendent.
“We want the focus to stay on task — as far as finding our next superintendent,” Brooks told the Times. “That’s our goal.”
For Trustee Lakireddy, however, the stakeholders document that was shared contained “serious issues that should not be ignored.”
“I want us to focus on what the report is saying, and to rebuild trust and restore confidence with our community,” she told the Times.
Comments from stakeholders in the report included statements like:
• “You can’t speak out without fear of retaliation” in the district.
• The school board “micromanages” and is “divided and not cohesive.”
• “Inappropriate affairs between administrators making things uncomfortable.”
At last week’s board meeting, Lakireddy made local headlines by describing the board as being in “a leadership crisis” and “utter chaos.”
Board President Brooks said he was blindsided by Lakireddy’s comments, and he’s not buying them. “That was the first time I have heard about the board being in chaos,” he told the Times. “In less than a year that this board has been working together, we have been able to accomplish quite a bit for the district and the community. We increased communication and transparency with teachers and classified staff. We have made strides in improving literacy among our students. We have introduced more counseling and tutoring.”
Unfortunately, Brooks said, the board is now struggling to get through a thick and negative smokescreen.
“We are now in a position where the search has been delayed, and our community is awash in misinformation,” he wrote in the letter.