Thick smoke, but where’s the fire?

That the Chico Unified School District’s investigation into possible funding improprieties at Marsh Junior High School exploded with such spontaneity speaks volumes about both the issue at hand and the players involved in this mock-Shakespearean tragicomedy.

Last week, rumors, innuendo and gossip about the brewing battle between Marsh Principal Jeff Sloan and district Superintendent Scott Brown were flying days before the news hit the press. Anonymous phone calls of an arrest and whispers of conspiracy swirled around the issue, building it to a fever pitch.

Then it spilled out into the media, and suddenly a school board meeting, normally a less-than-exciting event, was the hottest ticket in town.

This would all be entertaining if it didn’t have the potential to damage the district’s credibility and destroy careers, hadn’t deeply divided the community and hadn’t left the Board of Trustees caught awkwardly in the middle.

This much we know: Brown accused Sloan of mishandling fund-raising accounts and hired an outside auditor. Brown then talked the trustees, before they saw the results of the audit, into signing off on a notice of possible transfer or layoff for Sloan and his assistant, Frank Thompson.

Brown also ordered that Sloan’s computer be taken for further investigation, a high-profile move that suggested serious wrongdoing.

While the audit, which the district still has not released, shows some book-handling mistakes and shortcuts, the money is fully accounted for.

Sloan, who’s been at Marsh for the five years since it opened, is full of bravado, the kind of guy who is either adored or resented by those who know him. But if Brown didn’t like the way Sloan did things, why did he wait until now to act and then with such dramatic flair? Is he trying to overcome Sloan’s popularity with a dose of public humiliation? And why has the board been kept in the dark but asked to do some of the dirty work?

The whole affair has turned into a public-relations nightmare that has damaged the district in the eyes of those it serves.