Editorial: The Santa Clara County Board of Education is in disarray — Needs New Leadership

There is a crisis of leadership on the Santa Clara County Board of Education (SCCBOE). The board of trustees has overseen an inexcusable number of scandals over the past seven years.  With four of the seven seats up for grabs in November 2016, Santa Clara County voters have a chance to bring new leadership to the this beleaguered organization.  New board members Kamei and Rossi are making positive efforts at reform, as has long time board member Song.  However, the rest of the board has overseen far too many problems for far too long.

  • 2008:  Secret Housing Deals
    The SSCBOE hired Superintendent Charles Weis with a sweetheart housing deal — Weis got an interest free $890,000 home loan with no monthly payments required until he left the position.  In 2012, Weis retired, and then walked away from the underwater loan, leaving the tax payers on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The majority of the current board oversaw providing the same deal to the next Superintendent, Xavier De La Torre.
  • 2011: Wasting money that should have gone to foster kids
    The SCCOE wasted $500,000 on a foster care database that was rife with conflicts of interest and poor oversight, while at the same time cutting programs that provided services to foster students.
  • 2012-2015:  SCCOE Continuation schools in disarray
    SCCOE continuation schools, called “chaotic” in Mercury News headlines, face continuing employee complaints of racism and intimidation, and harassment.  One case of teacher harassment resulted in a $5,000 settlement.  One former employee, Scott Guagliardo, spoke about the intimidation, saying”I’m here for those too afraid. The Alternative Education schools have become hostile, racially biased places.”
  • 2013: The SCCOE provides a zoning exemption to Rocketship that was subsequently ruled illegal.
    The SCCBOE approves a zoning exemption for the Tamien Rocketship site, a decision which a judged ruled was not legal in a law suit filed by San Jose Unified and community member Brett Bymaster
  • 2014: The SCCOE is sued by four school districts over a mass approval of 20 Rocketship schools
    Four school districts sued the SCCBOE over the approval of 20 Rocketship schools in 2011, questioning the legality of the mass charter approval.  The suit was settled in favor of the suing districts this year, presumably because the SCCOE was unlikely to win in court.
  • 2014:  The SCCOE can’t even pay their employees properly
    The SCCOE was forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the IRS for failing to pay payroll taxes on time.  The SCCBOE covered up the payments, handling them in closed session to avoid public scrutiny.  In 2014, the office couldn’t figure out how to pay their employees, underpaying and overpaying employees as a result of incompetent and overworked staff.
  • 2015:  The SCCOE is sued, yet again, for improper charter school approval
    A sixth school district (Morgan Hill Unified) filed suit against the SCCOE alleging that, once again, the board had improperly approved a charter school.
  • 2015:  Walden West Child Pornography and Child Molestation Scandal:
    The SCCOE runs a science camp attended by 15,000 5th graders each year.  A staff member, Edgar Covarrubias-Padilla, was arrested on May 7th for manufacturing child pornography and molesting a child at the camp.  The Mercury News stated that budget-skimping, ill-advised practices and lax oversight, bucolic Walden West may have created the perfect playground for a sexual predator.”  Superintendent Jon Gundry lost credibility when he initially stated that Covarrubias-Padilla had no contact with children, a fact that was later recanted when scores of parents called in after their children recognized the man who sometimes stayed alone with children at night.  According the Mercury News’ Internal Affairs blog, the SCCBOE has been avoiding discussion on the Walden West scandal.
  • 2015:  Questionable Contracts.
    San Jose Inside recently questioned a $250k contract that Gundry gave to a company that doesn’t actually exist, and a contract that apparently involved no paper whatsoever.  The contract was included as a board consent item, which would have required no board debate.  Upon further questioning, the contractor decided to stop working for the SCCOE, however, hours already billed appear to have been wasted.

Any one of those scandals might be taken as an isolated event.  But together, they paint of a picture of an organization in complete disarray.  Ironically, in a San Jose Inside post this week, longtime SCCBOE trustee Joseph DiSalvo gave the county’s local school districts a grade of a D+; he’s even gone so far as to suggest closing three San Jose Unified elementary schools that he felt weren’t up to the task of educating children.  But what about the unrelenting scandals and chaos in his own district?  DiSalvo has overseen each of the scandals listed above in his eight year tenure on the board.

The SCCBOE lost its way when it approved an unprecedented 38 charters in a row.  The board should have been focusing on fixing its own problems instead of going on the attack against local school districts.

Santa Clara County voters have a chance to elect new leadership over the $186 million dollar organization.  It’s high time that the board of education gets serious about cleaning up this broken organization.  We’ve waited long enough for current board members to take action.