Bruce McEwen contributed to this story
Testimony continues in the civil trial of Point Arena School Superintendent Mark Iacuaniello. Iacuaniello is accused of “fraudulent inducement” — hiring principal Matt Murray to improve Point Arena's troubled elementary school then firing Murray after he'd successfully lifted the school from what amounted to state probation. Testimony so far indicates that Murray's insistence on improved job performance alienated the school's long entrenched teachers who complained privately to their pliable, $100,000+ a year superintendent who subsequently sacrificed Murray to appease the teachers, one of whom replaced Murray as principal.
Last Tuesday, Eloisa Oropeza was on the stand. Attorney Bill Ayers, representing Iacuaniello, assured Ms. Oropeza (before the jury came in), who functioned basically as Iacuaniello's District Office secretary, that her job was not being threatened by testifying. But Ms. Oropeza talked over Ayers, emphasizing to him that she understood that her job really was being threatened. Ms. Oropeza said Ayers had tried to get her to change her testimony. Ayers, insisted he hadn't — he merely wanted Ms. Oropeza to use “different words” to describe the Point Arena elementary school teachers besides “spies and tattletales.” Oropeza said she wouldn't do that. Changing her own words would make her sound like… like not herself, to talk like that.
Ms. Oropeza was the very picture of plainspoken truth.
Then came Bill Meyers and Iacuaniello himself, the very pictures of evasion and double-dealing.
Former School Board Trustee William Meyers, a self-described political radical, testified that he supported Murray until he didn't support him. Where Ms. Oropeza was forthright in her description of the backbiting and sneak attacks Murray was subjected to, Meyers was the sneak attack itself. On November 16th, 2006 Meyers said, he received “new information” — unspecified and discussed only in closed session, of course — which caused him to change his mind and vote to terminate Murray forthwith.
Meyers testified that he had indeed received a “him or me” letter from Iacuaniello. “Yes, at a point in time I was asked to choose between Mr. Murray or Mr. Iacuaniello,” said Meyers. “I would have preferred both in their positions.”
But Meyers confirmed that after the November 16th, 2006, closed session discussion the board decided that Mr. Murray would be terminated post-haste, and that he had joined in the landslide dismissal, adding that Board President Bill Lawson had abruptly announced Murray’s non-renewal without any discussion, which Meyers characterized as “not unusual.”
After Lawson’s announcement that Murray would be fired, Murray was not permitted to tell the crowd assembled for the open session part of the meeting why he was being let go. When members of the public asked their school board why Murray was being fired, Lawson said, “It's for the good of the children and the school.”
Meyers testified that this “explanation” is “a standard phrase to rationalize decisions by school systems.”
When a Point Arenan asked after the announcement if Murray had done anything illegal or immoral, Lawson replied he could not release any information from closed session, leaving the public to speculate about all manner of potential slander about Murray. Meyers later wrote a letter to the Independent Coast Observer saying that nothing illegal or immoral was involved.
Meyers confirmed that the school board received regular confidential reports from Superintendent Iacuaniello, many of which discussed Murray’s performance. Meyers said that Iacuaniello was enthusiastic about Murray when he was hired, but the Board soon received a confidential report — one of many — from Iacuaniello that said, “Matt struggles but is working really hard.”
Meyers said that Murray had taken steps to improve discipline and safety at the school and get it out of “program improvement” status. Meyers also insisted that the board was not simply a rubber stamp for Iacuaniello. “I certainly was not,” harrumphed Meyers, adding, indignantly. “The implication that we are a rubber stamp is almost offensive.”
And here you have classic Mendolib, school division, home of the closed session assassinations, the bold men of principle to whom you present your back at your peril.
During Meyers' many archly self-righteous references to closed sessions, secrecy, privacy, privileged communications, and confidentiality, the whole Fog Belt school show sounded more like a Stalinist purge than anything most Americans would recognize as honest dealing. Meyers made it clear that there was no valid case against Murray, but of course he'd gone along because, well, there were those non-existent unmentionables, but “the implication that we are a rubber stamp is almost offensive.”
Meyers insisted that Iacuaniello is very easy to get along with and would never ever say anything negative, inappropriate or wrongful to anyone, immediately contradicting this assessment of Iacuaniello's personality with the statement that he, high-minded guy that he is, didn't like Iacuaniello’s “him or me” letter (presented in closed session; along with the mysterious “new information”) which said, “the continued employment of Mr. Murray is not an option.”
“It was a complex relationship,” said Meyers. “I was aware of the need to fix certain issues. A significant change had occurred in Mr. Iacuaniello’s opinion of Mr. Murray, which amounted to a total about-face.”
