Sloan vs. Board of Education

What was behind the fight between the Chico Unified School District and the Marsh Junior High administration?

Principal Jeff Sloan

Principal Jeff Sloan

Photo By Tom Angel

Jeff Sloan, Chico’s most praised and assailed principal, was visited recently at Marsh Junior High School before the school year ended. He showed the wear and tear of a tough couple of months. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked spent. Cardboard boxes he will need to move to a new administrative position sat in his office, unfilled.

But there was still spring in Sloan’s stride when he stepped outside to show off the campus he opened five years ago and clearly loves, walking quickly, not beside his visitor but several paces in front. He’s a smallish man, but there’s a swagger in the way he advances, as if to prove the “arrogant” label that his critics tag him with and that some supporters acknowledge.

Sloan bends to pick up a piece of trash and boasts about the cleanliness of the Marsh campus. A classroom is entered and a student—an “ambassador,” as they’re called at Marsh—immediately approaches the visitor, introduces herself and explains what the class is working on. A history teacher shows off a “Smartboard” that makes learning more natural and interesting to today’s computer-savvy junior high crowd.

Out in the corridors, amid Marsh’s students, Sloan becomes animated. Students smile and speak to him when they cross paths. He greets by name most of the students he encounters and expresses disappointment when the visitor does not comment upon his ability to remember so many names (a skill that Sloan attributes to constantly being out among the students rather than sequestered in his office). The principal comes up behind a student and affectionately wraps his arm across the front of the boy’s neck and talks to the youngster.

Sloan, who declined to answer questions on the record for this story, obviously relates to 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds in extraordinary ways. And a whirlwind tour of the campus suggests that Marsh is an unusually dynamic—and happy—learning environment.

“I really love him,” said Marsh student Tania Flores, 13. “He cares so much about his students. He knows everybody’s name, and he talks to everybody.”

Tania isn’t alone, said Marsh science teacher Anne Stephens: “You never see middle school students love their principal like they love Jeff.”

Yet, on May 6, Sloan was ousted as Marsh principal in a 4-1 school board vote that affirmed Chico Unified School District Superintendent Scott Brown’s desire to reassign Sloan to another administrative post. The reassignment decision followed the disclosure of allegations of financial irregularities at Marsh. Packed school board meetings ensued, dividing and emotionally draining the Chico community.

The dispute has set the stage for a high-profile election in November, when Sloan supporters will attempt to take out incumbent Trustees Rick Anderson and Steve O’Bryan, both of whom say they plan to seek re-election. Among those rumored to be considering challenges are Chico State University professors Sam Edelman and Andrea Lerner and business people Dale Penne and Phil Larios, said Sloan supporter Jim Morgan.

With critical issues facing Chico’s educational system, Morgan said the community cannot risk a repeat of the “poor judgment” the board majority showed in the Sloan affair.

Morgan, a Marsh parent, said there’s “a burr under the saddle” of a lot of people in the wake of the Sloan episode. He suggested there could be an effort over the summer to have Sloan reinstated as Marsh principal.

“There could also be a push to have the current superintendent leave, either for cause or not,” he said.

Several questions present themselves in the aftermath of the Sloan reassignment:

• Who was responsible for making public a private personnel matter against Sloan, igniting a community firestorm that has yet to burn itself out?

• Were the disputed finances at Marsh the sole reason for the board’s decision to reassign Sloan, or were different issues more telling?

• Was all of this merely a routine personnel action that spiraled out of control, or did Scott Brown play hardball to take out Jeff Sloan and ruin his reputation?

• What has been and will be the impact on Marsh School—and the district as a whole—of the decision to remove Sloan and his longtime assistant principal, Frank Thompson?

Before delving into those questionsit might be useful to explore the question: Who, exactly, is Jeff Sloan?

To his supporters, Sloan is a visionary, innovative and inspiring principal who has created Chico’s finest school in a mere five years. To his detractors, Sloan is a cocky maverick who breaks rules and denigrates other schools.

But even Bidwell Junior High School Principal Rob Williams, who is definitely not a member of the Jeff Sloan Fan Club, admires what he’s accomplished at Marsh.

“He’s a guy who really does work hard to make his school the best,” Williams said. “Do I think he’s an effective administrator? Man, just look at the people who like him.”

