Sloan ends his fight

Jeff Sloan

Jeff Sloan

CN&R File Photo

Former Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan will not get the apology he’s long wanted from the Chico Unified School District, which two years ago effectively destroyed his career as an administrator. Nor will he be reinstated to his former position or one like it, as he’d hoped. That’s because Sloan has decided not to pursue further his lawsuit against the district.

At press time, he was planning to sign a settlement agreement with the district for its Board of Trustees to approve at an upcoming meeting, perhaps as soon as Wednesday night (Aug. 16).

Under the terms of the agreement, the district will contribute additional monies to Sloan’s retirement fund and reimburse him for legal fees. Sloan, who has begun a new business endeavor while on paid leave, will resign his position with the district effective Dec. 8, said his attorney, Tony Soares.

It was a hard decision to make, Sloan said in a phone interview. He didn’t want to be quoted directly in this story, but he did say that he’d wanted two things most of all: For the district to apologize to him and his staff and to be able to work with kids again.

But the cost of pursuing the lawsuit was simply too great. Besides the expense of funding legal fees out of pocket against a public entity with its own paid attorney and taxpayers’ money to hire others, there was the potential stress it could place on his family.

Sloan’s conflict with then-Superintendent Scott Brown dominated local news in 2004 and has been a backburner story ever since. For five years Sloan had been the popular and innovative founding principal of the highly successful Marsh Junior High School when, in the spring of 2004, Brown sought to demote him and Vice Principal Frank Thompson.

Urged on by Brown, district trustees began meeting in March of that year to discuss the matter. The previous October, it turned out, Brown had hired an outside auditor to go over Marsh’s books, looking particularly at Sloan’s use of nearly $280,000 in Associated Student Body funds.

Following the audit, the district amassed two volumes of paperwork purportedly showing that Sloan had misused the funds on staff meals, office furniture and trips and wrongly sold used textbooks and filed false vandalism claims. What irked Brown, as he said at the time, was that Sloan had used the funds to improve Marsh so effectively that it began to unfairly stand out from other campuses.

Sloan countered that the district had provided limited training about accounting rules, he thought the purchases were allowed, and all purchases had been approved by student leaders. On the vandalism matter, he said he simply didn’t know the perpetrators had paid more in restitution than they were supposed to. No money was missing, he said, and every decision he and his staff members made was in the best interests of the students.

Despite an outpouring of support from Marsh students, teachers and parents, the trustees voted 4-1 on May 5, 2004, to reassign Sloan. As a result, a man who had the potential to become a superintendent ended up as assistant principal at the Center for Alternative Learning, a job of such low import that it was soon eliminated. This year he was assigned to teach fourth grade; he took a leave of absence instead.

Thompson, too, has been assigned a variety of elementary-level teaching jobs and is now teaching fifth and sixth grades at Rosedale Elementary.

Following his demotion Sloan, and his staff received widespread vindication. After investigating the controversy, the 2004-05 Butte County Grand Jury determined that they had been singled out for managing student funds in the very same way other schools did, the district’s accounting policies were inconsistently implemented, Sloan had not benefited personally, and no monies had been misspent. The grand jury also noted that top administrators in the district had displayed “a tenor of complacency and defensiveness” toward the jury regarding their actions and policies.

In conclusion, the jury’s report read: “Since 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 the district or issue a public retraction of those allegations.” The district refused to do either.

Subsequently, after Sloan’s demotion, the 2005-06 grand jury looked into ASB finances at Marsh and other schools in the district and found that they were still being handled “in an inconsistent manner” and that an independent auditor hired by CUSD “found ASB money is not handled safely.”

Sloan filed his civil-rights suit in federal court on March 7, 2006. The district tried to get it thrown out, but the judge in the case determined that it had substantial merit and allowed it to proceed.

More recently, though, Sloan decided to move on with his life. He’s begun a new endeavor that has attracted a healthy amount of venture capital and already has about a dozen employees. Ironically, it’s an outgrowth of something innovative he did while at Marsh that Scott Brown resisted and said would never work, Sloan said.

Realizing that traditional school pictures were expensive and the companies gave little or nothing back to the schools, he initiated a self-help photo system whereby parents and students took the pictures, costs were much lower, and a good portion of the money came back to the school.

He’s now expanded the concept and will be marketing it to schools via the Internet. The idea is to give teachers the tools they need to create school pictures, memory books and other digital photo products at low rates that also are sufficient to give as much as 60 percent or 70 percent of the money back to the teachers for use in their classrooms.

Sloan said he’s had four Fortune 500 companies interested in the idea but, along with a small number of partners, eventually sold 30 percent of ownership to a venture capital company in return for startup funds. Just this week he was in San Francisco meeting with company officials.

Jeff Sloan hasn’t left the education business after all. He’s just found another way to help students.