Big Changes, Tensions Roil Fallbrook Union Elementary School Board

Education

Big Changes, Tensions Roil Fallbrook Union Elementary School Board

After a new electoral process dramatically changed the board’s makeup, a question has emerged in recent weeks: Should the board tap outside legal counsel to investigate an internal complaint against one of its own?

Fallbrook schools
The Fallbrook Union Elementary School District headquarters / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For years, Caron Lieber has been the lone voice of dissent at the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, voting against salary increases for the superintendent and more. But thanks to turnover brought about by a new electoral system, Lieber now finds herself as the de facto leader of the board, with a majority capable of steering the district in a new direction.

Compared with districts closer to San Diego, Fallbrook Union Elementary is tiny — it serves about 5,000 students — but it’s also becoming one of the most contentious.

Shortly after Lieber and her allies assumed power, she became the subject of an internal complaint. School officials have declined to make the complaint public or provide any sense of what it alleges, citing the privacy of the district employee who filed it.

A question has emerged in recent weeks: Should Fallbrook Union Elementary’s board tap outside legal counsel to investigate the complaint against one of its own?

Lieber and two other board members have shown their intention to hire outside counsel to ensure the complaint gets fair treatment. It’s clear from the deliberations in open session that the new guard doesn’t trust the district’s current attorney, Dan Shinoff.

“The board has the right on its own, not through staff, to hire legal counsel, and direct legal counsel, and that’s what we are looking for in this instance, so under no circumstances would I support having district staff hire counsel in this case,” Fallbrook Union Elementary board member Suzanne Lundin — one of the board members aligned with Lieber — said during a special meeting on Jan. 21. “They’ve already hired who they think should be counsel. Some of us don’t think it’s impartial.”

Shinoff, a prolific San Diego schools attorney from the law firm Artiano Shinoff, has represented the district in various legal issues for decades, including in a wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a former district employee who accused administrators of firing her for objecting to an order to purge emails — a case that Fallbrook Union Elementary lost.

While Shinoff’s firm still represents many other school districts across San Diego County through the County Office of Education’s Risk Management Joint Powers Authority, of which Fallbrook Union Elementary is a member, he has faced criticism for his methods over the years, most notably when the San Ysidro School District sued his firm for alleged malpractice in 2015. San Ysidro was embroiled in a separate legal battle at the time and claimed Shinoff had withheld a settlement proposed by a solar power contractor, intending to draw out the lawsuit and collect extra legal fees. Shinoff’s firm settled with San Ysidro for $1.8 million later that year.

A Poway Unified board member wrote a scathing critique of Shinoff’s actions as that district’s counsel in a 2016 op-ed.

“It should have been clear to the rest of the board that even though he was supposed to be working in the interest of the school district, Shinoff was helping the superintendent,” then-board member Kimberley Beatty wrote.

The Fallbrook dispute is notable not just because of the mystery surrounding the internal complaint, but because it marks yet another district questioning Shinoff’s motives and effectiveness.

Fallbrook Union Elementary has had a fairly stable board for years, with its members largely in agreement and sticking around for long periods of time. The same board Lieber joined in 2018 had a member who’d served since 2004 and another who’d first won election in 1996.

That shifted significantly by the end of 2020.

Patty de Jong, the longest-serving board member, retired in August, and JoAnn Lopez was appointed to fill her seat. De Jong would have been up for re-election in 2022.

Just a couple months after Lopez joined the board, Fallbrook Union Elementary held its first election by subdistrict rather than on an at-large basis, after an attorney alleged the district’s map disadvantaged Latino voters. The board’s vice president and next-longest-serving board member Lisa Masten, along with the board’s then-president Siegrid Stillman, who was first elected in 2012, were both drawn into the same subdistrict, and opted not to run for re-election; they were replaced by new board members Suzanne Lundin and Ricardo Favela.

Those changes resulted in a completely new school board whose members have yet to serve a full term. But the new map was the subject of some controversy. Shortly after she was first elected in 2018, Lieber objected to the original one offered up by a majority of the school board, and it was ultimately rejected by the San Diego County Board of Education for failing to provide voters a majority-Latino trustee area up for grabs in 2020.

That was far from the last fight Lieber would have with the majority bloc, which typically consisted of the three longest-serving board members plus Susan Liebes, who joined in 2018. In October 2019, Lieber voted against a $32,000 contract with a consultant to draft a new mission statement for Fallbrook Union Elementary. The rest of the board approved it in a 4-1 vote.

Lieber has also repeatedly opposed salary increases for Superintendent Candace Singh — who, with a 2019 salary of a little more than $353,000, earned about $80,000 more that year than San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, who runs a district with about 24 times as many students.

In January 2020, when the board was set to follow up a 4 percent raise for classified employees with a salary increase of the same percentage for Singh and other administrators, Lieber suggested no raise for the superintendent, a smaller one for the rest of Fallbrook’s administrators and the full 4 percent for other management staff, including principals. The rest of the board disagreed with Lieber and voted 4-1 to move forward with the across-the-board 4 percent raise for all administrators as planned.

