Lobdell: Hubbard hole just getting deeper

My best friend once advised me, "When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging."

I wish the Newport-Mesa school board would take that to heart.

It's with bafflement that I — along with a growing number of parents, teachers and residents — watch the trustees dig themselves deeper into a hole (which now appears to be about halfway to China) over a misplaced sense of loyalty to Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard.

And the shoveling hasn't stopped.

In December, Hubbard was charged with two felonies stemming from when he was chief of the Beverly Hills Unified School District. Prudence would normally dictate that any superintendent — no matter how beloved and trusted — who faced two work-related felonies should be put on paid administrative leave until the case was resolved.

Doubt it? Then imagine a school principal being charged with two felonies for misappropriating money from his last school district. Would he or she remain on the job or be put on paid leave until the matter was resolved?

But the school board decided to keep Hubbard on the job. Even so, the hole they first dug was small.

The community was inclined to cut Hubbard and the school board some slack. Maybe the Beverly Hills school district had some sort of vendetta against Hubbard. Maybe the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was overzealous.

Or maybe (and this is where I'd put my money if Hubbard is innocent) the Hubbard charges were a way to gain his cooperation for prosecuting the real target: his former facilities director who allegedly took a $20,000 unauthorized bonus and increased car allowance from Hubbard in addition to allegedly double-dealing to the tune of $2.2 million.

In Newport-Mesa, Hubbard declared his innocence, and the trustees — likely privy to additional facts about the case — decided to do nothing. Though the move was unorthodox, no one raised a fuss, figuring the school board had made an informed decision.

The hole grew deeper last week when the Orange County Register published sexually sophomoric e-mail exchanges between Hubbard and then-Beverly Hills Unified School District Facilities Director Karen Anne Christiansen. The too-friendly chat that included joking references to erections, orgasms and oral sex would give any human resources manager or employment attorney instant heartburn.

But the not-safe-for-work aspect of the work e-mails was only a small part of the problem (though it really touched a nerve among many Newport-Mesa teachers, judging from my e-mails). The larger issue was that the e-mails — which also show the couple went to a Lakers game, the theater and on dinner dates together — undercut Hubbard's assertion that he didn't have a relationship with Christiansen outside of work. Why the apparent need to mislead?

This is where the hole got really deep. Two board members, Martha Fluor and Karen Yelsey, pooh-poohed the significance of the e-mails and rushed to Hubbard's defense — and right past the point. A third, board President Walt Davenport, declined Trustee Katrina Foley's request last week for an emergency closed-door session to discuss the e-mails and Hubbard's future.

To be clear, here's what putting Hubbard on paid leave is not.

It's not about passing judgment on whether Hubbard is guilty of any crimes. I don't know anyone who doesn't want Hubbard to be quickly and completely cleared.

It's not that Hubbard isn't innocent until proven guilty in court. Of course he is, but that doesn't mean the school board can't act with caution and put him on paid leave until justice is served. This is a standard way these matters are handled.

It's not being cavalier about Hubbard's future. Not taking action now is being cavalier about the district's welfare and the evidence at hand.

It's not about fairness. Hubbard may be cleared of all wrongdoing, and his reputation will still suffer damage. That wouldn't be fair, but that taint would be caused by the L.A. County prosecutors who chose to file charges against him, not a school board forced to put him on leave.

Look, I like the Newport-Mesa trustees. Overall, they've done a solid job shepherding the school district through challenging times. I say this from first-hand experience as a parent who's entrusted the education of his four sons to the district's educators.

I also had no problem with Hubbard's job performance. But the school board has a blind spot here.

Before the e-mails were published, board members could have argued that the charges leveled against Hubbard weren't a distraction to the district's operation, and therefore they saw no need to put him on leave. I would argue otherwise, but OK, reasonable minds could differ on the point.

But the situation has changed. The e-mails, coupled with the criminal charges, have become a distraction, and a pretty good one at that. The board should listen to its constituents (and common sense) and put Hubbard on paid leave. As I suggested last week, if the trustees feel strongly enough, they also can release a statement in support of Hubbard.

Whatever they do, it's time to stop digging.

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World