Abuse of authority

How low was the Chico school district willing to go to oust former Marsh Principal Jeff Sloan?

BROWN ACT<br>Superintendent Scott Brown was stoic as Marsh Junior High School students and their parents packed a March 17, 2004, CUSD school board meeting to express their support for Principal Jeff Sloan and Vice Principal Frank Thompson, who had received “pink slips” a few days earlier. It was the beginning of a tumultuous controversy that lasted for months.

Superintendent Scott Brown was stoic as Marsh Junior High School students and their parents packed a March 17, 2004, CUSD school board meeting to express their support for Principal Jeff Sloan and Vice Principal Frank Thompson, who had received “pink slips” a few days earlier. It was the beginning of a tumultuous controversy that lasted for months.

CN&R file photo

Three years ago next week, a controversy that was to dominate local news for much of 2004 broke into public view. That’s when local media first reported that Jeff Sloan and Frank Thompson, the principal and vice principal, respectively, at Marsh Junior High School, had received possible-reassignment notices, or “pink slips,” because of alleged irregularities in the handling of student-raised funds.

Marsh students, parents and teachers were outraged. On March 17, they packed a school board meeting, where they hailed both men as effective leaders, especially Sloan, and insisted Marsh was an extraordinarily well-run school. Sloan is “the finest administrator I’ve ever worked for,” one teacher said.

That was the beginning of a series of highly emotional meetings and other events that dominated local news and divided the community for months, continuing long after the Chico Unified School District’s Board of Trustees voted 4-1 on May 6, 2004, to support Superintendent Scott Brown’s decision to reassign the men—Thompson to return to teaching, Sloan to the Center for Alternative Learning, a branch of Fairview High School.

It was a painful time. Feelings ran high and, in a few cases they became so raw that people went too far. Threats were made; one trustee’s store was vandalized.

Things have settled down since then. A new principal is in place at Marsh, and a new superintendent has succeeded Brown, who resigned in April 2005, even as the Butte County grand jury was investigating the events of the year before.

For many Chicoans, the matter is over; the community and school district should move on. But some people—Sloan in particular, but also a few of his long-time supporters—have refused to allow it to go away entirely. Sloan has consistently insisted, to anyone who will listen, that the methods used against him were despicable and unworthy of the district and that the people who used them shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. And he wants the district to apologize to him and his staff and reinstate him in a comparable position.

In the meantime Sloan, who’s 54, has been living off money he made when he sold a system he developed at Marsh—one Brown didn’t approve of at the time—to an Internet investment firm. The system enables students to organize their own school portraits process, with the profits from sales coming back to their own student body funds.

Sloan has kept the heat on—the back burner, you might say, but it’s still warm. In March 2005 he sued the district, claiming he was the victim of a smear campaign that resulted in his demotion and seeking reinstatement and money damages. The district challenged the suit, but a U.S. District Court judge refused to dismiss it. In August 2006, however, faced with daunting attorney’s fees, Sloan settled.

Then, just last month, when the district failed to fulfill the terms of the settlement agreement for nearly six months, he sued it in small claims court for additional attorney’s fees, some $3,034.

Sloan has never stopped trying to figure out what really happened. It’s fair to say he’s been obsessed by a desire for vindication and justice.

About a month ago, Sloan obtained some information that, he says, casts the controversy in a new light. And this light, he insists, reveals once and for all and beyond dispute just how malicious Scott Brown and his top aides were in their desire to oust him from his position.

This article is not a rehash of the events of spring 2004. Rivers of ink already have been devoted to them, and the purpose here is to focus on what’s happened since, especially the new information Sloan uncovered.

Readers looking for an in-depth overview of the events surrounding Sloan’s and Thompson’s demotions should read Dave Waddell’s article in the June 3, 2004, issue of the Chico News & Review, “Sloan vs. Board of Education” (available online at www.newsreview.com/chico/Content?oid=30596). Waddell, a journalism instructor at Chico State University, did an excellent job of working a confusing welter of events into an understandable portrait of the controversy.

But even he acknowledged later—in a Guest Comment in the May 19, 2005, issue of the CN&R (www.newsreview.com/chico/Content?oid=35172)—that after spending two weeks doing research and writing more than 6,000 words, he “came away with a loose grip on the whole sordid affair” and “certainly didn’t tell the whole story.”

TAKE MINE, TOO<br /> On March 17, 2004, a number of Marsh Junior High School employees left their office computers on the steps of the Chico school district’s administrative offices on East Seventh Street. They were protesting the district’s seizure of Marsh Principal Jeff Sloan’s office computer the day before. For more than three years, the computer incident was shrouded in mystery—until last month, when Sloan uncovered the real story.