The people who like him include Stephens, who has been a California League of Middle Schools’ teacher of the year for Northern California.

“Jeff makes sure parents feel like their children are getting a private-school education at a public school,” Stephens said.

Lisa Reynolds, an award-winning history teacher, says Sloan creates an educational environment that is “magical.” He never allowed his staff to rest on its laurels and always sought ways to elevate Marsh to new heights.

“Those who like to go above and beyond, like I do, thrive here,” Reynolds said. “[Marsh] was the best thing going in this town, and I’m not sure what the motivation was to bring it down.”

At Marsh, students raise a lot of money, and the district alleges that funds were moved from the Associated Students account to a principal’s account controlled by Sloan without student authorization. The district also contends the money was used improperly to buy such things as furniture for the staff lounge and parent appreciation meals that didn’t directly benefit students.

Among other allegations, Sloan is accused of selling discarded textbooks in violation of district policy, bringing more than $10,000 into a fund he controlled. More than $41,000 went into the principal’s account during the school year that was audited, 2002-03, of which Sloan spent about $14,500.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said his office is not considering filing any criminal charges against Sloan, nor has it been asked to by the school district. Ramsey said he’s received no information that suggests Sloan personally benefited from any of Marsh’s spending practices.

Reynolds has worked for Sloan for 15 years, including 10 years at Chico Junior High before coming with him to Marsh when it opened in 1999. She has been a student activities director the entire time. In that role, she advises the class that makes decisions on how to spend the money that students raise.

Reynolds denies any abuses, saying that she has always handled student funding approvals the same way without previous complaint from the district. She said that without fail she maintains meeting minutes and treasurer’s reports, which no one from the District Office has asked to inspect. Reynolds said she does not know whether her documentation contains the specific detail that district auditors were seeking.

Morgan, who teaches employment law and human relations management at Chico State University, said he’s never encountered a manager more respected by his subordinates than Sloan is by the Marsh staff.

“He’s just an extremely amazing leader,” Morgan said. “And maybe he’s too much of a lone ranger for the current (district) administration to work with, as effective as he is.”

Marsh teachers contend that the accusations against Sloan are evidence of Brown’s vindictiveness and stem from the school’s desire last year to begin taking its own student photos. Brown said he opposed the plan because it took away business from a tax-paying local business.

The school board eventually approved the Marsh proposal, and technology teacher Gary Janosz said it has given students photography experience, been popular with parents and netted about $14,000 for the school.

“In retrospect, this was ground zero for the battle, I think,” Reynolds said. “The bigger question is, is [Brown] the kind of man we want leading our educational community?”

Brown said he harbors no ill will over the photo issue. “For the record, this has absolutely nothing to do with Marsh taking its own pictures,” he said.

Trustee Scott Huber, whose daughter attended Marsh, said he was impressed as a parent by Sloan’s responsiveness.

“He involves himself at a level that people are not used to seeing in a principal,” Huber said. “I guess it can be summed up with the phrase ‘customer service.’ I think Jeff Sloan gives great customer service.”

Sloan’s critics seem as passionate about him as his backers—in the opposite direction. “There’s nobody on the fence with Jeff Sloan,” said Bidwell’s Williams.

With Sloan, there is bravado about how good Marsh is that is grating to some and even makes a supporter as loyal and as outspoken as Stephens a bit uncomfortable at times. Reynolds says he’s that way because he’s so proud of Marsh.

“It’s almost that he thinks of this school as his pride and joy, his family,” Reynolds said.

A couple of lines from Sloan’s mostly positive 2001-02 evaluation, written by Kelly Mauch, assistant superintendent in charge of secondary education, identify the issue: “…Mr. Sloan’s comments and actions need to be positive and productive for the district as a whole, not just his school site. … Negative comments about other school sites, administrators, teachers or the district office do not encourage positive relationships or collegial collaboration.”

To longtime district employee Debbie Nuzzo, all that educationese can be translated as follows: “He tends to tear everything down around him to make him and his school look better.”

Nuzzo said Marsh staff members told her that Sloan makes statements comparing Marsh to other schools, such as: “We’re the Nordstrom’s of Chico; they’re the Kmarts.”

Williams described Sloan as “charismatic, and I’ve heard he’s Machiavellian—the ends justify the means.”

