Fallbrook District Ousted Its Board President but Won’t Say Why

Education

Fallbrook District Ousted Its Board President but Won’t Say Why

More than a month after the ouster of Fallbrook Union Elementary School District’s board president, the board and district staff have declined to make public any information that would help explain the decision.

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

More than a month after the ouster of Fallbrook Union Elementary School District’s board president, the board and district staff have declined to make public any information that would help explain the decision or the apparent human resources complaint that board members say preceded it. And one board member is now making accusations of wrongdoing that go beyond the original complaint filed in January.

The removal of Board President Caron Lieber comes months after Fallbrook Union Elementary found itself mired in a standoff between opposing forces on its governing board, with one side seeking to hire outside legal counsel to investigate the complaint against Lieber, and the other doing its best to stymie that effort.

That fight remains unsettled six months later, even after Lieber has been stripped of her position — a decision that was made with a 3-1 vote during a closed session meeting on June 11. She will still keep her board seat, but the reasons for removing Lieber as president are still a mystery. Board members are keeping their lips sealed, much to the frustration of Lieber’s supporters in the community. Lieber herself decried the process for her removal as unfair.

School boards across San Diego County have been pulsating with drama and tension over the past year and many of those disputes can be traced to reopening during the pandemic. But at Fallbrook Union Elementary, the major drama upending relations between members is still totally unknown.

What is known for sure is that the accusations — in one of the smallest school districts in the region, serving about 5,000 students — continue to fly.

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There was little indication publicly that the special board meeting on June 11 would end with Lieber’s removal as president. The only item on the meeting’s agenda was a discussion of “matters that may result in litigation.”

Lieber was not present at the meeting, most of which took place in closed session. At the end of it, board Vice President Suzanne Lundin went back on record to read a brief statement, notifying the public of the decision to remove Lieber as president. Lundin announced that she was the lone “no” vote, with JoAnn Lopez, Susan Liebes and Ricardo Favela in favor of removal.

The breakdown of that vote marked a bit of a deviation from the past; on more contentious issues, Favela had typically sided with Lieber and Lundin.

Lundin noted that she’s now the board president but added nothing about the context surrounding the vote.

At the board’s general meeting a week and a half later, Lieber sounded off about the process for her removal as president and criticized the colleagues who pushed her out.

“What I think is so interesting about this event is that we were all elected by the community of Fallbrook, and if” — she turned her attention to each of the three board members who voted to remove her — “you, or you, or you, were to have a three-hour meeting about you, I would either make sure you were there or give you a chance for a rebuttal.”

Lieber went on to say that while she has no concerns about Lundin as the new board president, she thinks the vote was “tainted.”

“I am very worried that a board would remove somebody from an office halfway through their term without hearing her side of the story or his side of the story,” Lieber said.

Following the vote, Lopez — one of the board members who voted to oust Lieber — declined to give specifics but told Voice of San Diego that the decision to remove Lieber “was not made lightly.”

“The details of that complaint are confidential but very serious,” she said in an email. “The current board continues to address this issue. Unfortunately, as we try to move forward, we find ourselves with repeated and egregious new board violations — as recent as June 21.”

When asked what violations she was referring to, Lopez alleged that board members have been violating California’s Brown Act by communicating with one another about board-related topics in private. She first made that accusation months ago when the board was first debating whether to hire outside legal counsel to oversee the mystery complaint against Lieber.

Again, she offered no specifics.

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The initial complaint against Lieber was filed by an unidentified district employee and first made public — inadvertently, it seems — at a special board meeting on Jan. 21.

While the nature of the complaint was intended to be discussed only in closed session, Lopez let it slip in an open session portion of the meeting while arguing that Lieber, then the board president, should not participate in the hiring of outside legal counsel to deal with the complaint.

“You’re the person being accused,” Lopez told Lieber. “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.”

It remains unknown precisely what Lieber has been accused of, or by whom. But the complaint raised eyebrows with some community members based on Lieber’s history on the board.

“I think that there’s a lot that’s going on that we’re not being told, that the public is not being told about,” Leticia Maldonado-Stamos, a former Fallbrook Union Elementary employee and Fallbrook resident who participated in the drawing of the district’s current trustee area maps, told Voice of San Diego. “And that bothers me, and that should bother everyone on that board, and that should bother everyone in the community.”

Lieber has been an outspoken opponent of the previous board majority. On a number of issues, from the approval of an earlier trustee area map that was ultimately rejected by the county Board of Education, to a $32,000 price tag for a mission statement, to salary increases for administrators, Lieber often found herself the sole opposition.

It was only after three previous board members left Fallbrook Union Elementary — one decided to retire mid-term and the other two chose not to run for re-election — that Lieber found herself with a majority that appeared sympathetic to her arguments, and she was elected president in December 2020.

Then came the news of the mysterious complaint. Lieber’s first full meeting as board president on Jan. 16 was called to discuss it.

“I feel like there are some behind-the-scenes machinations that have been outside of the public purview,” Maldonado-Stamos said. She suggested some of the machinations might have to do with the district’s legal counsel, Dan Shinoff.

Some board members have stated publicly that they don’t think Shinoff is the right person to manage any investigations because of his long ties to the superintendent.

Shinoff is a prolific San Diego-area schools attorney who has seen his share of controversy over the years. In 2015, the San Ysidro School District sued his firm for alleged malpractice — the district claimed he withheld a settlement proposed by a solar power contractor in a separate legal dispute, seeking to draw out the lawsuit and collect additional legal fees. Shinoff’s firm eventually settled with San Ysidro for $1.8 million.

He also represented Fallbrook Union Elementary in a wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a former district employee who accused administrators of firing her when she objected to purging emails. Fallbrook ultimately lost that case.

“Under no circumstances would I support having district staff hire counsel in this case,” Lundin said in January. “They’ve already hired who they think should be counsel. Some of us don’t think it’s impartial.”

As with nearly everything about this scuffle, it’s unclear where any of this will end up.

At the most recent governing board meeting on June 21, the board was set to have another closed session meeting with legal counsel “to discuss pending litigation.” Just before that was to take place, however, Favela told the rest of the board he wasn’t feeling well and wanted to table that discussion. The board voted to delay the closed session.

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