Superintendent won’t look back

Chet Francisco

Chet Francisco

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Chico schools Superintendent Chet Francisco said last week that he did not intend to look further into allegations (documented in the CN&R’s March 8 Cover Story, “Abuse of Authority”) that in 2004, before he took office, school district officials made career-threatening accusations they knew were unfounded in an effort to intimidate former Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan.

In a phone interview Friday (March 16), Francisco said that digging into the matter further would be a distracting use of resources at a time when his priority is on working to improve the schools for the benefit of students. “In my mind there’s a clear necessity to move forward, to focus on learning,” he said. “That’s where my energy is going. I’m not going back three years to find out who did what to whom.”

He did stipulate, however, that if such an incident occurred today, he “would absolutely take action and get to the bottom of it.”

He was referring to a series of events that occurred in March and April of 2004. At the time, then-Superintendent Scott Brown was locked in a fierce battle with Sloan, whom he wanted to reassign to another school despite Sloan’s resistance and tremendous support from students, parents and staff at Marsh.

On March 16 that year, the district seized Sloan’s office computer. Then, on April 23, the district accused Sloan of having “sexually explicit and/or obscene and vulgar photographs” on the computer. As the CN&R recently learned, however, the district’s own consultant, Earl Keene, had earlier told district officials, including Brown, that the photos in no way could be linked to Sloan.

Several people used Sloan’s computer, Keene told the officials, and besides the images were in a deleted file. Anybody can have such images on his or her computer, since they come unsolicited as spam and commonly remain on the hard drive, even when deleted, he explained.

The “obscenity” accusation, which district counsel Greg Einhorn delivered to Sloan’s office, along with copies of the photos and his hard drive, said that he had 10 days to respond before the documents would be placed in his personnel file—a career killer for a school principal.

Sloan sent the hard drive—which turned out to be a copy of his original—to a computer expert, who could not find the images but did discover that the drive had been altered or manipulated after it left Stone’s office—something the district’s consultant, as it turned out, also had pointed out.

Brown then backed off, and the district never placed the charges in Sloan’s files—though they apparently have never been destroyed, either.

Sloan lost his job and his promising career as a school administrator, and Brown has since retired.

By all measures, the “obscenity” incident appears to be a serious case of workplace harassment. It raises several questions, including whether any current employees who were involved will be held accountable.

But there are other questions: Did someone plant the photos on Sloan’s computer? Why did the district keep telling Sloan it wanted to return his hard drive to him, only to give him copies of the drive instead? And why did the district authorize spending $875 for Keene’s services—below the $1,000 threshold for board approval—but allow him to do work costing nearly $5,000?

And for that much money there should be a written report documenting just what Keene found. Where is it?

Three of the current members of the CUSD Board of Trustees are new to the board since the events of 2004. Two of them—Jann Reed, elected in November 2004, and Andrea Lerner Thompson, elected in November 2006—in the past have expressed concerns about how the district handled the Sloan case.

Reed, interviewed by phone recently, said she “could see the issue being discussed” by the trustees but wasn’t sure how they would agendize it. “There hasn’t even been an opportunity [for the trustees] to have a conversation to discuss whether to have a discussion” about the issue, she said.

Lerner Thompson, also interviewed by phone, was similarly unsure about the proper procedure for discussing the new revelations.

She said she was deeply concerned about the events described in the CN&R article and wanted to confirm them for herself. “I haven’t spoken to Mr. Keene [to verify his account],” she said. “If in fact [what he told the CN&R] is true, I’d be very concerned about integrity and lack of professionalism. This is not how you treat people. I expect the district to operate with a high level of integrity.”

She said her preference would be to have an independent investigation done but stressed that it would require the support of the superintendent as well as other trustees to be authorized.