Ten months later, at a special board meeting on Nov. 30, approved a bonus for Singh and other managers. Lieber objected, on the grounds that the board’s own bylaws prevented special meetings related to the compensation of superintendent and other managers. The off-schedule payment was equivalent to one that had just been approved in negotiations with Fallbrook Union Elementary’s teachers’ union while a similar payment increase remained under negotiation with the district’s classified employees. Lieber argued that the entire discussion should be postponed until the new board members, Lundin and Favela, who had already been elected, were sworn in. The outgoing board shot down her request after Fallbrook Union Elementary’s legal counsel signed off, and Singh told them the bonus was legal.

Lundin and Favela have both indicated that they’re much more receptive to Lieber’s positions — Favela was even one of the community members who drew the trustee area map that the board is now bound by.

Suddenly, Lieber went from perennial dissenter to board president.

♦♦♦

Given all this history, the complaint filed against Lieber and the dispute over hiring outside counsel appears to mark a continuation — and certainly an escalation — of previous scuffles.

The complaint was never supposed to be public knowledge. It was only revealed after what appeared to be an inadvertent slip of the tongue from a fellow board member.

On Jan. 16, the board voted 3-2 in closed session to appoint an attorney other than Shinoff but did not determine which law firm would take up the task.

Less than a week later, the board was back to vote on hiring the San Bernardino County law firm Mundell, Odlum and Hawes. It was during open session discussion on that issue that Lopez, while insisting that Lieber should recuse herself, let slip the actual reason for the contract.

“We have a board member who has a complaint — actually we have a board [member] that has a complaint against them — that could potentially have an impact on one specific person and to me if we’re hiring someone to represent this board, but also potentially representing Mrs. Lieber, that’s a clear conflict of interest for her to have impact on who and where we hire somebody,” Lopez said.

Lieber, believing that Lopez was misunderstanding the issue, told her: “We have an employee of the district making the accusation against a member of the board.”

Lopez responded that she was clear on the facts.

“You’re the person being accused,” Lopez said. “So for you to be involved in the decision-making process of who we may hire to protect all of us, is a conflict of interest in my opinion.”

Lundin insisted that the board had every right to hire its own lawyer and that the process should move forward.

That was when Lundin alluded to some of the board’s feelings that Fallbrook Union Elementary’s existing counsel — Shinoff and his firm — was not “impartial.”

Lundin declined to explain what she meant by that statement when reached by phone. But that and an earlier assertion that “legal counsel is going to be hired” based on the Jan. 16 vote generated immediate pushback from Lopez and Liebes, who alleged that the other three board members had colluded in private and violated the state’s open meeting law.

“I think we need to be very careful how we proceed in this process,” Liebes said, “because it is not the way contracts would normally be developed and processed within this district. Normally staff would help with this process.”

Lieber, Lundin and Favela all said they had spoken to Jim Moore, an attorney from Mundell, Odlum and Haws, who also attended the meeting on Jan. 21. Moore said he was there as a courtesy, although he had not yet been officially hired. But the three denied that they had conferred ahead of time. Lieber said she and Favela had interviewed Moore, while Lundin had only communicated with him to get him on the remote board meeting call. Moore’s firm, Lieber said, had been among the firms recommended by the California School Board Association and the San Diego County Office of Education.

Moore said that the two individuals involved in the complaint would and should participate in an investigation but not in any decision-making processes.

“That would be a blatant conflict of interest,” Moore said. “And so I don’t have enough facts here, but I can’t imagine that that outcome was contemplated or implicated. Certainly, I wouldn’t engage if those were the parameters.”

♦♦♦

Lieber declined to recuse herself, and the board voted 3-2 to hire Mundell, Odlum and Haws to represent the board itself. The fight, though, was still not over. At the next regular board meeting on Feb. 1, the contract was again in front of the board, and Liebes and Lopez renewed their push against hiring independent counsel.

“I think that we need to revisit this to correct an error that we made in the process leading up to this point … I think that there are flaws with the process that we went through that we need to go back to the very beginning of this process,” Liebes said, pointing once again to Lieber’s alleged conflict of interest and insisting that staff should have reviewed the contract. Liebes moved to table the new vote on the contract and continue it to a future closed season meeting, and this time, Favela joined her and Lopez in supporting that motion.

Lieber, Lundin, Favela and Liebes all declined to comment. Lopez did not return a message seeking comment.

However the fight over the complaint and the hiring of independent counsel unfolds, a former Fallbrook Union Elementary superintendent popped in to the Feb. 1 meeting to offer something of a warning to the board.

“I know about sitting on your side of the table,” said Jennifer Jeffries, who served as superintendent for 10 years and now sits on the Fallbrook Regional Health District board. “I observe from that perspective that high-performing organizations are like a well-tailored suit. You might find a loose thread on the sleeve that you fiddle with and eventually pull on, only to find it is attached to the sleeve and starts to unravel the whole garment. In the high-stakes, high-stress time of COVID, it might be easy to get distracted and fiddle with a few loose threads, not knowing they are attached.”

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