Investigation of Mariners Elementary award application backs some claims of inaccuracies but says some concerns were ‘embellished’

Laura Canzone, then known as Laura Sacks, greets children on the first day of school in 2015, when she was principal at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach.
(File Photo)

An investigation into a controversial award application from Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach concluded that while the principal at the time included inaccuracies about some school programs in the application to the California Department of Education, some concerns from teachers were unsubstantiated or even “embellished,” according to a letter released Wednesday.

The letter from Newport-Mesa Unified School District Deputy Supt. Russell Lee-Sung details the investigation conducted by Dana Point-based Nicole Miller and Associates. The letter is dated Feb. 7, 2017, and is addressed to former Mariners principal Laura Canzone, who previously was known as Laura Sacks.

Lee-Sung wrote that investigators found no evidence that Canzone made malicious or blatantly fabricated statements in the application submitted in fall 2015 for a California Gold Ribbon School Award, which the school received. However, they did determine that she included some inaccurate information, Lee-Sung wrote.

Lee-Sung, the district’s chief academic officer, directed Canzone to “refrain from providing any inaccurate or misleading information in documentation submitted on behalf of the district” and said the letter was being added to her personnel file.

Canzone could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In 2016, after one school year at Mariners, Canzone was transferred to Costa Mesa Middle School as a principal on special assignment after she requested new duties. On March 7, 2017 — a month after Lee-Sung’s letter — she submitted a letter resigning from the district and was on paid administrative leave through June 30, according to documents.

District administrators released the 12-page letter summarizing the investigation after an appellate judge declined their request to block an Orange County Superior Court ruling that the public has the right to know the findings.

Among the report’s conclusions was that a lack of communication and staff participation before Canzone submitted the application was a “key contributor” to the inaccurate statements about certain activities and programs at Mariners.

Investigators determined that Canzone did not keep her staff informed about the application process, did not share any portion of it with staff before submittal and did not notify staff when she filed the application.

“[T]here was no evidence you refrained from sharing the application with the staff as a means to be secretive or to intentionally conceal things from the staff,” Lee-Sung wrote. However, he added, “if a better process and culture of collaboration existed among you and the staff members, there would likely have been improved clarity and accuracy of the application.”

Lee-Sung also wrote that investigators “noted that veteran teachers had difficulty adjusting to a new principal because they were accustomed to the prior principal who had been there approximately 15 years. The investigation also determined that those veteran teachers embellished their concerns surrounding the application.”

John Caldecott, a former human-resources director for Newport-Mesa, fought a year-long legal battle with the district over his public records request to obtain documents about the investigation.

After reading the investigation summary, Caldecott said in a statement Thursday that he still questions why the human resources department rejected an initial complaint filed by Mariners Elementary teachers.

“The responsibility for this out-of-control crisis lies at the doorstep of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District superintendent and board of education,” he said.

District spokeswoman Annette Franco said: “While we do not discuss personnel matters, what we can tell you is that Newport-Mesa Unified School District holds itself to high standards, thoroughly investigating all matters of concern. Our district employs objective and unbiased efforts to accurately determine the facts when addressing and investigating a concern.”

Britt Dowdy, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said the letter released Wednesday was very similar to a report provided to the teachers union.

“Had the district dealt with the internal complaints differently, they would not have needed to hire Nicole Miller and Associates,” Dowdy said.

Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.

Twitter: @DanielLanghorne