CN&R file photo

Part of the reason was that telling “the whole story” would take a book. Also, important elements of the story had not yet occurred or had not been explained when Waddell wrote his article.

For one thing, the grand jury, which spent months investigating Chico Unified School District finances and the Marsh imbroglio in particular, had not yet released its final report. (It came out on July 8, 2005.) Second, one important incident that Waddell reported on—the district’s seizure of Sloan’s office computer—remained shrouded in mystery.

Waddell, like others, tried mightily to understand the motivation behind Brown’s effort to oust Sloan. After all, the principal was immensely popular with teachers, parents and students and had been praised in his evaluations for creating “one of the premier junior high schools in the area.”

The ostensible reason was Sloan’s handling of student-raised (ASB) funds at the school. He was remarkably successful in getting students excited about raising money, and more than $300,000 in ASB funds flowed through the school each year—many times what other junior highs raised.

In previous years this had earned him praise. “Mr. Sloan is masterful at finding dollars to provide optimum educational opportunities, including advanced technology, equipment, instructional materials and field trips,” his 2001-02 evaluation reads.

But this success was resented by some students, teachers and administrators at the other junior highs, Bidwell and Chico, Waddell found. They saw Sloan as someone who had “cherry picked” the best teachers to hire when the school opened and used his remarkable fund-raising skills to pay for things other schools didn’t have.

The funds had routinely been audited by the respected Chico firm Matsom & Isom with no problems, and the district had never told Sloan or his staff that anything was wrong or attempted to help them improve their accounting.

But in late 2003 Brown commissioned two audits, one by an outside accountant, the other done in-house. Both found evidence of sloppy accounting and use of ASB funds for non-allowed purposes.

Although Brown denied that he was reassigning Sloan because of the ASB funds, he gave no other explanation, citing confidentiality requirements, so the funds became the de facto subject of the public hearings that were held. These were raucous affairs, with Sloan’s supporters turning out en masse to back their beloved principal.

The 2004-05 Butte County Grand Jury Final Report came as a shocker. After studying the audits, examining other secondary schools’ financial records and interviewing a wide range of district officials, principals and others, the Grand Jury found financial irregularities “throughout all secondary schools we visited,” not just Marsh.

Sloan, it suggested, had been singled out. The district office was “not consistent in its implementation of the policies, procedures and advisories that it quotes in its disciplinary packet against the former principal of Marsh.”

In fact, while some ASB funds at Chico High School had been transferred for use by the district office, which is forbidden, “the money [at Marsh] appears to be spent for the enjoyment of the students, the beautification of the school, [and] trainings and conferences for the activities director that were reportedly related to student body functions.”

The grand jury also found that Sloan did “not appear to have personally benefited or ‘misused’ public funds as stated in his disciplinary charge filed against him” and all funds were accounted for.

Further, the grand jury recommended that, “[s]ince a great deal of media attention has been given to the former principal at MJHS alleging misuse of public funds, CUSD should issue a public statement clarifying the questioned practices occurred throughout all secondary schools or issue a public retraction of those allegations.”

In their response to the report, the CUSD trustees acknowledged “the need to assure consistency in the implementation of [the CUSD’s] policies and procedures,” but they insisted that Sloan’s conduct was “different in degree and extent than the conduct described” in the report—in other words, that he had been singled out because his conduct was worse. It refused to retract the allegations.

DISCOVERY MOTION<br />Ousted Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan is shown here with his original computer hard drive and two copies of it obtained from the school district. He tried for three years to get the original back but instead, he says, was given or offered several copies purported to be the original. He included return of the original as part of a lawsuit settlement agreement, and even then it took nearly six months to get it back.

Photo by Robert Speer

The district agreed that Sloan hadn’t pocketed any of the ASB funds but implied that “garnering favor from students and parents by making unauthorized expenditures” qualified as “personal benefit.” In other words, by improving his school, Sloan was making himself look good.

Ultimately, the grand jury had no more success than Waddell did in figuring out why a relatively routine reassignment had turned into a huge battle. “The Grand Jury is writing this report,” it acknowledged, “with no closure on understanding why the CUSD superintendent chose to handle the issue in the manner he did. … It is our impression that what ensued was an all out war of egos and a total unwillingness of the people involved to back down.”

