For some members of the community, the publicly disclosed contents of settlement agreements reached last month between the La Cañada Unified School District and two former administrators raise more questions than they answer.
As reported last week, documents released by the school district’s attorney at the request of local media revealed former La Cañada Elementary School principal Christine Castillo settled with the district on Dec. 4 for $385,000 in a lump sum payment to legally resolve a two-year battle over claims of gender discrimination and retaliation.
Her husband, former La Cañada High Principal Ian McFeat, walked away with $133,192 for an ostensible promotion to a district-level position he would only work at the district’s request — in exchange for his June 30 resignation, continued LCUSD enrollment for the couple’s two young daughters, positive employee evaluations for both and surrender of future claims against the district.
And the couple’s complete silence.
District officials were also locked into a terse comment — “the matter has been resolved” — by the terms of the settlement. However, the mutual agreement to keep the arrangement out of the public eye is not sitting well with some local residents, who’ve gone to social media to air their many questions.
How much of the combined $518,192 settlement will be paid for by taxpayer dollars? How much did LCUSD pay in attorney’s fees after years of court appointments, conferences, filings and depositions? Could a smaller settlement or compromise have been reached earlier on? Or could the whole thing have been avoided in the first place?
Local attorney and La Cañada Unified parent Cameron Totten questioned the district’s handling of the couple, from their joint hiring in 2012 through the long settlement period and now its aftermath.
“My concern is that they’ve tried to make a settlement which involved public funds private,” Totten said of the district. “They mischaracterized Mr. McFeat’s promotion, which isn’t really a promotion if it turns out he’s not allowed in the building. They mischaracterized in the beginning that these two were not a couple and were being hired together.
“I think it could have been handled better,” he said.
In a phone interview Tuesday, La Cañada Unified Supt. Wendy Sinnette attempted to shed light on what she could, acknowledging “the last thing we want to do is violate the terms of the settlement agreement and end up back in negotiations.”
While she could not fully explain the ins and outs of the district’s insurance policy, which LCUSD attorney Dana McCune previously said would cover a significant portion of Castillo’s $385,000 payout, she clarified the district participates in a self-insured pool through the Alliance of Schools for Cooperative Insurance Programs.
Mark Evans, LCUSD’s associate superintendent of business and administrative services, typically handles matters pertaining to financing and insurance but is on vacation until Monday. Sinnette suggested all future requests for information be made through the district’s legal counsel or a Public Records Act request.
Sinnette said the governing board had discussed some of the questions and comments going around the school community in an agenda planning meeting that morning but could not elaborate.
“We’re aware of them but are not allowed, according to the confidentiality covenant, to make any kind of response,” she said.
Sinette did confirm that while past employee settlement agreements have involved payouts, to her knowledge, never before has a change of position been granted as was the case with McFeat.
She took umbrage at the suggestion a Dec. 7 district press release announcing McFeat’s promotion to executive director of student services — a move that was stipulated in the former principal’s settlement agreement — was an attempt to mislead the public.
McFeat could be called back to perform some duties, such as grant research, in his new position, Sinnette said. She maintained LCUSD could potentially benefit from his expertise in the area of career technical education, for which state funds are becoming available.
“The settlement agreement allows for that,” she said of his possible return, also recognizing the agreement equally provides for his never being called back.
‘Trying to solve a problem’
While the involved parties are barred from expounding upon the settlement terms, one attorney familiar with education matters says the arrangements made in the documents are not unfamiliar.
Daniel Jaffe is a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Ohio who, for years, represented school districts in a range of disputes. While he recognizes education law varies from state to state, there tend to be patterns of behavior that remain consistent.
Jaffe said agreeing to pay someone for work they will not do in order to make them go away is not unheard of and, in some ways, resembles settlements he’s overseen. He offered his initial thoughts on the Castillo and McFeat settlements.
“[LCUSD] and its lawyers are trying to solve a problem,” he surmised. “They’d love to be rid of both principals and they’re trying to do it in a way that everyone can agree to it and no one gets hurt, other than the financial cost to the district.”
The situation becomes complicated, he said, when the district is obligated to respond to public record requests and agreements made in private become public.
“When the whole thing unravels and becomes public, you get a lot of people with egg on their face,” Jaffe said. “For a high profile position like this, I’m a little surprised they thought it would all go away quietly.”
As community members question everything from Castillo’s hiring to the district’s insurance policy to what role a generally well-regarded McFeat might have played in the dispute, those who work closely with the district would not speak against recent actions taken.
Representatives of the La Cañada Teachers Assn., which regularly negotiates for more funding for teachers, did not answer requests by press deadline.
An official with the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation — which raises more than $2 million annually to support LCUSD with funding for counselors, class size reduction, arts programs and technology — says donations are earmarked for specific programs and staffing needs, not administrative positions.
LCFEF Executive Director Marilyn Yang affirmed the group’s partnership with LCUSD and said while she’d not received direct questions or concerns from the community, board members were attempting to provide clarification on social media comments mentioning the foundation.
“This lawsuit has been around for a couple of years now,” Yang added. “Hopefully, people understand we still need donations — these programs don’t fund themselves.”
But for residents like Totten, however, questions remain.