Published Dec. 14, 2023
BY SHAYLA DUTTA
Uncertainty with the superintendent position and presence of three ongoing lawsuits is presenting Carmel Unified School District with myriad challenges to navigate during the 2023-24 school year. For further insight, The Sandpiper spoke with all five members of the Board of Education, who emphasize that the opinions they share are those personally held by each board member and do not in any way attempt to represent the views of the board or the district as a whole.
Sexual assault lawsuits
CUSD is currently facing two lawsuits over sexual harassment, both filed in October 2023, one by a current district employee and the other by a former employee. The first five causes of action in each complaint are the same, and include sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation and failure to properly investigate claims. The current employee’s lawsuit also includes further causes of action of intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, while the second includes wrongful termination.
“I can’t speak for the whole culture of Carmel High School,” board member Seaberry Nachbar says, “but I believe that there has been a broader culture or a mentality of not taking it seriously when women in particular, but it can be any gender, come forward and say, ‘I was touched or treated inappropriately.’ I think it’s very likely that that could’ve happened at the high school. And that needs to change.”
One decision the district made in regards to these lawsuits has recently come under strict scrutiny: moving former lead custodian Martinez from CHS to Carmel River Elementary School following allegations of sexual harassment now the subject of a lawsuit pending against CUSD.
Because board members are not permitted to disclose confidential personnel matters or those discussed in closed session, they’ve made no specific statements in regards to that situation. However, certain members express broader viewpoints in regards to past decisions.
“The most frustrating thing about being a board member is you cannot respond regarding personnel issues,” board clerk Karl Pallastrini says, “so it leaves you without an explanation you know could have an impact on the way people think.”
According to former River School principal Jay Marden in an email to former superintendent Ted Knight and the board of education Feb. 15, he was not made aware of allegations against Martinez before the employee was transferred to the elementary site. Knight stated in an email to the CUSD community Feb. 8 that the district and “employee involved in these reports” were in “a process of mutual separation from the district.” That process concluded in a separation agreement with Martinez for $100,000.
“I think there are definitely regrets for some decisions that we made,” Nachbar says. “But there are processes and procedures in place that protect employees, and in some situations our hands were tied.”
According to board member Anne Marie Rosen, the decision to relocate Martinez was made by Knight and CUSD’s chief human resources officer Craig Chavez before being approved by the board, then consisting of all current members with the exception of board member Jason Remynse. Chavez declined to comment on the decision.
The former superintendent
Former superintendent Ted Knight’s $770,000 separation agreement with CUSD provoked a significant community reaction, including a lawsuit brought by district parent and Monterey city attorney Christine Davi. Davi’s lawsuit followed a letter she wrote to the board alleging the agreement violated multiple California Government Codes including 53260, which sets the maximum amount a superintendent can receive in a cash settlement, as well as the Brown Act, and is set to be heard on Jan. 30.
Given these developments, have any board members reconsidered their decision on this agreement?
“I have no qualms,” says Pallastrini, who voted in favor of the agreement in a 3-2 vote. “I am only one board member, but I wouldn’t change anything that we have done there.”
Rosen, who voted against the agreement, expresses a similar sentiment.
“I have not lost sleep over any of the decisions I’ve made,” she says.
Nachbar, who also voted against the agreement, notes that she would not change the decision she made. However, the board member says her reasoning for dissenting was different than Rosen’s.
“The former superintendent wasn’t caring for the district in the way that I would have liked to see him care for the district,” Nachbar says. “I was questioning his intentions and his integrity to lead this district in the right way. But I didn’t feel like the settlement was the right process to get us to that separation. That being said, we’re a board of five, and I respect the decision my other board members made.”
Selecting a new superintendent
On Wednesday, Dec. 13, the board of education was scheduled to hear a presentation on input collected from the CUSD community on their desired leadership profile for a superintendent. This outreach has been conducted over the previous few weeks by Valerie Pitts, a senior associate at Hazard Young Attea Associates, a firm the district has previously worked with for superintendent searches and selection.
The decision to seek community input was not always clear. At CUSD’s regular board meeting Nov. 15, several community members–the presidents of both the classified and certificated staff unions in CUSD, as well as student board member and ASB president Marcus Michie–expressed a desire for more community input on the superintendent matter during public comment. This sentiment was particularly in response to the board’s closed session agenda for that day, which included discussion of “Public Employee Appointment” for the superintendent role and a conference with a labor negotiator on behalf of current interim superintendent Sharon Ofek.
