Apodaca: School board must set personal feelings aside

Now that Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard is on leave while he prepares for his upcoming trial, Newport-Mesa school board members must face the next set of difficult and uncomfortable issues.

They must, of course, prepare for the possibility that Hubbard could be convicted, and they'd be forced to begin a search for a new schools chief.

But what if Hubbard is able to return to his job? Should he be welcomed back?

To answer that question, the trustees must put aside all personal and professional regard they may have for Hubbard and address the most pertinent issue: What is best for the students?

Hubbard has been a highly regarded leader, and up to this point, the district has fared well under his supervision. Board members may also have reason to consider Hubbard a friend, or at least a friendly colleague. When the criminal complaint against him was initially filed in December, some trustees took a bit of a head-in-the-sand approach, saying they believed the charges stemming from actions during Hubbard's tenure as head of the Beverly Hills public school system were relatively minor and that they'd soon be resolved in his favor.

But this is a moment that calls for professional detachment, not wishful thinking. The board must now address the future with a cool eye and a reasoned assessment of Hubbard's past behavior and his possible effect on the school system going forward.

Certainly Hubbard is guilty of appallingly bad judgment. It's clear that he was less than candid regarding his relationship with his codefendant, a former consultant for the Beverly Hills Unified School District. Hubbard is charged with two counts of misappropriating funds by allegedly giving the woman an illegal $20,000 stipend and increasing her car allowance.

After the charges were filed, Hubbard denied to a Daily Pilot reporter that he'd had a personal connection with the consultant outside of work. This contention was later contradicted by the public release of sexually suggestive e-mails between the pair.

Newport-Mesa school board member Martha Fluor downplayed the relevance of the e-mails, telling a Daily Pilot reporter that they were merely correspondence between consenting adults. She also defended the banter contained in Hubbard's e-mails, saying that the superintendent often refers to colleagues using terms of endearment, such as "babe" and "sweetheart."

But these remarks only served to highlight some troubling aspects of Hubbard's behavior. An intimate relationship with a subordinate should have been disclosed to Beverly Hills school officials at the time, due to a possible conflict of interest. And he should have recused himself from work-related decisions concerning her.

Hubbard again displayed a lack of sagacity after leaving Beverly Hills. Many of the e-mails in question were sent using his Newport-Mesa account — a dubious use of district resources. We often warn our kids about the potential consequences of the injudicious use of electronic communications. Apparently, Hubbard never got those memos.

What's more, Hubbard's ostensible use of pet names in his communications with coworkers shows a blatant disregard for workplace boundaries; it's a lawsuit waiting to happen. School board member Katrina Foley, in a refreshing spot of wisdom, at one point remarked that some of her colleagues might be in need of HR training.

To be sure, none among us is without fault. But public servants like Hubbard are held to a high standard of personal and professional conduct. That his job involves children raises the bar even higher — and for good reason. Hubbard should have known this when he took the position as leader of our public school system. Instead of setting a sterling example, he behaved like a hormonal teenager.

If board members think students are unaware of Hubbard's legal issues, I'd urge them to think again. We tend to forget just how savvy and astute kids can be. They listen, they talk, they learn from our behavior, and they form their own judgments. And they can smell hypocrisy and double standards a mile away.

Indeed, we teach our children lessons in good character and personal responsibility. It is only right that the board should send a clear message — in their dealings with Hubbard or any other school employee — that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. Then they must hold those workers accountable if they don't abide by the rules.

Whether it's possible for Hubbard to redeem himself remains to be seen, and his fate is out of the hands of the district board for now anyway. But it's not too soon to consider that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the school board might have a tough decision to make. I can only hope that they'll use the right set of criteria when and if the time comes.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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