Grand Jury gives a failing grade to Atascadero school officials

June 18, 2010

A new report by the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury reprimands Atascadero school officials for failure to “exercise due diligence” in promoting a staff member to principal of the high school. [SLO Grand Jury]

Following up on a story first reported exclusively by CalCoastNews, Grand Jury members determined that Atascadero Unified School District (AUSD) officials did not follow their own written policies and procedures in promoting E.J. Rossi from assistant principal to principal. The report identified six different reference checks the district failed to make in the hiring decision.

For example, according to AUSD own hiring procedures, district officials are to conduct six references checks. Nevertheless, in the case of Rossi’s hiring records only two references were contacted, one from a former mentor and the other from the Monterey County Superintendent of Schools.

However, Monterey County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Nancy Kotowski, told the grand jury that she had not given Rossi a reference and that no one from AUSD had contacted her.

In particular, the report wonders why Atascadero officials ignored a critical audit conducted by Rossi’s previous employer, San Ardo Union School District (SAUSD) in southern Monterey County, that showed a shortage of $56,000.

Though criminal charges against Rossi were not filed, San Ardo did file a civil claim to recover the loss. Rossi signed a settlement-and-release document in December 2009, agreeing to repay $32,000 of the original $56,000. In testimony given to the Grand Jury, Rossi admitted mistakes while employed in San Ardo, but denied criminal wrongdoing.

“It appears that because Mr. Rossi was well regarded as assistant principal, AUSD chose to disregard or dismiss critical information of his alleged misappropriation of public funds,” the Grand Jury concluded.  “The AUSD administrators and hiring committee completed only a cursory reference check at best and chose to treat the issue of possible financial wrong doing by Mr. Rossi as a personal matter between himself and his former employer that did not apply to their decision making.”

The Grand Jury’s findings are:

1. Significant information regarding problems with financial matters from a San Ardo Unified School District board member was omitted by AUSD human relations staff in Mr. Rossi’s reference check for the position of assistant principal.

2. Prior to Mr. Rossi’s promotion to principal, AUSD administrators were aware that Mr. Rossi was under investigation for alleged misappropriation of public taxpayer funds at his former school district and in fact, were provided copies of pertinent audit findings outlining the specifics of the improprieties.

3. An AUSD administrator contacted the current SAUSD Superintendent and confirmed the audit findings, their fiscal losses and ongoing investigation of Mr. Rossi.  This information was not disclosed to the hiring committee.

4. In a restitution agreement, Mr. Rossi repaid SAUSD $32,000 of their $56,000 in lost public funds.

5. AUSD practice, both for internal and external job candidates, is to conduct six reference checks.  AUSD records indicate only two telephone references were done for Mr. Rossi, one from a former mentor and the other from the Monterey County Superintendent of Schools.

6. When interviewed by the Grand Jury, the Monterey County Superintendent of Schools denied being contacted by AUSD or providing a reference for Mr. Rossi.

7. Although there were complaints of misuse of Atascadero High School student activity funds by Mr. Rossi, the Grand Jury was unable to find supporting documentation.

8. AUSD failed to perform due diligence in their promotion of Mr. Rossi to principal.

The recommendations from the Grand Jury report include:

1. When hiring or promoting personnel to an administrative position with access to public funds, the AUSD should follow their stated practice to obtain six qualified references including former employers with direct supervision of the candidate.

2. The AUSD Board should implement a new policy requiring that when a civil or criminal complaint is lodged against a staff member, the superintendent conduct a full investigation and submit findings and recommendations to the board.

3.  When hiring a candidate to a position with access to public funds, the AUSD should contract with an independent agency to conduct a systematic, objective pre-employment background check.

4. When complaints are received from parents or students, the superintendent should appoint an independent administrator to investigate the complaint and submit recommendations.


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10 Comments

  1. JanisJoplin says:

    Apparently many of the posters here have never had business in San Ardo. I would not spend one penny in that town based on what I know of it. Aren’t they bankrupt anyway? Mr. Rossi is not the first person to get burned up there – another guy had a run in with them and sued and won an out of court settlement. They are backward, provincial and racist. Yeah, you can be a Mexican and live there – try to move up – it just ain’t happenin’ for ya. Also, they did not warn our County about that fraud they had in their hospital system a couple years ago and some of our people got burned financially because of their cover up.

    (-5) 11 Total Votes - 3 up - 8 down
  2. Non Yokel says:

    I knew EJ on a personal and professional level. We are not friends by any means, but we did discuss just how strange things were in San Ardo. He never mentioned the missing money issue. We parted ways before he left the district. Nonetheless, he is a very upright citizen and I would never, ever suspect him of any wrongdoing. He is quite the opposite and a bit of a Goody Two Shoes if anything. If they don’t like him in A-Town it’s probably because he doesn’t cuss or drink and knows his ABCs. They don’t like uppity folk up there. I’m sure the district chose to go around their own procedures when they realized they had a good guy on their hands. He is probably getting better with experience.

