By Mark Gutglueck
In the closing weeks and days of the 2016 election season, the Central School District and its personnel have again stepped into controversy.
In the most recent case, one of the district’s school principals has actively campaigned on behalf of the two incumbent school district board members up for election.
Based upon one version of events and a reading of the state’s election code, that endorsement utilizing the principal’s official title bordered on, if not actually crossing the line into being, a violation of the California Educational Code.
In a public statement before the school board last night, the principal, whose six-year-old daughter is a student in the district, insisted she was speaking out as a parent who believes the board has created a quality learning environment within the district.
One of the two incumbent board members who received the endorsement said the arrangements for the so-called robo-calls by which the endorsement was disseminated involved no use of district or public facilities and backed up the principal’s contention that the recording did not take place on school grounds.
While there are differing versions of the events that took place, some basic facts are reliably known.
Two positions on the board are up reelection this year, those held by incumbents Joan Weiss and Kathy
Thompson. Both Weiss and Thompson are vying for reelection. Also running is Robert Moya.
On Friday, October 28, calls from the principal of Central Elementary School, Dr. Renee Barnett, were made to the phones of registered voters within the district. After identifying herself as the principal of Central Elementary, Barnett encouraged those called to vote for Weiss and Thompson.
“Hi, my name is Dr. Renee Barnett,” Barnett said. “I am the principal at Central Elementary School in Central School District. Please vote to re-elect board members Joan Weiss & Kathy Thompson on Tuesday November 8th to continue proven leadership that makes Central School District an excellent place for students to learn. When you go to vote just remember board members Joan Weiss and Kathy Thompson. Thank you.”
Given Barnett’s capacity as a principal in the district, the endorsement took on the patina of an official one.
While California law does not prohibit government officials or employees from engaging in political activity, they are not permitted to do so while on the job or to utilize public facilities, equipment or public funding to do so.
There was a lack of clarity, at least initially, as to whether the calls were made directly by Barnett or whether they were placed by another individual using a recording of Barnett’s voice, utilizing a technique called robo-calling. It would be subsequently established that the calls were indeed robo-calls. That discovery begat questions pertaining to the circumstances under which the phone messages were recorded.
Some parents and teachers, as well as legal authorities, took issue with Barnett’s lead-in identification of herself as the principal of Central Elementary in the calls. While this is an accurate summary of her professional status and stature within the community, that identification could have lent itself to the assumption or conclusion that the endorsement was being made in her official and professional capacity.
Available information suggests the phone calls originated from the phone number 909-241-5754. The number 909-241-5754 is registered with, according to caller identification software available from Verizon, Thompson, Ronald, i.e., Ronald Thompson. Ronald Thompson is Kathy Thompson’s husband.
909 241 5754 has been verified as Ronald Thompson’s phone number.
Documentation provided to the Sentinel shows that one of those calls came in at 11:39 a.m. on Friday, 10/28/16. This was in the middle of a school day, while school was in session at Central Elementary School.
California Education Code Sections 7050 to 7058 deal explicitly with the political activity on the part of public educators.
Section 7050 states, “The Legislature finds that political activities of school employees are of significant statewide concern. The provisions of this article shall supersede all provisions on this subject in any city, county, or city and county charter as well as in the general law of this state.”
Section 7051 lays out that “This article applies to all officers and employees of a local agency. ‘Local agency’ means a county superintendent of schools, an elementary, high, or unified school district, or a community college district. Officers and employees of a given local agency include officers and employees of any other local agency whose principal duties consist of providing services to the given local agency.”
Section 7052 states “Except as otherwise provided in this article, or as necessary to meet requirements of federal law as it pertains to a particular employee or employees, no restriction shall be placed on the political activities of any officer or employee of a local agency.”
According to Section 7053, “No one who holds, or who is seeking election or appointment to, any office or employment in a local agency shall, directly or indirectly, use, promise, threaten or attempt to use, any office, authority, or influence, whether then possessed or merely anticipated, to confer upon or secure for any person, or to aid or obstruct any person in securing, or to prevent any person from securing, any position, nomination, confirmation, promotion, change in compensation or position, within the local agency upon consideration or condition that the vote or political influence or action of such person or another shall be given or used in behalf of, or withheld from, any candidate, officer, or party, or upon any other corrupt condition or consideration. The prohibitions of this section shall apply to either urging or discouraging any political action of an employee.”
Section 7054 (a) states, “No school district or community college district funds, services, supplies, or equipment shall be used for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure or candidate, including, but not limited to, any candidate for election to the governing board of the district.”
Sections 7054 (b) applies to the use of public money to promote bond issues.
Section 7054 (c) states, “A violation of this section shall be a misdemeanor or felony punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both, or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code for 16 months, or two or three years.”
Section 7054.1 relates to the activities of a school administrative officer or board members in appearing before a citizens’ group to discuss an election to submit to the voters of the district a proposition for the issuance of bonds.
Section 7055 relates to allowing a governing body of a local agency to establish its own rules and regulations relating to officers and employees engaging in political activity during working hours and political activities on the premises of the local agency.
