Hearing Officer Finds Nepotism, Cronyism & Racism At SBCUSD

Mel Albiso, the San Bernardino City Unified School District’s former assistant superintendent of human resources and its current associate superintendent and chief administrative officer, has engaged in numerous examples of nepotism, cronyism and race-driven favoritism, according to an independent hearing officer who looked into the district’s personnel practices.
The district retained administrative hearing officer Norman Brand, the past president of the California Dispute Resolution Council, to look into former personnel director Abe Flory’s contention that he was wrongfully terminated by the district in 2007. In reviewing more than a ream of documents Flory produced or referenced in support of his case, Brand came to the conclusion that Flory’s firing was unjustifiable and that he should be reinstated with $550,000 in back pay. In making that determination, Brand found merit in Flory’s assertions, posted in a newsletter and on a website, charging the district and Albiso engaged in hiring practices that were fraught with  “nepotism, cronyism and racism.” Brand told the district’s personnel commission “evidence shows at least two of the accusations are true.”
District officials maintained Flory’s sacking was justified because of 29 alleged acts characterized as insubordination, dishonesty or failure to perform his duties. Brand found merit in only two of the accusations against Flory, specifically that Flory had violated a district rule when he used overbearing or offensive language in penning a memo saying former superintendent Arturo Delgado had “lied to all district employees in writing and lied to the newspapers” and again violated district policy when he distributed a written account at a school board meeting that essentially accused four district administrators of “stealing” as well as being “unethical, discourteous, offensive and threatening.”  Brand recommended that Flory, who was pulling down more than $120,000 per year, be suspended for one week without pay and receive a letter of reprimand, but otherwise be reinstated.
Flory maintained that evaluations of personnel should have been carried out by the personnel commission rather than Albiso and other district administrators because of their bias.
The personnel commission, which presently carries out merit evaluations of the school district’s employees with the exception of administrators, teachers and counselors, has accepted Brand’s findings. The school board now has the option of confirming the personnel commission’s acceptance of Brand’s determination or appealing the matter to the superior court.
Under Delgado, who departed the district as superintendant last June to become superintendent of Los Angeles County Schools, Albiso had acceded to the second highest ranking position in the district. There have long been suggestions that Albiso advanced to the associate superintendent’s position because of a secret backroom deal Albiso and Delgado closed three years ago.
On January 27, 2009, the San Bernardino City Unified School District (SBCUSD) school board voted 6-0 to give Albiso, who had been the district’s director of personnel and was promoted to assistant superintendent in 2005, a 2 percent raise, retroactive to January 13, 2009. Undisclosed at that time was the salary enhancement was intended to put him into a higher compensation bracket  consistent with duties it had already been secretly agreed he would assume the following month. Indeed, the following month the school board created the position of associate superintendent – in effect the district’s number two staff position second only to superintendent, and promoted Albiso into that position. Among the position’s duties was supervising the district’s assistant superintendents.
Albiso was provided with a $151,188 annual base salary, such that he was receiving a total annual compensation package exceeding $210,000, including all benefits and salary. Albiso at that time was a member of the Colton school board.  Delgado utilized Albiso  as his budgetary axe-man, assigning him to the task of laying off other administrators. Albiso’s promotion into the second highest district office fell under criticism because of his lack of experience, qualifications and expertise with regard to the role he took on. He oversaw the non-educational, non-teaching departments, known as the district’s classified divisions: employee relations/human resources, facilities/maintenance & operations, and information technology.
Albiso does not have an educational degree or any type of state credential, including an administrative credential. His primary duty as an associate superintendent was to oversee non-credentialed personnel, i.e., non-teaching positions such as custodians, groundskeepers, cafeteria workers, clerical help, nurses, etc. Nevertheless, as associate superintendent, Albiso supervises the assistant principals whose job it is to oversee and manage instructors.
Albiso’s daughter, Nicole Ramirez, was recently working in a senior and lucrative position in the district’s nutrition services department without going through any competition or testing for the position. She is the proprietor of an Ontario-based business, Advanced Computing Concepts, which, according to its own website, is involved in advertising, website development and political campaigns. Ramirez touts herself and her company as being able to help a candidate “project the right image, have a clear and well articulated message, and adopt a campaign strategy with clear and concise goals. We offer a comprehensive approach to campaign consulting, including strategic planning and marketing, issue research and message development, and media consulting. A few of the many services we can provide for your campaign include: direct mail marketing targeted to the highest propensity voters, email marketing, Web development, campaign signs, fliers, and other marketing materials, fundraising event planning, [and] multimedia presentations.”
