Apodaca: Newport-Mesa needs to make findings public

After a string of scandals, missteps and legal skirmishes with former employees, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District appears to have hunkered down into a period of relative calm.

No new bombshells in, oh, at least a month.

But the district's handling of ongoing controversies and its continued tendency to keep a tight lid on information suggest that Supt. Fred Navarro and the board of trustees still have a long way to go to win back the trust of many parents, teachers and others in the community.

The announcement by the district regarding an independent investigation into claims that an award application by Mariners Elementary last year contained inaccuracies is a case in point.

The application to the state for a prestigious Gold Ribbon Award –– an award the school later received –– was submitted in fall 2015 by then-Principal Laura Canzone, formerly Laura Sacks. Many teachers and parents contended that the application contained wrong or misleading information about school programs and capabilities, and the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers filed a formal complaint.

The district then hired a private investigations firm to look into the allegations. It notified parents late last month that the investigation was complete.

And that was it.

Citing employee confidentiality, the district released no details –– not one –– about the investigation findings. There was no apology, no admission that mistakes were made, no promises to submit future award applications to greater scrutiny and no statements about improving ethics training. Conversely, there was no expression of confidence in the accuracy of the original award application.

Some have suggested that the award should be returned. I wholeheartedly agree. Unless the district can state unequivocally that the application was completely accurate, the award will forever remain tainted by doubts about its legitimacy. Instead of standing as a symbol of excellence, it casts a shadow on teachers and staff.

More dark shadows continue to plague Newport-Mesa over its botched handling of the math curriculum for elementary grades. It started in 2013, when the district was transitioning to Common Core educational standards. For some reason that, as far as I can tell, no one has ever adequately explained, the decision was made to buy Swun Math materials instead of one of the core-aligned programs recommended by the state board of education.

Swun Math, it turns out, was riddled with errors, and the district ended up paying teachers to make corrections, a practice that continued in succeeding years. Complaints by many parents and teachers over the materials escalated, but Newport-Mesa stuck with the unpopular program, even agreeing as late as last summer to use it again this school year.

The district has been piloting other math programs and plans to pick new ones to begin using next fall. But some parents have been dissatisfied with the painfully slow process. They are also unhappy with what they see as stonewalling by the administration, and demand full disclosure regarding such questions as how much money has been spent on Swun Math, including costs associated with correcting the materials.

The district responded to my request for an interview regarding the math curriculum by emailing me a statement from John Drake, director of K-12 curriculum and instruction, that laid out a timeline for the piloted programs. A recommendation on an elementary math program will go to the board in May, he wrote. My second request for an interview went unanswered.

Amid these simmering controversies, there is a positive development at the district. Earlier this month, the Newport-Mesa board chose an adjusted boundary map for trustee areas that is designed to make the areas more uniform in population. It was high time for the move, as the current boundaries haven't been changed in 50 years.

Meanwhile, Navarro has also asked the board to change the method of electing trustees from an at-large system to one in which trustees are elected by the areas they represent. The public will be asked to weigh in on the matter, board President Karen Yelsey said.

It's worth noting that Navarro's request regarding changing the election method came only after the district was sued by a Costa Mesa resident over the at-large voting system. The complaint, filed in Orange County Superior Court in August, alleges that the current system discriminates against Latinos.

On Tuesday, the board announced that it agreed to settle the suit, and would pay more than $100,000 for the plaintiff's legal fees. The new zone-based voting system is expected to be in place by the next election in November 2018.

While such changes bode well for the future, however, they do little to dispel the bad blood that exists between the current leadership at the district and a growing cadre of highly vocal and motivated critics.

The reaction to the board's approval earlier this month of a $26,500 tax-sheltered annuity for Navarro's "exceptional performance" was particularly telling. Those critics immediately pounced on the decision, questioning whether the annuity for the well-compensated superintendent was either deserved or appropriate.

There's little reason to believe that the rancorous climate will improve anytime soon, given the long track record of tone-deaf responses by the administration and board whenever concerns have been raised. But if district leaders are interested in quieting their critics, they should realize that a little more candor and accountability would go a long way.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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