Meyers stumbled hypocritically on.
Prior to the November 16 board meeting which announced Murray's termination, Meyers said that he “had the sense that Murray's contract was not going to be renewed.” But the actual November 16 decision came as a total surprise to him because it had not been discussed. He said that things seemed to be moving faster than he liked but he “was not aware” of the particulars of the dispute between Iacuaniello and Murray.
Meyers said he was aware that previous principals Jennifer Hartman and Rebecca Cartwright had lasted only one or two years, and that he knew that former principal Hartman went public with her complaints about uncooperative teachers. But he did not recall what those problems were. Apparently, Ms. Hartman told the board that she was leaving for a better job, then, after leaving, she was quoted in the Independent Coast Observer saying that a majority of the elementary school teachers were not being cooperative in making the necessary changes to improve the school's performance.
Murray inherited the same intransigent gang who drove Hartman out.
* * *
Murray returned to the stand to provide more background about the events leading up to his firing, or “non-renewal of his contract,” as the preferred euphemism has it.
He described the changes he’d instituted to lower class sizes, intervene with below-grade-level students, increase math instruction and introduce a math academy, create “math pacing” tracking charts, and the institution of more physical education. By the end of the first year suspensions were way down and standardized test scores were way up.
Murray said he had heard that certain teachers had taken a number of concerns or complaints to Iacuaniello, but he was not told what they were or who had made them. He said he had a general idea that teachers didn’t like his management style and in response he had introduced a “shared decision making model,” but that apparently some teachers still weren’t satisfied.
In his first evaluation Iacuaniello wrote that Murray went “way beyond boundaries” to support the school and bring it up to standard. Nevertheless, Iacuaniello had rated Murray “less than satisfactory” because of “the need for a greater effort to improve the relationship with staff.” Murray said that he was surprised with this evaluation because he thought his achievements were commendable and should be included in his evaluation. Iacuaniello wrote in his next evaluation, however, that “his efforts to increase and improve relationships with teachers had proved unsuccessful.”
Murray admitted missing a due date for teacher evaluations, which were at first supposed to have been completed by March 15 toward the end of his first school year. But, Murray added, he had not been informed of any such deadlines by anyone in the administration or by the superintendent.
In his second-year evaluation in June of 2006 Iacuaniello said that Murray had “not developed a trusting, positive relationship with staff” and had not brought about “shared authority,” adding that Murray was perceived to have a “controlling demeanor” and was “not doing enough staff team building.” Murray said that he disagreed that he didn't listen or that anyone was excluded from any discussions.
Murray said that he had made efforts to “improve staff relations,” vague as that allegation against him was, but “staff” was unmollified. In Murray’s second year evaluation Iacuaniello said that “a miraculous turnaround in staff relations” — whatever that meant — would be needed for Murray’s contract to be renewed.
Murray said that Iacuaniello told him about teacher complaints a few times but never mentioned names, and the complaints were always quite general. He said that Iacuaniello said he told the teachers to speak to Murray directly but no teachers had.
Murray said that Iacuaniello further undermined his ability to develop positive relationships with the teaching staff by insisting that one teacher who had falsified her credentials continue to be employed at the school as a special education teacher, and that Iacuaniello regularly allowed teachers to leave school early to go to the district office to help Iacuaniello with his office work without prior notice.
Murray said that after leaving Point Arena he found it difficult to find work in California. He filed 24 applications for administration positions in California, had eight interviews, went to two second interviews, but was eventually offered a job in Idaho where he now works.
On cross-examination, Ayers focused on the past-due teacher evaluations. Murray was first told that the deadline was March 15, then that it was March 1 according to the union contract. The evaluations were not turned in by March 1. Some were turned in by March 15. The rest of the evaluations were held over to the second year. Murray said he never heard about missing any due dates and that at one point Iacuaniello had said he wished he had informed Murray of the due dates earlier. Murray admitted that it was a mistake to not get the teacher evaluations in by the March 1 deadline, but that he did get most of them in by March 15 on the short notice.
Ayers: “Do you admit that you did not get all the evaluations in by the March 1 deadline?”
Murray: “Yes, to the best of my recollection.”
Ayers: “Do you think it's true that Mr. Iacuaniello avoids at all costs saying negative things about people?”
Ayers withdrew the question, although it's quite consistent with the Mendo Mush Mentality, i.e., chronological adults who view the world in Beenie Baby positives and negatives.
And these people are running our schools.
Murray said that he believed he had a workable relationship with Iacuaniello — except for the “staff” problems. Murray said Iacuaniello told him, “If the teachers circle the wagons it will be hard to do anything about it.”