“There was a discussion that was going to take place,” Nachbar explains, “but when I heard the two union representatives get up there and say, ‘Let’s push the pause button. We really want to make sure to do this right,’ I thought ‘Okay, there’s my answer.’ For me, it was critical to hear them say that, and I appreciate them saying that.”
Both Pallastrini and board president Sara Hinds emphasize that no decisions had been made going into the Nov. 15 meeting. According to Pallastrini, appointing Ofek was an option, not an intention.
Ultimately, the board did not decide on a vote to appoint Ofek to be superintendent, although that is not out of the question in the future. Multiple board members have expressed their support and appreciation for Ofek’s current work, particularly in the areas of Title IX and communication. They also acknowledge that if the community input returns characteristics and qualifications consistent with Ofek’s, it is a possibility she would be appointed.
Both Pallastrini and Nachbar also raise concerns over previous superintendent searches, noting that multiple past national searches for superintendents did not end well for CUSD. Conducting a state or even nationwide search for CUSD’s next superintendent is a possibility, but according to them, it does not have a very successful track record.
The decision to seek community input was then made at a special board meeting that took place Nov. 28, which Rosen describes as “fraught with tension” and Nachbar calls “chaos.” Many of the public comments took aim at both the board and their intentions, an outcome those on the board express disappointment in.
“The only reason I stayed in this position was I felt a commitment to the students and the teachers,” Nachbar says. “And it has not been easy.”
Title IX coordinator & changes
As former superintendent Ted Knight also served as CUSD’s Title IX coordinator, his departure via a controversial settlement agreement vacated that role as well.
Title IX refers to a 1972 federal civil rights law that prevents discrimination based on sex in education, which in terms of the coordinator role includes investigating and responding to sexual and gender-based discrimination and harassment. This position cannot be left vacant; as such, CUSD hired Interim Title IX coordinator Jackie Moran from Grand River Solutions.
“At this point, it’s an expert intervention into our systems, a review of our process,” Pallastrini explains. “And ultimately, that position could be assigned to someone at the central office level that has the training to do it.”
This is an area of particular concern given the presence of multiple sexual harassment lawsuits pending against the district, as well as claims regarding CUSD’s handling of these issues dating back to dozens of sexual harassment and assault allegations from CHS students in 2021.
“The Title IX issues that we’re having are not unusual for any organization,” Rosen says. “The thing that’s unusual about how they’ve been handled in the past, but hopefully not in the future, is that they have been swept under the carpet. They haven’t been made public. They haven’t.”
Nachbar adds that she’s heard individually from parents of students who attempted to report sexual harassment issues that were not properly addressed. This, she says, in addition to the current lawsuits and past allegations from students, suggests there is greater change necessary at CHS.
The question is how CUSD can bring about that change.
Since these students came forward in 2021, the district has seen efforts to address sexual harassment and assault issues particularly at CHS through a task force, presentations, more widespread education and clarification regarding procedures to address misconduct.
According to Nachbar, effective leadership, training and a clear outline of the proper procedures as well as a guarantee that they’ll be followed are all critical components in this movement. With a new CHS administration, a district facilitator for in-person training and an external Title IX team currently outlining a process for complaints, the district may be on track for improvement.
According to Hinds, Ofek has already implemented a number of new processes, procedures and training. This is echoed by Nachbar, who adds that she’s confident Ofek is leading the district in a positive direction regarding Title IX change.
In a victory for both CUSD and many vocal Carmel High School students, the neighborhood group in opposition to CHS’ Stadium Lights improvement project, “Save Carmel,” dropped their lawsuit against CUSD Nov. 8.
“It’s not over,” says Pallastrini. “They want us to fulfill the requirements that we put forth in terms of being able to get the lights approved. Not just CEQA, but also the associated community impact issues, parking being the biggest one.”
Pallastrini clarifies that as fulfilling those requirements was the plan all along, he does not anticipate any further disagreement between Save Carmel and the district.
In the end, the board unequivocally agrees that their focus is the wellbeing of the students and staff, and asks that community members seeking to make criticisms keep that in mind as they do so.