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.