Ayers asked if that could have meant that Murray should be on the inside with the teachers.
Murray replied, “No.”
Ayers asked if Murray believed he had gone too far in enforcing the dress code. Murray again said, No — it was effective and supported by a large majority of the students and parents.
Apparently, one of the teacher's union complaints was that Murray “constantly disempowered teachers in front of students.”
(“Disempowered,” another gem from the Mendo Mush lexicon.)
Murray said he had no idea what this was a reference to and that the grievance was more confusing than helpful.
Ayers asked Murray about his reference to a “highly charged political situation” in some of his subsequent job applications and asked about how much effort Murray had made organizing support from Point Arena parents and community members, and whether or not his wife was his “campaign manager.”
Murray denied orchestrating public opinion which, significantly, was heavily in his favor.
“When people called asking what they could do, we replied by suggesting they call the people working on the petition,” said a mildly annoyed Murray.
Asked if he thought any of the teacher concerns were valid, Murray replied that the teachers’ habit of going directly to Iacuaniello complicated relations because Iacuaniello refused to deal directly with complaints.
Murray said that many of Iacuaniello’s dealings with the teachers were “shrouded in secrecy.” “They seemed to have general concerns but had no particulars,” said Murray. “If you don't know the source of a concern or the particulars it's very difficult to deal with those concerns.”
Especially when they range from vague to non-existent, to claims of being “disempowered” before students.
Murray said support from the superintendent was key to job security and that he had made a serious effort to confirm that he would get that support before he accepted the job. At the last minute just before he mailed in his application Murray said he called Iacuaniello one last time to verify that he would get the support he needed. According to Murray, Iacuaniello confirmed again that he understood there might be complaints but that Murray would have Iacuaniello's full support.
Murray said that he was never told that there had been seven principals in the last 11 years prior to his employment at the school.
Ayers then produced a copy of notes that Murray had made after speaking with Iacuaniello; he asked if those notes were the basis of his claim of fraud by Iacuaniello. Murray replied simply, “Yes, they are.” The notes basically made reference to statements Murray attributed to Iacuaniello during the last phone conversation prior to his sending in his application to become principal of Point Arena Elementary. Notes which confirmed that Iacuaniello promised to back him up to improve school performance.
Then it was time for Iacuaniello to take the stand.
Dressed in slacks, open collar and a drab brown sweater, Iacuaniello insisted that Murray was not fired. His contract was not renewed. Iacuaniello said that he did not have the authority to hire and fire, only to make recommendations to his rubber stamp board for hiring and terminating staff.
Murray’s attorney, Lawrence King pointed out that in his earlier deposition Iacuaniello said he was responsible for hiring when asked about the hiring of former principal Cartwright.
Iacuaniello said he didn't recall telling Murray about the telltale principal turnover rate at Point Arena Elementary, and he didn't recall emphasizing the need for stability in that position. Although former principal Dr. Jennifer Hartman apparently told Iacuaniello that she was leaving to take a better job, soon after she left an article in the Independent Coast Observer quoted Dr. Hartman saying that she left because school staff was not cooperating in implementing necessary changes. Dr. Hartman added, “30-40% of the teachers are wonderful but the rest were not on board,” and that “difficult things like this need to be said.”
Iacuaniello said that he was aware that change was being resisted and agreed that teacher complaints should be in writing and signed by a specific person. However, Iacuaniello did not recall how many times teachers had come to him with complaints; he thought it was maybe less than ten times. When asked about the complaints, Iacuaniello said he could not recall the specifics of the complaints. When asked whether or not he had a process for handling complaints, Iacuaniello could not recall other than that they should be in writing. Asked if he had a role in solving the problems the teachers had raised, after a lengthy pause Iacuaniello said, “It depends on the situation and the nature of the concerns.” After another pause, Iacuaniello added, “Maybe my job is just to be there to listen and to be available to the teachers. … I don't feel my role is to solve problems.”
Does Point Arena ever wonder why they're paying this man a hundred thousand a year?
Iacuaniello said he'd also met with teachers about their concerns with Dr. Hartman but couldn't remember what those concerns were.
Iacuaniello said he “intended” to tell Murray about the concerns, but couldn't remember if he had or not.
“Did you tell him who expressed the concerns?”
“I do not recall all of the visits I had with teachers.”
The only concern Iacuaniello said he could remember was one visit by two elementary school teachers who functioned as union representatives. Iacuaniello asked the union reps to put their concerns in writing and that Murray respond in writing. But he didn't recall whether or not he thought the response was adequate.