Section 7056 makes clear that a school employee can solicit and receive political funds or contributions to promote the support or defeat of a ballot measure that might impact the rate of pay, hours of work, retirement, civil service, or other working conditions of officers or employees of the local agency, but states “These activities are prohibited during working hours. In addition, entry into buildings and grounds under the control of a local agency for such purposes during working hours is also prohibited.”
Section 7057 states that “No person who is in the classified service or who is upon any eligibility list shall be appointed, demoted, or removed, or in any way discriminated against because of his political acts, opinions, or affiliations.”
Section 7058 states that “Nothing in this article shall prohibit the use of a forum under the control of the governing board of a school district or community college district if the forum is made available to all sides on an equitable basis.”
At issue was whether Barnett ran afoul of the law by endorsing Weiss and Thompson in her official capacity as principal and by doing so during school hours.
Additionally, throughout the early part of this week, a rumor was extant that Barnett was either offered an inducement in the form of an employment bonus or a promise of reward or promotion for having made the endorsements.
It is widely recognized that the district’s superintendent, Donna Libutti, favors the reelection of Weiss and Thompson. There were suggestions that Lubutti is grooming Barnett as her successor. The district superintendent post provides $209,000 per year in total compensation, which includes salary and benefits. Barnett’s eventual ascendency to the superintendent’s post would be contingent upon a majority of the school board approving her elevation to that position.
Thursday evening, Barnett sought to dispel the untoward suggestions surrounding her endorsement of Weiss and Thompson and other elements of the controversy.
“I want the board to know and I want the cabinet [i.e., senior district staff] to know I have a mind of my own and I do what I do because that is what I believe in,” Barnett said. “I didn’t do this because somebody has coerced me. I did it because this is right and what I want.”
In providing background to the situation, Barnett said she left Georgia, where she had worked as an educator previously and had relocated to California. She said she did not learn of the opening with the Central School District and did not apply for the principal’s position until after she had moved to Rancho Cucamonga. She said her six-year-old daughter attending school in the Central School District was unrelated to her seeking and obtaining her present position with the district. She insisted she placed her daughter into the district on the basis of her belief that the Central School District offered her daughter a superior educational opportunity.
“You have a gem,” she said of the district. “I made the decision my daughter would go to the Central School District. I had to get a transfer. This is where I know she will thrive and get a great education.”
Her involvement in endorsing the two incumbents grew out of her belief that the district is on the right path and that political efforts to disrupt the current chemistry in the district would prove counterproductive. “I believe that if it’s not broke, you don’t need to fix it. It didn’t seem to me like it was broken. Nobody coerced me to do anything. I actually approached Joan and Kathy and I asked if I could help them with their campaign because I believed in them. I voluntarily went to Joan and Kathy to ask if I not only could do the robo-calls, I went out on a Sunday on my own accord.”
Barnett said she recorded the approximately half minute endorsement message at her home in the evening, offering her recollection that she had done so last Friday night, driving home the point that she had not been at work when the recording took place and that it was done on her own and not the district’s time.
“That would be considered my work hours,” she said, adding, “I want to say on the 28th about 8:30-ish.” She recorded the message and then recorded it again and re-recorded it again and again, she said, in reaction to the constant critiquing of her spiel by her 24-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. The approximately 30-second spot thus took her at least an hour and maybe as much as an hour-and-a-half to perfect, she said.
Barnett dismissed the suggestion that she had broken the law, either deliberately or inadvertently, and was equally insistent that she had acted neither naively nor gullibly.
“I’m a big girl and I have been in this game for a long time,” Barnett said. “I have been in education for well over 20 years. Here I am. I want the board to know I consider myself a person of integrity and consider myself smart enough not to mix my job in what is going on in politics,” she said.
Joan Weiss said of the use of the robo-calls, “Kathy and I decided to do this on our own,” adding the recording and work on the robo-calls was “done outside of the political boundaries of the district. It was not done on the district site. No district funds were expended on it.” Weiss said the robo-calls were handled by an outfit known as “Blue County.”
Kim Breen, a regional representative for the California Teachers Association who formerly represented teachers in the Central School District but is not currently doing so, told the Sentinel she had herself received one of robo-calls featuring Barnett.
“I live just a few blocks from the school,” Breen said. “A call was placed to me, but I did not answer it. It went to my voice mail. The caller ID showed it came from a cell phone and showed both the phone number and name of one of the incumbent school board members.”
Breen said of Barnett’s pitch, “She was not calling as a parent. She called as the principal.”
The timing of the call was significant, Breen said. “That she was calling during school hours gives the public the impression that the district and the school are supporting the incumbents,” Breen said. “The clear intent was to sway people to vote for the two incumbents that are running for reelection, based upon her position as a school principal. This came on the last Friday of October, very close to the election. As employees, teachers and administrators are supposed to remain neutral, at least during school hours. This came in about 11 a.m.”
Told that Barnett said she had made the call on her own, Breen said, “That is hard to believe. How could the superintendent not have known about this? The FPPC [California Fair Political Practices Commission] has regulations that are very tight. Public entities must remain neutral. A principal knows that. No principal would do something like that of her own volition without being given the okay or being told to do it. The superintendent had to know about it and approve of it ahead of time. It is unmistakable that the district administration is in favor of the incumbents on the board.”
By Mark Gutglueck