Sloan has been accused of recruiting top students who live outside the Marsh attendance area, a charge he denied in previously published news stories.

Yet Williams related a conversation he says he had with a Bidwell teacher. He said the teacher told him that a top basketball player who lived in the Bidwell attendance area had decided to transfer to Marsh.

“I’m Marsh material. That’s what the principal over there told me,” is what the teacher says the boy told her, according to Williams.

Williams said he confronted Sloan about the report, but Sloan denied it.

“You’ll never win an argument with Jeff Sloan, and he’ll always spin it away from him,” Williams said. “The difficulty is, he’s extremely convincing.”

Brown says that for the 2002-03 school year auditors found that about $250,000 went into and out of Marsh’s Associated Students account. The figure astounds Williams, who said Bidwell’s students this year raised less than one-tenth of that figure, about $21,000.

“I can’t even imagine depositing a quarter of a million dollars into that account,” Williams said. “That’s an incredible sum of money. I have to wonder where that money came from.”

School board member Rick Rees said that principals serve at the pleasure of a superintendent and that administrative reassignments “happen all the time” in Chico Unified. However, a principal cannot be demoted without board approval, and the notice that Sloan received made it possible for the district to reassign him to teaching.

Brown said that it was not his original intent to share with the school board the Marsh documents related to finances that went into Sloan’s personnel file. It was only after that thick report was leaked to the news media and publicized that he had no choice but to share it with trustees, he said. And Brown maintains, as he has from the beginning, that the reassignment notices given to Sloan and Thompson were in no way connected to that report.

“Everybody has tried to link the two [issues], and, at least as I see it, they never were,” Brown said. “In 98 percent of the cases, negative things in a personnel file are never seen by the board.”

Brown said that the reasons Sloan and Thompson were given notices of possible reassignment “are different for the two men, and I cannot get into that.”

The superintendent said he expects to decide where to reassign Sloan and Thompson by the board’s next meeting, June 16. Reassigning them to the same school is “not in my current thinking,” Brown said.

“[The school board’s] direction to me was to try to find a place that will keep [Sloan’s] administrative career moving,” Brown said. “I’m looking for a position where Jeff can succeed and contribute.”

A key question in the Marsh controversy is who brought to the public’s attention the allegations against Jeff Sloan. If the information was leaked to the news media by district officials, it would tend to confirm the claim of an orchestrated smear. If it was made public by Sloan or his allies, his critics might argue that he selfishly instigated a costly war that did considerable harm to community relations and drained the district’s treasury.

In fact, since the Sloan personnel issue turned into a public battle on March 16, the district has spent $17,679 on attorneys and auditors—and all of the bills aren’t in yet. It spent $7,211 on the case before March 16, for a total that will eventually exceed $25,000.

“It sucked up a lot of resources in terms of finances and brain power that could be serving the kids,” said school board President O’Bryan.

Brown said that Sloan’s decision to publicly fight his reassignment was the reason the district felt it needed to have San Diego attorney Woody Merrill, an employment law specialist, play a prominent role in the proceeding. In all, Merrill’s bill to Chico Unified exceeds $11,000 for the Sloan case. (See “Paying for it,” above.)

“[The dispute] spun into its own orbit and somewhat out of control, to be honest,” Brown said. “This has not been handled [by Sloan and his attorneys] in any way that resembles a public personnel issue that I’ve ever seen.”

There do seem to have been some loose lips in the District Office, based on testimony to the board from longtime district parent Mary Anne Carman. She told trustees that in early March, prior to Sloan’s receiving his reassignment notice, she and another parent met with District Office administrators Kelly Mauch and Alan Stephenson regarding Hooker Oak Elementary School issues. Carman told the board that Mauch and Stephenson hinted at and kidded around about a possible Sloan reassignment. Newspaper headlines soon made it clear to Carman what they had been referring to.

“I was appalled and shocked that two of our district administrators would be so unprofessional as to … joke about the possible reassignment/job loss that they very well knew was coming,” Carman said. “I then wondered … who else was speaking, what other innuendoes were being made, and had information been leaked to the media.”