Iacuaniello was “not sure” if he did any follow-up with any of the concerns expressed by the teachers who came to him. He also was not sure if he followed up with Murray to see if the teachers had come to Murray as Iacuaniello had asked.
Early in Murray's employment teachers apparently asked Iacuaniello, “How can we support him [Murray]?” Iacuaniello told them to talk directly to Murray. But again there was no follow-up and the $100,000 school superintendent didn't recall whether or not he asked anybody whether they had. “Right now, my mind is blank,” said Iacuaniello. “I'm not sure. I cannot identify any of the teacher complaints. I can't remember what they were. But I know there were some.”
“Did you e-mail or write anything to Mr. Murray about your meetings with the teachers?”
“I don't recall.”
“Were there any documents, any memorandums?”
“I don't recall. I think there may have been one or two documents toward the end of Mr. Murray's employment.”
“Did you think that Mr. Murray did anything inappropriate?”
“There was the failure to listen, failure to empower the teachers, the inability to get them to understand what he was doing, and he was unable to communicate with the teachers because he was busy doing other things, taking notes or being on the phone when they came to talk to him.”
Er, a teacher walks in while you're on the phone and this happenstance is “disempowering?”
“Did you speak to him about this?”
“Yes. I wanted an official record but I don't remember if there was one.”
Iacuaniello could not recall who came to him with concerns or questions. He thought that one teacher had been inappropriately chastised and told Mr. Murray about it, but he could not recall the particulars of that complaint. Apparently there were some concerns about the math evaluations that Murray was having teachers do but none of them were made into formal complaints. Iacuaniello said he didn't recall if there were any follow-ups with the teachers who mentioned that “concern.”
Iacuaniello said he didn't recall what was said during the pre-employment interviews he had with Murray. He remembered thinking that Murray’s experience in Long Beach was good and that he was excited and eager to get him. (So eager, apparently, that he “forgot” to tell Murray that elementary school principals never lasted more than two years in Point Arena.)
“What problems did you expect him to address?”
“I don't recall. I recall feeling very positive about him,” Iacuaniello said.
Iacuaniello “believed” he discussed increasing reading ability and discipline and campus safety, and that he “thought” he told Murray that he wanted the school to have an academic focus and to get out of program improvement status, and that it was “likely” that he mentioned the discipline and budding gang problems. He also said it was also “likely” that he discussed the physical plant problems but couldn't remember specifically which ones.
Iacuaniello said he was “very positive” about hiring Murray but couldn't recall the various discussions Murray cited in his testimony.
“Do you remember the discussion at Denny's [in Fort Bragg prior to Murray being hired]?”
“Yes, but I don't remember what we said. We conversed. We talked a bit. We clarified things. We got to know each other.”
“Did Mr. Murray mention the possibility of his son going to Mendocino Elementary?”
“I don't recall.”
“Do you remember later saying that it would be a bad idea for him to move his child out of the district?”
“I don't recall.”
“Did you anticipate the teacher problems and complaints?”
“I knew some were resisting, a group of them were resisting. But I didn't expect that it would be the problem it became.”
When asked about the nature of an email he sent to Murray, Iacuaniello replied, “I try to be positive. I didn't mention any problems in any of the emails. I did not provide Mr. Murray with deadlines about the evaluation deadlines being due by March 15. No, I don't think so.”
“Do you take any responsibility for the delayed evaluations?”
“I reminded him, but I didn't do any follow-up.”
Iacuaniello said he did not provide Murray with a list of deadlines he expected Murray to meet when Murray was hired. When Murray tried to find out if the evaluations were due on March 1 or March 15, Iacuaniello sent an incoherent email reply to Murray saying “If the [union] contract says it’s the 1st, that [sic] when it has to be!”
* * *
The outlines of Iacuaniello’s defense strategy are becoming evident:
1. Try to shift the blame for Murray’s firing from Iacuaniello to the school board, which has been granted “absolute immunity” from responsibility for it. At the same time, portray Murray’s termination as just the usual small-town politics, not a malicious vendetta by a small group of lazy teachers and a spineless administration and school board indifferent to the welfare of Point Arena's young people.
2. Justify Murray’s termination by alleging it had something to do with tardy teacher evaluations.
3. Claim that there was nothing malicious or fraudulent about Murray’s termination. In fact, claim that Superintendent Iacuaniello is a such a limited, positive-thinking Mendo Man he's incapable of the “actual malice” Murray’s attorneys have to prove.
4. Nitpick Murray’s claims for damages to make him appear mercenary.
5. Imply that Murray should have known that he had no guarantee of employment even if he met all expectations.
The trial continues this week. It may spill over into next week depending on how many more witnesses are called. ¥¥