Apodaca: School district needs to be upfront about Hubbard

EDITOR'S NOTE: Former Los Angeles Times staff writer Patrice Apodaca, a Newport Beach resident, has agreed to write a weekly column for the Daily Pilot. Her column will appear on Saturdays.


This past holiday season provided me a few excruciating exercises in waiting.

I waited for my son to make it home for Christmas. A UCLA student who had been studying for a semester in Rome, he became stranded in London when bad weather resulted in a near shutdown of Heathrow Airport.

I waited for my dog's bowels to move after a mysterious solid object became lodged in his digestive track. As I studied the X-ray at the vet's office, I silently prayed to Father Christmas that it wasn't baby Jesus from our miniature nativity display stuck in my pooch's gut.

Now we're in the season of new beginnings and I find myself waiting again. I am waiting to see if there is any fallout on Newport-Mesa Unified School District from Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard's legal problems.

Hubbard, as Daily Pilot readers surely know, was charged last month with two counts of misappropriation of public funds while he was superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District. He has denied any wrongdoing, and has pleaded not guilty.

But my issue, at least for now, isn't with Hubbard, who is presumed innocent while he fights his legal battle. I am more interested in knowing whether the school board will be quick to act if there is any indication that Hubbard has become too distracted to do his job. And I hope those same officials will openly and forthrightly explain to parents how they plan to carry on the important business of educating students while the boss is busy defending himself.

Appearing genuinely gobsmacked by the news, district officials announced shortly after the felony complaint was filed Dec. 9 that the superintendent would take a "vacation" for the remainder of the year.

They remained tight-lipped; meeting behind closed doors a few days later, school board members said only that no reportable action was taken regarding Hubbard.

Paul Reed, deputy superintendent and chief business official for the district, temporarily took the reins until Tuesday, when Hubbard returned to work.

Certainly, the timing of the criminal charges, coming just before the holidays, provided the district a little unintended breathing room. At a small lunch meeting I attended in mid-December, most of the other moms — all of whom have children in Newport-Mesa schools — were somewhat vague when I raised the topic of Hubbard.

The typical response was something along the lines of, "Who? Oh yeah, I heard something about that."

But it's now been one month since the news of Hubbard's legal woes broke, and as the case goes forward, parents will no doubt expect the district to communicate openly and directly about a matter that affects their children. I called school board President Walt Davenport earlier this week, and he told me there were no plans to issue any formal public statements.

He assured me that the board has "every confidence" that Hubbard will continue to fulfill the duties of his job, and that he didn't believe the case would be "a major distraction."

And at Corona del Mar High School's monthly PTA meeting Wednesday, school board member Karen Yelsey sought to reassure parents.

"We feel confident his issues will go away quickly," she said. "We feel confident with the way our finances are done here."

All this is good to know, but the board needs to be consistent and proactive in getting that message out. My decades as a journalist have taught me, with utter certainty, one salient lesson: Public institutions that engage in even the appearance of secrecy ultimately pay a high price in public support.

As for Hubbard, most parents, I believe, will show forbearance and will not rush to judge. In his only public comments regarding his legal problems, made to a Daily Pilot reporter just after the complaint was filed, Hubbard said the charges were "absolutely not true."

"It's an injustice," he said. "This is my career."

An understandable reaction, but Hubbard's career isn't high on my list of concerns. Parents care if their children's needs are being properly served. That's the justice they want, and they will not be passive if Hubbard's troubles in any way impede the district's operations, plans and reputation.

District officials would do well to heed Hubbard's own words, contained in his lengthy profile posted on the district website: "Dr. Hubbard's baseline for every decision he makes is 'how does this affect students and their success.'"

My son, I am elated to report, made it home for Christmas. My dog is feeling better. Perhaps Hubbard's legal issues will end up being no more than a blip in the normal functioning of the school district. But I'm still waiting on that one.

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

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