Paul Minasian, a Sloan attorney, said he and Sloan were notified of the alleged financial irregularities in a meeting that began at about 10 a.m. March 16 at the District Office. According to Minasian’s account of the meeting, Brown, “obviously intending to intimidate” Sloan, informed them that the matter had been referred to the Butte County District Attorney’s Office. When the superintendent was asked whether the matter would remain confidential during the 10 days that Sloan had to respond, Minasian quotes Brown as replying, “Supposed to, but isn’t it amazing how the media find things out.”

Superintendent Scott Brown.

Photo By Tom Angel

The version of events provided by Minasian indicates that he and Sloan were back by 11 a.m. to Marsh, where they were informed that Sloan’s office had been searched and his computer confiscated. Within minutes, television reporters with cameras were present and asking about misappropriation of funds, Minasian’s account says.

Minasian said Sloan “was in no shape to talk with anyone,” so he got the principal’s permission to write a press release that was given to a school secretary to distribute “to any media person that requested information in lieu of Mr. Sloan providing any interviews.”

Minasian’s account of the events of March 16 concludes that “only someone in the district office could have provided the systematic and simultaneous ‘leak’ to a number of news organizations.”

Devanie Angel, who has reported the story for the CN&R, said she began checking out rumors in mid-March that Sloan and Thompson had gotten “pink slips.” She recalls making a number of calls, including one to Brown, who would confirm only that the pink slips had been sent and there was “an issue related to administration” of Marsh.

Not until she received from the Marsh office the faxed press release written by Minasian shortly after 2 p.m. March 16 did Angel have any information about the allegations of financial irregularities at Marsh, she said.

Indications are that the Enterprise-Record received the same fax at about the same time and did not put a reporter on the story until then.

Television reporter Matt Gebhard of Northern California News received an anonymous telephone tip the morning of March 16 about “misappropriation of school funds” at Marsh. He went to the school and received a copy of Minasian’s press statement. Gebhard estimates he left Marsh between noon and 1 p.m.

Brown said that the first news media contact he had on March 16 was with Gebhard. Brown recalls that Gebhard arrived at the district office “before noon” and carried with him the 650-word press release that Minasian says he wrote after 11 a.m.

“We didn’t choose to go on camera, anyone here,” Brown said.

When asked whether it would have been possible for Minasian to have written the press release between the time Sloan and his attorney left the district office at about 10:40 a.m. and Gephard’s arrival around noon, Brown said: “Anything’s possible. My only observation was it seemed to be quite a different writing style than the subsequent letters we received from Mr. Minasian.”

Clearly, most media in town did not move on the Marsh finances story until receiving—unsolicited—the Minasian press release, which contains numerous spelling and grammar glitches. That being the case, it seems fair to conclude that it was the Sloan camp that took the issue public.

Another key question, which ultimately may be unanswerable given the secrecy that shrouds personnel decisions, is this: What information did school board members consider in reaching their decision? For all the huffing and puffing over finances, the reasons for the reassignment remain cloaked in mystery.

“These board members do not live in a vacuum, and I suspect that all kinds of people talked to them about all kinds of different things,” Brown said.

Certainly, Marsh’s image to its critics in the community as an exclusive school for wealthy white people reared its head. So did the fact that Marsh has many gifted students and few special education students. So did the claim that Sloan had been quick to show the door to misbehaving students, so that they became some other school’s problem.

“If people want to talk about diversity or discipline, let’s talk about it,” said Leslie Layton, a Marsh parent and mother of Tania Flores, quoted earlier. “But let’s not pretend it’s something else.”

The only board member who explained himself at length in public was Huber, the lone Sloan supporter, who read a six-page statement at the decisive May 6 board meeting.

In that statement, Huber described Sloan as “a well-respected principal who this very administration has showered with praise in the quite recent past.” While acknowledging that Sloan had not followed “the letter and spirit of the law” in some cases, Huber said Sloan’s actions did not personally benefit the principal but rather helped foster “a more enthused and energized student body and staff.”

Huber quoted from Sloan’s most recent evaluation report that describes the principal as “masterful at finding dollars to provide optimum educational opportunities, including advanced technology. …” The appraisal also lauds Sloan’s “exceptional work ethic.”

Huber said that, in all of “the vast documentation provided by the district,” he could find only a single e-mail that attempted to correct any of the accounting problems at Marsh.

“How could an employee that received glowing accolades from the district administration … fall from grace so quickly and without any verifiable attempt to correct the problems?” Huber wondered.