    Good luck EJ!

    (-14) 28 Total Votes - 7 up - 21 down
    • atown101 says:

      Non Yokel,
      the one thing that i can agree with you on is Rossie wouldn’t take, much less steal money your an inconsiderate dumb-shit A-town is better physically and mentally and better known than San Ardo. A-town has stupid people given not all are dumb though but everyone is smarter than you… an btw AHS loves Rossie…
      – Student of AHS
      p.s. i spelled all of that right……. your an idiot… get a life.
      p.p.s. given.. one cuss word… but, i might add, its accurate.

      (-3) 13 Total Votes - 5 up - 8 down
      • smmom says:

        atown101 – you may have spelled your words correctly (congratulations!) but it’s “you’re and idiot”, not your, so don’t be too conceited.
        ps – i live in atown too; my kids go to the high school, and we like Mr Rossi.
        pps – there are many, MANY professors, professionals, etc who live in Atascadero, and who are very intelligent and don’t cuss. just sayin’

        (1) 9 Total Votes - 5 up - 4 down
  3. cheseburger says:

    This is the same result that the fraud matters in north county will unfortunately receive!

    “the grand jury sided against the overzealous parents who concocted that one.”
    Don’t know about that OsborneCox.
    “the Grand Jury was unable to find supporting documentation.”

    And to Ozy, you must be one of the perpetrators or one who has benefited from the thefts.

    (3) 11 Total Votes - 7 up - 4 down
  4. Dexter says:

    Wow! Our Grand Jury should be praised for taking on an issue like this. It’s about time they tackle some of the nonsense that goes on in this County and it’s definately in the public interest and welfare.

    Now lets see what the Atascadero school board does? The folks in Atascadero deserve better then this guy to lead the kids. If the school board buries their heads in the sand then we can assume they were in on it and maybe they should be voted out on the next election just like LaRue who is ruining our Templeton school district image.

    I wonder if the Tribune has the guts to report the Grand Jury investigation and recommendations. I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.

    (10) 24 Total Votes - 17 up - 7 down
  5. rukidding says:

    This story is disgusting to say the least. It’s a perfecr example of the “good ole boy” syndrome that has prevailed in the district for years. Just follow the promotion or assignments and it’s a select group of mostly unqualified people who have run the district into the financial diaster where it is today. How do you take a class room teacher, who may be a very good teacher, and put them in charge of a very large budget when they have NO business experience at all. The result is financial disaster. Those mostly responsible for this are now retired and collecting those lucrative government retirements.

    (15) 25 Total Votes - 20 up - 5 down
  6. OsborneCox says:

    Go beyind the misleading headline, Cindy, and read the text:

    “It appears that because Mr. Rossi was well regarded as assistant principal, AUSD chose to disregard or dismiss critical information of his alleged misappropriation of public funds,” the Grand Jury concluded. ”The AUSD administrators and hiring committee completed only a cursory reference check at best and chose to treat the issue of possible financial wrong doing by Mr. Rossi as a personal matter between himself and his former employer that did not apply to their decision making.”

    “Although there were complaints of misuse of Atascadero High School student activity funds by Mr. Rossi, the Grand Jury was unable to find supporting documentation.”

    I’m not defending any of Rossi’s actions when he was at San Ardo, but have discovered over the past few months that those are not honest people he used to work for. As for the missing activity funds, well, the grand jury sided against the overzealous parents who concocted that one.

    (-10) 22 Total Votes - 6 up - 16 down
    • Cindy says:

      “the grand jury sided against the overzealous parents who concocted that one.”
      Don’t know about that OsborneCox.
      “the Grand Jury was unable to find supporting documentation.”

      High School cheerleaders don’t usually ask their teacher for a receipt when they turn in cash from a fund raiser. Why would parents and cheerleaders make something like this up?
      Why would Rossi agree to reimburse SAUSD $32K, if he didn’t owe it to them? It’s not as if they agreed to sweep it under the rug if he paid it to them, they have been very verbal about it. In fact, of the 56K mentioned I assume they could only prove the 32K even though an additional 24K was missing. It’s easy to prove that money is missing, what’s often difficult is to prove who took it.

      I’m an accountant and I can tell you that when someone starts commingling bank accounts that had previously been managed as separate records there is cause for alarm. This is what Rossi did with the Cheer leading account. I really have to question his integrity in all of this. If I had been falsely accused as you say he was, I would make it a point not to handle any funds in the future. Now he has been accused again!

      (10) 20 Total Votes - 15 up - 5 down
  7. Cindy says:

    I remember the original story. I felt very sorry for the cheerleaders and the questions surrounding the whereabouts of the monies they worked so hard to fund raise. This man already has a history and it’s beyond reason why he was hired . Pilfering from the tax payers is bad enough but when someone starts mismanaging (to put it politely) the money that the kids raise, that’s entirely another story. Off with his head. ;)

    (14) 26 Total Votes - 20 up - 6 down

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