This is an accurate assessment, but only up to a point. The fight was about more than egos. Scott Brown, as we will see, believed strongly that there was no turning back in this power struggle, and Jeff Sloan was facing the loss of his career.

Which is just what happened. Contrary to the trustees’ directive to Brown to find a comparable administrative post for Sloan, the CAL position was of such little import that it was eliminated after a year. Sloan was then demoted to teaching fourth grade at McManus Elementary School. A man with the skills to be a superintendent and more than two decades of administrative experience was back where he began.

He ended his employment with the district in March 2006, when he signed the settlement agreement. One of the terms of the agreement was that the hard drive from his office computer would be returned to him. He was convinced that it would show what really happened.

The computer had been removed from his office on March 16, 2004, while Sloan and his attorney, Paul Minasian, were in a 10 a.m. meeting with Brown, on the superintendent’s order, at the district office. This was a week after Sloan had received a letter indicating that he and Thompson were to be “released,” following action taken at the school board’s March 3 meeting.

Minasian has written a full account of the events. At the meeting, it reads, Brown gave Sloan and Minasian the two audit reports mentioned above, along with a cover letter explaining they would be placed in Sloan’s personnel file. There was further discussion of the audits and the release notification. Brown told Sloan he could request a public hearing.

When Minasian asked Brown whether the audit documents would remain confidential, the superintendent “said sarcastically, ‘It’s supposed to, but isn’t it amazing how the press can get hold of the information before you even know it?’ “

(Contacted for this story, former Superintendent Brown, who still lives in Chico, refused to comment. “I’m Scott Brown, private citizen,” he said tersely.)

Sloan and Minasian left the district office at about 10:40, Minasian wrote, and arrived at Marsh at 11. They were told that someone had come in, searched Sloan’s office and taken his computer “and that the newspaper and television stations were calling.” The reporters showed up soon after.

The reporters said they knew the issue was Sloan’s alleged misuse of funds and wanted to do interviews. Sloan and Minasian declined but hurriedly wrote up a press release denying the accusations and noting that Marsh’s accounting had routinely been audited by Matsom & Isom.

Sloan assumes Brown or someone in the district office alerted the media, but Brown later told reporters nobody in his office had done so.

The computer was returned on March 30. On April 23, Sloan says, Greg Einhorn, a local attorney who serves as the district’s counsel, delivered a packet to Sloan at Marsh. It contained about a dozen color computer printouts of some rather tawdry risqué images.

A cover memo from Bob Latchaw, the district’s then-director of human resources, informed Sloan that the “sexually explicit and/or obscene and vulgar photographs” in the packet had been found on his office hard drive. It added that the district was still investigating the matter, but that it was “already clear” that Sloan had violated district procedures and policies. “This is unprofessional and unacceptable behavior, especially by the principal of the school, who is supposed to set the standard for conduct and adherence to District policy.”

"[The photos] were in color, and they were awful,” Sloan said. “I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. I thought, ‘If this gets out, my reputation will be dragged through the mud, my career ruined.’ Do you have any idea what it would do to an educator’s reputation? It doesn’t matter if you’re innocent.”

IT’S THE PRINCIPAL THAT MATTERS<br />Supporters of Marsh Principal Jeff Sloan rallied on May 11, 2004, in Chico’s downtown plaza to protest the ouster of the popular administrator. Five days earlier, the CUSD Board of Trustees had voted 4-1 to reassign Sloan and Vice Principal Frank Thompson. Both men ended up demoted.

It was a weird collection of images. There were some nudie shots, the kind of stuff found in lowbrow men’s magazines. There was one bizarre image of a man’s penis tattooed to look like a dragon. And there were some fairly innocuous photos of young Japanese women wearing sheer skirts that revealed their underwear. Though some of the images were certainly “vulgar” and perhaps in some minds “obscene,” none was “sexually explict,” in the sense that it portrayed sex acts. Still, they scared Sloan to death.

The memo said the documents and images would be put in his personnel file in 10 days, and that he had that much time to offer a response. Sloan was convinced that having those images in his file meant career death.

He overnighted his computer hard drive to an expert in Texas, who quickly detected that it was a copy, not the original Sloan had been told it was. The analyst did not find the cheesy images, but he did find evidence that the drive had been altered or modified after it left Sloan’s office.

Once the district got his response and the expert’s report, it chose to hold off on putting the material in Sloan’s personnel file. One of Sloan’s supporters, local real estate broker Don Camy, who had three children at Marsh, personally delivered copies of his response to the trustees at their homes.

