Even as its board members undertook to redress serious shortcomings and challenges that are threatening to bring the Public Safety Academy to ruin, the headlong rush to institute reforms at the school resulted in yet another wave of adverse publicity last week.
In this case, the controversy arose out of the charter school board’s failure to conduct a fully open public venue in choosing a new administrator.
Last week, the board of the Public Safety Academy quietly tapped one of its own members, Peggi Hazlett, to serve as its executive director. Hazlett, who was a special assistant to San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris and a special assistant to Morris’s mayoral predecessor Judith Valles, abruptly resigned from her position with the city of San Bernardino to take on the position with the charter school. The announcement of her hiring, which is effective March 1, touted Hazlett as the charter school’s “new CEO.” But in the brouhaha that ensued, even one of Hazlett’s supporter’s stated that she was not qualified to be chief executive officer. Moreover, one member of the board publicly claimed to have been blindsided by Hazlett’s elevation. And as word of the matter spread, there were suggestions that there was a conflict of interest inherent in a board member being appointed by the board to a paying position with the charter school. That fed recurrent charges that the Public Safety Academy, like some other charter schools in California, is more focused on enriching its operators than educating students.
The California Education Code provides for the formation of charter schools under the aegis of a sponsoring local school district. Charter schools function outside the normal parameters of normal schools and can offer a curriculum and educational smorgasbord unavailable in traditional public schools while meeting the requirements of both special needs students and accelerated scholars.
The Public Safety Academy fell short of both educational and accounting goals over the several years of its operation, then plunged into chaos last year, resulting in lawsuits that now may end up costing its sponsoring district hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of dollars.
What was to become the Public Safety Academy was founded as an unaccredited educational seminar in 2000 by Michael Dickinson, a one-time arson investigator, to prepare its attendees for careers in law enforcement and firefighting. In 2005, the school was given accreditation when Dickinson convinced the San Bernardino City Unified School District to charter the school as the Public Safety Academy. The academy appeared to have found a niche, with students intent on pursuing a career in fire science or law enforcement, as well as parents wishing to steer their children in that direction. A number of local luminaries in those fields participated in the school as instructors, sponsors, mentors, and board members.
But the academy, which has its campus at the former Norton Air Force Base, encountered difficulties along the way. Four years ago a financial review revealed the school had not kept accurate payroll and accounting records, and had spent $164,000 that was not budgeted for. There were also questions about $20,000 worth of expenditures for laptops that were either never delivered, misappropriated or stolen. In January of last year, a report commissioned by the district found the academy’s accounting practices deficient and cataloged arrearages with regard to accounts payable.
Last spring, Michael Dickinson’s wife who served as a principal at one of the school’s campuses, Susan Dickinson, fell under the charter school board’s focus after a report surfaced that she had crossed the line in prepping her students for questions contained in the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting exam. According to an inquiry into the matter, Susan Dickinson reviewed some of the material contained in the test with students at her school before the test was administered and recommended that other instructors at the academy do likewise.
The charter school’s principal, Kathy Toy, had recommended that the board of trustees terminate Susan Dickinson. Before that vote took place, Michael Dickinson sacked the board of trustees.
On June 20, 2011 the Public Safety Academy board, led by Hazlett, filed suit against Public Safety Academy Inc., an adjunct to the academy which was set up and controlled by Michael Dickinson, who received $121,000 per year in salary for his services. That suit sought to restore the authority of the board that Michael Dickinson had terminated. In July, the court ruled that the board had legal authority to run the charter academy, and the contracts of Michael Dickinson, as the chief executive officer, and Dickinson’s hand-picked chief financial officer, Mike Davis, who was paid $120,000 per year, were terminated.
Subsequently, the district was sued by the parents of one of its students, a 16-year-old girl. In that suit, it is alleged that the girl, who was then 15 years old, had repeated sexual encounters with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy Nathan Gastineau, who was the girl’s mentor in her Police Explorer Scout activity coordinated at the academy. According to that suit, another student in October 2010 reported to officials at the Public Safety Academy an inappropriate relationship existed between the girl and Gastineau. A teacher told the principal at the school, who did not contact authorities, the lawsuit alleges. Depending on the outcome of the case, the San Bernardino City Unified School District, which chartered the Public Safety Academy, could be on the hook for millions of dollars.
In recent months, the Public Safety Academy has scrambled to maintain its existence. In that way, the board for the charter school has been looking for a dynamic leader to function as CEO. At its February 8 meeting, the board, during the absence of one of its members, San Bernardino Fire Chief Michael Conrad, took what was deemed by the members of the board present as an emergency action that appointed one of their own – Hazlett – as the top administrator of the charter school. The appointment was not previously agendized. In making the appointment, the board said the appointment of someone qualified to oversee the charter academy was paramount. Hazlett, who in addition to serving as assistant to Morris and Valles over the past decade was an environmental projects assistant with the city of San Bernardino prior to that and was also the chief financial officer, administrator and instructor at the Dikaios Christian Academy in San Bernardino from July 1994 to July 1996, was deemed by the board to be qualified to serve as charter academy CEO. Hazlett has some college coursework in public administration at San Bernardino Valley College, but no college degree.
Upon learning of her appointment after the fact, Conrad went public with statements to the effect that he disapproved of the process by which Hazlett had been elevated from the non-paying board of directors to the paid position of chief executive, in which Michael Dickinson was paid $121,000 per year. He said he had heard no previous discussion of Hazlett’s appointment to the post whatsoever.
Upon getting the paying position with the charter academy, Hazlett resigned from her post as Morris’s special assistant.
Under fire for the surprise appointment and Hazlett’s thin academic credentials, board members seemed to lose their footing. Richard Lawhead, who is a lieutenant with the San Bernardino Police Department and the board president, while defending Hazlett as right for the job, acknowledged that she likely lacked the qualifications to serve as the CEO of an academic institution.
On February 20, the board came together to smooth out the rough edges and do some damage control and public relations work. Hazlett, it was publicly disclosed, will be given the title of executive director rather than chief executive officer. Her area of responsibility will be to oversee the academy’s daily operations, finances and business affairs on an interim basis.
She will remain in that position at least until the end of June. There will be further consideration of who will fill the position on a permanent basis. Hazlett indicated she will compete against any others who apply for the job.
While Conrad on February 20 complained about a lack of transparency in the events leading up to Hazlett’s appointment and indicated he believed the board should have conducted a more open, public and extensive search before making the appointment, he said he was now prepared to have the charter academy move forward with Hazlett in the executive director role. Conrad said he felt Hazlett was qualified to hold the position on a temporary or interim basis, but that he wanted to see a competitive process conducted to find a CEO in which candidate qualifications are clearly specified.
Hazlett will replace Toy, who has been functioning as principal and academy director for more than six months.
Hazlett is and will remain a board member until March 1, at which time she will resign to take on the paying position. The board has agreed to appoint Elizabeth Cruz, who has a child attending the academy, to Hazlett’s vacant position on the board.