Trustee Anthony Watts also publicly questioned the veracity of some the district’s claims but ultimately sided with the board majority to reassign Sloan. In an e-mail reply, a copy of which was made available by Sloan attorney Susan Minasian, Watts became extraordinarily expansive in explaining his vote to Brian Dillavou, the husband of Marsh teacher Cookie Dillavou.

Watts wrote “that very little of what the superintendent reported to us had any credence with me.” The e-mail says that Watts’ plan “to rescue Mr. Sloan” was doomed after Sloan’s “private address to the board did not go at all well.” In addition, Watts said that, “in the last 24 hours before our vote,” he learned “new and credible information” from people who felt “empowered” to come forward after the issue spilled into public. Some of that information “was corroborated in [Sloan’s] personnel file prior to the arrival of Dr. Brown.”

Watts also noted in his e-mail that Sloan had retained his current salary, which exceeds $90,000.

“He’s just not at Marsh this next year. Given the option of his possible termination, it seems a better choice. There is of course always the possibility that he could return to Marsh in the future,” Watts wrote.

Susan Minasian allowed this reporter to look through what she said was a complete copy of Sloan’s current personnel file, which includes performance evaluations and other documents dating back to the 1980s. It is not at all clear what information Watts might have been referring to in his e-mail. Until three months ago, almost everything in the file is positive, if not glowing, including the documents that pre-date Brown’s arrival as superintendent in 1999.

Another board member, Rick Rees, said deliberations focused on Marsh’s alleged financial irregularities, though trustees would have had to have been “sequestered by armed guards with dogs around not to hear other things.”

“It wasn’t that there was not a lot of other junk floating around. There was,” he said.

Even though Sloan’s personnel file gives no indication of his being progressively disciplined for his financial methods, Rees said he was given “every indication that that was, over longer periods of time, tried.”

“I think the public should hold administrators to a very high standard,” Rees said. “This is a controversial employee, and not just about this.”

Rees said it concerns him that “every time there’s a ‘no’ answer [from the school district] it immediately goes to a ballistic political place.”

O’Bryan agrees, saying he “didn’t want to undermine the superintendent by opening the door to allow anarchy to reign in the district.”

Trustee Anderson said it was vital that the board’s deliberations over Sloan’s fate on May 5 and 6 be conducted among just the five elected trustees. For the most part, the lawyers and the administrators were kept out of the closed session, although Anderson estimates that board members spent a total of two hours over the two nights in dialogue with Sloan.

Watts and O’Bryan in particular have felt the wrath of angry Sloan supporters. O’Bryan said windows of his bicycle business were hit with blue and purple paint. He thinks it was done with a paintball gun on the same day of a pro-Sloan rally downtown.

“I needed to wash my windows anyway,” he said.

O’Bryan also received what he described as a “particularly bitter” e-mail that was signed by “The Chico Committee for Educational Justice” and sent to him by Barbara Black, Sloan’s sister-in-law. The e-mail calls O’Bryan “as despicable as Brown and clearly afraid of him and not man enough to stand up for what you knew was the right thing to do.”

The e-mail says O’Bryan’s business will be picketed. “Our collective anger is righteous and powerful,” the e-mail says. “The negative campaign will go on and on and you will feel it where it hurts most, in your wallet.”

O’Bryan said that when he attended Marsh’s eighth-grade graduation last week, Sloan wanted him to sit in the audience, rather than on the stage, where trustees are normally seated. Eventually, a chair was brought to the stage for O’Bryan.

Watts works for a radio station that had advertising canceled by Bailey Creek Development & Golf Course over the Sloan vote, he said.

Layton, the Marsh parent who’s bothered by the methods Brown used to oust the principal of a high-achieving school, said she doesn’t want to see extreme tactics used against any trustees.

“The majority of parents … wouldn’t support … any kind of law-breaking, and we wouldn’t boycott a business over this,” Layton said.

Since March, Brown has placed two documents critical of Marsh’s financial practices into Sloan’s personnel file and threatened the principal with a third reprimand. The third memo, delivered to Sloan on April 23, included attachments that suggest serious misuse of his office computer. This inquiry came after district officials examined Sloan’s confiscated hard drive before returning it to him.

Janosz, the technology teacher, told a May 24 community meeting of mostly Sloan supporters that he asked a computer expert, Charles Duffy, to examine Sloan’s returned hard drive.