That was three years ago, three years Sloan spent trying to obtain his original hard drive, with a confounding lack of success. On several occasions, as many as four or five, he was given a hard drive purported to be the original, only to discover that it was a copy. On several occasions, he asked the trustees to investigate the matter of the hard drives, with no success.

Finally, frustrated by these wild-goose chases, he made return of his original hard drive a condition of his Aug. 16, 2006, settlement agreement.

Even then he didn’t get it back right away. Four months went by, but no hard drive. On Oct. 3, Sloan says, Einhorn delivered a hard drive to Sloan’s attorney, Tony Soares, who works in the same Oroville office as Minasian. It was in a plastic bag with the word “copy” written on it. When Sloan contacted the manufacturer, Samsung, he learned that it was an “after-market” product that wasn’t even available when his computer was seized.

On Dec. 6, 2006, Sloan, after “numerous letters, phone calls and reminders,” sent a memo to the school board—by then it had three new members—asking for help. “Some of the board members know the history of the computer incident and why its return represented such critical importance to me,” he wrote. “I have always believed that its return would show serious misconduct and implicate district personnel. I am sure that is difficult for you to hear, but it’s the truth.”

The same month he filed a Public Records Act request seeking receipts and purchase orders for the hard drives used to make the copies, as well as any “bills, invoices, and payment records associated with the printing of the photos that CUSD attorney, Greg Einhorn, delivered to me in March of 2004.” He also asked for “[a]ny and all CUSD bills, invoices, and payment records associated with the inspection of the hard drive taken from my office in March of 2004.”

Although public agencies are required by law to respond to such requests within 10 days, Einhorn didn’t get back to Sloan for nearly two months. In a Feb. 7, 2007, letter, Einhorn said the district had made two copies of his original drive, one of which was examined and then placed in a folder in the desk of Bob Latchaw “until I took possession of it last year.”

He then wrote that the computer specialist who had examined the original drive had first told the district it had been destroyed but on Feb. 1 had located it. Einhorn agreed to return it.

As to the PRA requests, he replied that the only invoices the district had were the ones associated with the inspection of the hard drive. Those were enclosed with his letter.

That was a surprise. Way back in May of 2004, Don Camy had made the same request of the district. As he informed Sloan and all five trustees, the district’s answer was that no contract or consultant existed.

(Curious to see what the district’s response would be now, the CN&R recently made a PRA request for a copy of Camy’s original PRA request and the district’s response to it. After being given 10 days to look for it, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, Bob Feaster, said in a phone interview that, while a search had turned up Camy’s original request, as well as many other PRA requests and district responses made in the spring of 2004, “the one district response we could not find was the one you requested.")

As it turned out, Sloan didn’t need to examine the hard drive further. The invoices were all he needed to make his case. They led him right to the person who had conducted the forensics analysis of his hard drive.

OBSCENE OR JUST CHEESY?<br />These are a couple of the images found in a deleted file on Jeff Sloan’s office computer. Some of them were pretty weird, but none was “sexually explicit,” as the district charged. Recently Sloan found evidence that district officials accused him of responsibility for the images even though they knew it wasn’t true.

That just happened to be Earl Keene, brother of Assemblyman Rick Keene. He works for the city of Chico as an IT tech but also operates a computer analysis business on the side.

According to his original contract, Keene agreed to make a copy of the drive and analyze its contents while maintaining the “chain of evidence.” He was to be paid $875, but the job ended up costing nearly $5,000. He was asked to look for a wide range of material, including photographs.

At the time, any consultant contract involving more than $1,000 had to be approved by the school board, but Keene’s never got to the trustees.

Keene told the CN&R that, after spending some 42 hours analyzing the drive, he met with Brown, Einhorn and Kim Hutchinson, Brown’s executive secretary. Yes, he told them, he’d found some questionable images on Sloan’s computer, but they were in a deleted file that may never have been opened.

Besides, Keene told them in no uncertain terms, they’d botched the whole affair. Echoing Sloan’s expert, he told them that someone at the district office had fired up the computer after it was taken from Sloan’s office, destroying the chain of evidence.

“I told them there was no way I could swear that Jeff Sloan had put those images there,” he related to the CN&R. “There was no linkage.” What he reported he found, he told the CN&R, was a computer used for work.

Not only that, several people had used Sloan’s computer at various times. Besides, most computers have dirty pictures on them; they come unsolicited as spam, and even if they’re deleted, they can be recovered, he explained.