Ramirez and Advanced Computing Concepts have, her website boasts, been involved in school board, city government and school bond and municipal issues. Among those candidates referenced on the Advanced Computing Concepts website are former San Bernardino City Unified School District board members Dr. Elsa Valdez and Teresa Parra.
Both Valdez and Parra supported Albiso’s promotion to associate superintendent at SBCUSD and were his political supporters when he was with the Colton Joint Unified School District, where he was voted out of his position as a board member in November 2010. Both Valdez and Parra were defeated in their reelection bids in November 2011.
Complaints have cropped up that the hiring of Ramirez was improperly done and timed to provide her with medical benefits to cover the cost of the birth of her child. Ramirez’s position, a full-time one, was on occasion filled by her while she worked away from the district office, either at home or at her Ontario office. There have been suggestions that she was paid by the district while actually engaged in work for Advanced Computing Concepts.
In his examination of the matter, Brand found that Ramirez, then known as Nicole Albiso, was originally hired as a programmer with the district in 1999, even though she did not have a degree in information systems at that time. Brand said there was no record of Albiso/Ramirez’s test results for the programming position in the district’s personnel file. Three performance evaluations she was given during her probationary term with the district indicated she needed to improve her computer skills – including learning Visual Basic, which all other district employees in her department had already mastered. Nevertheless, she became a permanent employee at the end of her hiring probation. Subsequently, she resigned, but in 2001, after she changed her name to Nicole Ramirez, she applied with the district once more and was rehired.
Her immediate supervisor, Thomas McCauley Jr., complained up the district chain of command about Ramirez’s performance. McCauley maintained that his superior, Dilip Patel, told him to rescind his complaint because of who Ramirez’s father was. During a hearing before Brand, Patel contradicted McCauley, saying he merely remarked that as a new employee Ramirez needed time to acclimate herself and learn new skills. When Ramirez tested for the position of web developer in 2003, she was the only candidate who failed to finish the test, even after she was provided with an extra hour. According to McCauley, Ramirez passed because a panel member gave her 8 out of 10 points for two questions she did not answer. Despite her performance on the test, Ramirez was promoted to the position.
In 2005, Ramirez resigned from the web developer position and wangled being rehired two days later as a “substitute” web developer who did not need to work out of the district office and could function from home. She was provided the highest level of pay for the web designer position. Patel acknowledged Ramirez did not have the requisite five years experience working with Visual Basic, as required in the job description.
Brand told the commission that “The case of Nicole Ramirez, Albiso’s daughter, can only be explained by nepotism. The evidence of her special treatment is overwhelming.”
In several instances, according to Flory, the district showed a preference in hiring unqualified workers, either because they were blood related to district administrators, were associates of one sort or another of the administrators, or because they were Hispanic.
A custodian who spoke very little English was hired, despite the consideration that safety regulations dictated that all employees be conversant in English.
Last year, Albiso was buffeted with accusations that he engineered the hiring of Helen Rodriguez at San Bernardino City Unified as special education director in the aftermath of a problematic circumstance she had worked herself into at the Colton Joint Unified School District, where she had been protected in her position as director of pupil personnel services there when Albiso was on the school board. Rodriquez engendered a litany of complaints in Colton with regard to failure to comply with federal regulations pertaining to the preparation of education plans for students with disabilities and instead substituting an unapproved curriculum. Those complaints led to legal wrangling between the Colton Joint Unified School District and the Association of Colton Educators.
SBCUSD had for some time been seeking a special education director and held interviews to fill that slot, but, at Albiso’s prompting, the district held the position open for Rodriguez and she was hired by the board, upon Albiso’s recommendation, on June 21. Emanating from the district were indications that other more highly qualified individuals had applied for the special education post with SBCUSD.
Last year, a major rift developed between the district, its administrators and most of the school board on one side and the personnel commission on the other. The stalemate between the district and its personnel commission, which ranks job applicants and recommends to the board of trustees candidates for secretarial, custodian, food-service and other nonteaching assignments, reached a crisis point, as more than 300 nonteaching positions went unfilled for nine months. That contretemps arose out of a disagreement over the suitability of Bryan Astrachan to serve in the capacity of personnel commission director. The district’s management and administration favored Astrachan, while the commission’s three members were adamant that the district instead appoint Patrick Maher. Delgado, in seeking to come to some accommodation with the commission, hired Astrahan as a deputy director in the human resources department, perhaps to make way for bringing in Maher. That, however, infuriated the commission, which was collectively upset over the district’s unwillingness to hire Maher immediately. The stand-off did not end until October, when the board agreed to hire Mahler.

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