According to Janosz, Duffy discovered that 191 computer files in dozens of directories had been altered while the drive was in the district’s possession.

With the help of Janosz, Duffy and others, Sloan prepared a lengthy report, dated May 3, that refuted the computer-abuse allegations. Brown said last week that he was satisfied with Sloan’s response.

“A manager has a right to ask a question, and a manager has a right to be satisfied with an answer, and in this case we were,” Brown said. “His explanation was acceptable to all concerned, so [the computer issue] never elevated itself to the board level.”

Yet the last official response Sloan received on the computer matter was a letter from Bob Latchaw, the district’s executive director of human resources, that was hand-delivered on May 4. Latchaw’s letter advised Sloan that the computer memo would not be presented to the board at its May 5 meeting.

“That document has not been provided to the Board, and it has not yet been placed in your personnel file. The matter covered in that document is still being reviewed and investigated. …”

To Susan Minasian, Latchaw’s wording amounts to the harassment of Sloan because it did not permanently dispose of baseless allegations. Given that circumstance, she said she does not understand how community members can ask Sloan supporters to “move on.”

“It is impossible to get over something that is not over,” Susan Minasian said. “The only way to make it over is for the board to direct Scott Brown to close out all open issues, place Mr. Sloan in an appropriate administrative position and leave him alone so he can do his job. I am sorry to say they have not done that.”

Marsh teachers on March 17 dropped off their computers on the steps of the district office to protest the confiscation of Sloan’s Macintosh the day before. Watts said it would not have been necessary to remove Sloan’s computer had he and his staff conformed to district policies and used personal computers rather than Macs. Had Sloan been using a PC, as he should have been, the computer could have been inspected remotely across the network without any disruption to the principal or his school, Watts said.

Watts also described as “patently false” the claim that there were wholesale alterations to the files on Sloan’s hard drive while the district had it.

One of the financial matters that the school district took Sloan to task over was his handling of damage estimates and the collection of restitution resulting from a Marsh vandalism incident.

Sloan supporters express amazement that the school district’s attorney, Greg Einhorn, has attempted to get a Butte County Superior Court judge to rule that two vandals overpaid restitution to Marsh for damage they did to the school in 2000.

Stephens, the science teacher, questions whether it was a not-so-veiled effort by the district to turn the Sloan allegations into a criminal case against him.

“What’s the motivation of [the district’s] attorney to help these people who did … damage with a sledge hammer?” Stephens said. “It’s absolutely ludicrous, and the taxpayers should be livid.”

The district determined that about $9,500 was collected from the two vandals for what appears to be about $4,500 in actual damage.

“Yes, they should pay, but they shouldn’t overpay,” Brown said.

In addition to repaying about $5,000 to the vandals, the superintendent said that Marsh must reimburse the district’s general fund another $3,000 that the district spent to fix the damage.

Ramsey said it is understandable that the school district would want to correct a discrepancy over restitution that was discovered in an audit. The district attorney described as “bizarre” a flurry of affidavits over the matter.

“It got a little on the emotional side, with Mr. Minasian accusing the district of giving … public funds back to criminals,” Ramsey said. “The court paperwork is something of a hoot.”

Marsh’s students and teachers say the school was not the same happy place the last couple of months of the school year. Sloan, who was known for his ever-present smile and frequent presence throughout the campus, stopped smiling and stopped coming around so often, said Tania Flores, who completed the seventh grade last week.

“It created a really sad atmosphere,” Tania said.

But Watts said that trustees have to consider the big picture and not just what’s best for Marsh Junior High School.

“We have an obligation to 13,000 students in the district that is larger than any individual or any single school,” Watts said.

O’Bryan said he would like to see Chico students more often attend the school in their attendance area. The result would be a redistribution of parental affluence that would be good for Chico Junior and Bidwell.

Brown and Rees reportedly received a rousing ovation when introduced at Chico Junior’s commencement Friday. “It certainly was a friendly crowd,” Brown said.

As for Marsh, school board member Anderson believes the school, with its “phenomenal” teaching staff, will soon recover from the trauma.

Brown said that helping Marsh do so will be the new principal’s first order of business.

“Job one,” he said, “is to contribute to the healing process that’s going to have to take place over there.”