If Sloan was using his computer to view porn, Keene told the CN&R, it would have been immediately apparent. “I’ve seen what’s on the hard drives of people who like porn,” he said. “They’re full of images, hundreds of them.”

Asked whether the images could have been planted there, he said it was possible, but determining that would require a more sophisticated analysis than he could do.

Keene said he was upset to learn of the charges leveled against Sloan, since he’d told Brown and the others they weren’t true.

Whether the pictures were planted or not, one thing seems apparent: Brown and members of his administration falsely and knowingly charged one of the district’s principals with being responsible for having pornography on his school computer.

It’s relevant to mention here that Brown is an expert on the methods superintendents can use to force out tenured, certificated employees. He wrote the book on it, you might say.

His doctoral dissertation is titled “The Critical Role of the Superintendent in the Induced Exits of Tenured Certified Staff,” and it’s a description of all the tools at a superintendent’s disposal to get rid of an unwanted employee, whether teacher or administrator.

Most of the tools are legitimate due-process steps, but key to the effort, he writes, is “[t]he use of power, influence and authority by the superintendent….” And Brown doesn’t back away from the use of both “coercive and reward power” in the superintendent’s use of authority.

As he defines it, “coercive power is a form of power that depends on the subordinate’s fear or desire to avoid punishment in order to be effective. The person with this power must have the ability to inflict punishment or aversive consequences on the target.”

CAUGHT IN THE CURRENT<br />For reasons that never became clear, the school board voted to reassign Vice Principal Frank Thompson (shown here in a Marsh yearbook photo) as well as Principal Jeff Sloan, even though Thompson had nothing to do with Marsh finances. Thompson now teaches fifth and sixth grade at Rosedale Elementary School.

“Coercion,” he writes, “allows compliance to be achieved by the agent’s explicit threat to ensure adverse outcomes, such as economic loss, expulsion from the organization, and/or public embarrassment if the target fails to comply with the wishes of the authority.”

The dissertation even describes how a superintendent should respond in the event his effort goes awry, as Brown’s did when Sloan and his backers fought back: “Under no circumstances can an ‘induced exit’ be sent up as a trial balloon. Once it is done, there is no turning back, and the teacher must understand that he/she is finished in the district.”

However, the superintendent must be careful to avoid legal challenge, Brown writes. One of the keys to doing so, he notes, is, “[w]as the decision free of fraud and misconduct on the part of the district?”

Brown did not act alone when he charged Sloan with using his computer to view pornography.

In a recent phone interview, Einhorn—who Keene said was present when he delivered his report saying there was no linkage between Sloan and the dirty pictures, and who Sloan said delivered the accusatory packet to him—seemed reluctant to acknowledge his role. When asked whether he remembered meeting with Keene, he hesitated and then said, “I’m not saying it’s not possible. I don’t recall a face-to-face meeting.”

Do you recall delivering a packet to Jeff Sloan’s office on April 23, 2004?

“I was in communication with Mr. Sloan. … It could be.”

Were you aware of the contents of the packet?

“At the time I delivered it? If I delivered it…?”

After a bit more go-around of this sort, Einhorn said that, yes, he was “generally aware of what was on the hard drive.”

Kim Hutchinson, another person Keene said was present when he presented his report, wouldn’t comment, other than to acknowledge she knew who Keene was. Asked if she’d met with him, she quickly replied, “I don’t remember.” Asked whether she knew the contents of his report, she said, “No comment.”

For his part, Sloan believes numerous people in the district office knew about Keene’s report and that the district had made false charges against him, but kept quiet about it.

What now? The school board has changed. Of the four men who voted against Sloan, Steve O’Bryan and Anthony Watts have been voted out of office, leaving only Rick Rees and Rick Anderson on the board. (Scott Huber, the lone trustee who supported Sloan, chose not to run again.)

Of the three new members, two—Andrea Lerner Thompson and Jann Reed—have expressed concern about the way the matter was handled and whether Sloan was treated fairly. Kathy Kaiser, the fifth member of the board, hasn’t said much about it.

In the meantime, a number of district employees who may have assisted Brown in making false accusations against Sloan continue to work in the district office and draw salaries.

For his part, Sloan hopes this new board will authorize an internal investigation of the kind he has long sought. The people who engaged in this misconduct need to be identified and held accountable, he says. He’d also like an apology for himself and his staff and his job back, or one like it. And he thinks Frank Thompson, whose only fault was that he worked for Jeff Sloan, should also be given back his job—with an apology.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Sloan said. “I had to fight this, because I knew no one on my staff had ever done a single deliberate misuse of anything.”