Already rife with scandal and dysfunction that led to three board members resigning in protest last month, a public charter school in Siskiyou County is now facing a lawsuit for refusing to comply with the state’s open records law.
The Nevada Policy Research Institute has filed a lawsuit in Siskiyou County Superior Court against the Golden Eagle Charter School (GECS) and its executive director, Shelley Blakely, for refusing to provide salary data for school employees.
The lawsuit stems from NPRI’s work on its TransparentCalifornia.com website — which publishes pay data from over 2,500 unique government agencies, and includes more than 1 million public school employees.
The request was made after Transparent California received numerous inquiries from community residents, school employees and even GECS board members inquiring as to why payroll data for the school was not published on the Transparent California website.
Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner was amazed to discover that even board members were being denied access to this information.
“Providing financial oversight is a fundamental part of being a board member,” Fellner said. “Of the over 2,500 public entities I have interacted with, this is the first time I have ever seen a public entity refuse to provide public pay data to a member of its own board.”
The refusal to provide this data is particularly remarkable, given that the governing charter for GECS explicitly states that the school “shall comply with the Public Records Act.”
Despite this mandate, however, GECS Director Blakely has consistently denied requests for payroll data, including one from former board member Edra Chamberlain.
In a letter dated March 5, 2019, Director Blakely informed then-Vice President Chamberlain that her request for pay data was being denied, pursuant to advice from legal counsel who allegedly claimed the school did not have to comply with such a request.
Director Blakely also sent a copy of this letter to Siskiyou County Office of Education (SCOE) Superintendent Kermith Walters. As the charter authorizer, Superintendent Walters and the SCOE is responsible for ensuring that GECS operates in compliance with its charter petition and all applicable laws. It is unclear, however, as to what action Mr. Walters took in response to being informed of the school’s decision to violate a provision of its governing charter.
The issue resurfaced at last month’s board meeting, when Ms. Chamberlain alleged that she was subjected to acts of retaliation and bullying in response to her continual demands to access pay data. Former board president Amy McMaster, who also resigned after last month’s meeting, would later express similar concerns regarding retaliation.
Documents obtained by Transparent California suggest a dynamic where Golden Eagle staff operated in a way to pressure board members from performing their fiduciary and oversight roles.
In response to an agenda item to consider retaining the services of a new law firm, for example, GECS employee Seth Horwitt sent an email to the Board warning of “dire consequences” if the Board chose to change legal counsel, and that such actions represent a threat to the “school’s existence.”
Such comments seem designed to dissuade the Board from exercising its oversight responsibilities, Fellner said.
“The Board has the ultimate authority regarding decisions pertaining to the hiring of legal counsel,” Fellner said. “It is extremely unusual, and quite troubling, for a school employee to act in a manner that could be construed as attempting to discourage board members from exercising their lawful oversight duties.”
“And given that existing legal counsel apparently approved of the decision to not comply with the Public Records Act, in plain violation of the governing charter,” Fellner continued, “it seems entirely appropriate for the Board to at least consider retaining new legal counsel.”
Ultimately, much of this dysfunction would have likely been avoided if the school chose to embrace transparency, Fellner said.
“It is hardly surprising that the school’s refusal to provide basic pay data, in clear violation of the governing charter, would lead to questions and concerns from community residents,” Fellner said. “We encourage the school to embrace its transparency obligations and provide residents with the public records to which they are entitled, so that the school can focus on its most important priority: the well-being of students.”
For more information, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.
Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. The website is used by millions of Californians each year, including elected officials and lawmakers, government employees and their unions, government agencies, university researchers, the media, and concerned citizens alike. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.