Hubbard faces his hardest test [Corrected]

Administrators, teachers, parents and students put their faith in veteran educator Jeffrey Hubbard in 2006.

An earlier version incorrectly stated that Newport-Mesa Unified School District Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard is accused of giving Nora Roque an illegal bonus. He is accused of giving her an illegal pay raise.

Charismatic, articulate and outwardly warm, he brought to Newport Beach and Costa Mesa schools a doctorate and a great work history, last serving as schools chief in one of the most prestigious districts in Southern California, Beverly Hills Unified.

"I know you, as a board, and the community have entrusted me to take care of children," Hubbard said at the time. "That is a tremendous responsibility, and I promise I'll never let you down."

The school board and many administrators would argue that he kept his word.

Test scores rose districtwide, high school dropout rates were nearly slashed in half under his leadership, nagging lawsuits were settled and services to students were largely kept afloat when the economy tanked and districts nationwide were laying off teachers.

But then in late 2010 and for much of 2011, the promising superintendent found himself in an unlikely position for someone running a 21,800-student school district ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report: the defendant's chair.

Hubbard, 54, has been charged with three felony charges of misappropriation of public funds related to his time in Beverly Hills. Jury selection in his trial in Los Angeles Superior Court is set to begin Tuesday, and trial could begin as early as Thursday, prosecutors said.

Hubbard has pleaded not guilty to all charges and has told the Daily Pilot that he will not publicly comment until after the trial. He has said in emails to the school board and other administrators, however, that he feels he is being wrongly prosecuted.

Prosecutors, though, contend that their case is solid.

Though not related to Hubbard's actions in Newport-Mesa, the harsh spotlight of scandal touched on the community as well. Evidence released in the case included emails laced with sexual innuendo sent from school district accounts between Hubbard and a former subordinate, who has been convicted of related charges in a separate trial.

And the damage increased when the teachers union took a vote of no confidence in their own superintendent last year. Though there are critics, a majority of Hubbard's bosses on the school board stand squarely behind him, and some have argued they are sure of his innocence. Those who were here when he was hired say they definitely made the right choice.

During Hubbard's trial, Deputy Supt. and Chief Business Official Paul Reed will again run the district, as he did when Hubbard took a paid leave of absence last year to prepare for trial.

District spokeswoman Laura Boss said Hubbard is using personal or vacation days for the trial.

No district administrators will attend the trial, but a paralegal from the district's law firm will provide daily, confidential reports to the school board, Boss said.

"Obviously there are decisions and other things they need to decide, and they need to have the best information," she said.


'Willing to look at new ideas'

Everything started out, as they say, swimmingly.

Out of a national search for a new superintendent, Hubbard was the last man standing in a large pool of candidates.

The school board approved his contract in May 2006. Hubbard then thanked the community for its support.

Board President Dave Brooks, who was also board president when Hubbard was hired, said he knew Hubbard was the best candidate — and the board's decision over the years proved true with other candidates not lasting long in other positions.

Trustee Karen Yelsey, who was elected just months after Hubbard started, said she was immediately impressed with his leadership and what he brought to the table.

"He's knowledgeable, he's emphatic, he listens to people, and he's willing to look at new ideas," she said.

Hubbard changed up district personnel. He created for himself a strong "cabinet," a term used for key administrators, and brought in an executive director of special education to discontinue the large number of lawsuits being brought against the district, Brooks said.

District dropout rates dropped dramatically under Hubbard's tenure, from 104 the school year before he started to 54 in 2009-10, according to state data.

The district's Academic Performance Index score increased more than 50 points under his leadership.

"That didn't just happen," Brooks said. "That's not a fluke. That took leadership for that to happen."

Hubbard took on the district's top spot as the economy began tanking.

It was Hubbard's foresight to plan for the tough times by padding reserves and making cuts that allowed the district to avoid massive layoffs and furloughs, and increase class sizes in the lower grades, Brooks said.

"I think one of the incredible things is we've done all this in an economic environment where other schools aren't doing well," Yelsey said. "There's just been some amazing accomplishments, and it's under his leadership."

Trustees point to all these as reasons for their steadfast support since he was charged.

"The fact is he has provided tremendous leadership to us and because of that, he is worthy of the support we've given him," Brooks said. "I know that's not popular, but I know he's done great things."


The case unfolds

The board has re-approved Hubbard's four-year contract every year, except for this year when Hubbard's accomplishments took a back seat to his criminal case.

In December 2010, Hubbard was charged with two felony counts for allegedly giving, without school board approval, a $20,000 stipend to former subordinate Karen Anne Christiansen. Prosecutors also allege he illegally increased her car allowance.

Shortly after the charges were filed, emails sent to Christiansen from Hubbard's Newport-Mesa Unified account came to light that revealed sexual innuendo-filled exchanges and double entendres related to oral sex. Hubbard told the Pilot at the time that he was not romantically involved with Christiansen and told the school board the same thing in an email.

Hubbard retreated from the spotlight in January 2010. He went on paid administrative leave, with the school board's blessing, for more than five months. While on leave to work on his defense, he collected about $25,497 a month.

Hubbard returned to work in July, relieving Reed of his double duty, but no reason was given for why he returned then; however, days prior, his attorney Sal Ciulla said in a court hearing that his client was "looking, potentially, at getting fired" when pushing for an earlier trial date.

Hubbard's defense subpoenaed the Beverly Hills school district for emails they claimed would clear Hubbard of any crime, but Judge Stephen A. Marcus rejected the request, saying it was a "fishing expedition" and would be unnecessarily costly to the district.

Ciulla also tried to have the case dismissed on grounds that Hubbard told subordinates to approve the increases assuming they would follow legal protocol, but Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman said in court that Hubbard knew his actions were illegal and proceeded anyway.

Hubbard "describes understanding [that] when a contract is made [it needs] board approval, which shows he's lying," Huntsman said in an August hearing. He added that when a subordinate told Hubbard his actions were unlawful, Hubbard said to go ahead and make the payment anyway.

In October, prosecutors filed a third felony charge of misappropriation of funds for Hubbard allegedly giving an illegal pay raise to another subordinate, Nora Roque, who now works as director of classified personnel at the Newport-Mesa Unified. She is not facing criminal charges or accused of wrongdoing.

In the same month, teachers union leaders finally spoke out against their superintendent for taking paid leave to deal with personal matters; they called for a vote of no confidence.

Of the 40% of the teachers who voted in the confidential ballot, 91% of professed no confidence in Hubbard.

Christiansen was found guilty in late November of conflict-of-interest charges for taking more than $1.3 million from the Beverly Hills school district in contracts she steered toward herself. She was sentenced Thursday to four years and four months in prison and ordered to pay $2 million in restitution.

Hubbard is facing a maximum of six years in prison for his charges, and possibly the end of his education career of nearly 30 years.

If he is convicted, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing would revoke his teaching and administrative credentials. State Education Code bars the employment of a superintendent who has lost his or her credentials.

Hubbard, though, has pleaded not guilty to all charges and turned down a plea bargain early in the game.

He has repeatedly declined to discuss his criminal case, but has promised to tell the community his side of the story once he is cleared of all charges.

"When this is over, [I'm] looking forward to sharing every bloody detail," he has said.

Staff Writer Lauren Williams contributed to this report.

Twitter: @BritneyJBarnes

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