Citizen has beef with CUSD dinners

One of the people looking to oust the superintendent-supporting Chico school board majority is taking his battle to another level: the county District Attorney’s Office.

Dan Irving, a Chico parent and businessman, has vowed to help detractors of Scott Brown, Chico Unified School District’s superintendent, win the school board election in November.

Irving is calling upon District Attorney Mike Ramsey to investigate allegations of open-meeting-law violations by the CUSD Board of Trustees. He says the board members could have illegally discussed policy while dining during a professional conference, and even if they didn’t, they were getting so buddy-buddy with the superintendent that it could have compromised their integrity. At worst, Irving alleges, they could be guilty of criminal misdemeanors under the Ralph M. Brown Act.

The hostility felt by Irving and others began earlier this year, as the Board of Trustees was deciding what to do about popular Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan, who was accused of mishandling—while still fully accounting for—student body funds. It solidified when that majority decided to reassign Sloan to another position.

Sloan supporters have been peppering the school district with California Public Records Act requests for a wide range of documents. One of the requests yielded the materials Irving forwarded to the D.A.: travel expense claims.

Once a year, the five-member board travels with the superintendent, and usually another member of the District Office staff, to a conference held by the California School Boards Association. While in Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco, the group dined together, with Brown fronting the cost and filing for reimbursement, minus alcohol and tips, later.

Irving notes nine dinners, which he considers to be “meetings” of the board, between November 2000 and December 2002.

“It is not reasonable to assume that while attending a conference, our school superintendent, his staff and board members would meet privately, on nine occasions, and not speak of, or discuss, any related school business,” Irving wrote to Ramsey, who said he had yet to receive anything in the mail.

But Trustee Rick Anderson, who attended the dinners, said policy was never discussed. “I’m very comfortable that there’s never been any violation of the act,” he said, adding that dining together doesn’t compromise the board’s employer-employee position over the superintendent. “It’s easy to separate those roles. People do that in Chico all the time.”

Most of the dinners came to $250 to $450 for the party of seven—as much as $65 per person.

Brown said those prices aren’t out of line. “I would say for a three-course meal in a major urban area, that would be in the mid-price range,” he said, comparing the places the board and he ate to Chico’s Red Tavern restaurant.

Brown added that starting in 2003-04 he decided to pay for everyone’s meals during conferences out of his own pocket, due to district budget constraints.

Peter Scheer, lead attorney and executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition and an expert on the open-meeting law, said that normally elected boards are allowed to meet only in agendized forums open to the public. But, he said, “in this case they’re definitely covered because it’s a purely social and ceremonial occasion.”

Scheer said that while it would indeed be illegal for the board to get together and discuss specific school business or take action of some kind, he’s never heard of someone pursuing a criminal Brown Act case against elected officials—although it would be conceivable in the case of a vast conspiracy.