By Kent Gray
Triplicate staff writer
There were no improper votes on the school board, and any morale problems within the school district are caused by factors out of the district's control.
This is the message approved last night by the Del Norte County Unified School District to be delivered in response to the 2002-2003 Grand Jury Report.
The jury concluded in June that slumping morale and an improper vote by the board needed to be addressed by the district.
After citing several sections of the board's Conflict of Interest Code, which argued that no improper vote had taken place on the board, the attorney-prepared response stated: "The board also considers it unnecessary to dispute or otherwise respond to the accuracy of factual Findings and Conclusions' as to the perceived conflict of interest."
In its report, the grand jury concluded there was a conflict of interest when board member Bob Berkowitz voted in 2001 to approve equipment, funded by the district, for a course he previously taught at College of the Redwoods. It was Berkowitz who had originally drawn up the equipment list for the course in 1999.
According to College of the Redwoods' records, Berkowitz was not employed at the campus in 1999. In 2000, after the equipment was purchased, Berkowitz was offered the job to teach the course, which he accepted. By the time of the vote in 2001, Berkowitz had left the course.
Jury Foreman Gary Leal did not immediately return messages left at his office yesterday. In July, he stood firmly behind the published report.
"(We) did a proper investigation into the complaint that was filed, and to confirm our finding, we asked for the State Attorney General's Office to review the material we had gathered, review our finding and whether or not our finding was correct in our determination that an elected official's vote was a conflict of interest."
Shortly after the report was published, Leal said the grand jury came to the conclusion that Berkowitz was slated to teach the course at the time the equipment list was prepared.
"That's not true," Berkowitz said yesterday. "They (the college) may have slated me, but they never notified me. And, if I remember correctly, they interviewed several people for that course ... so how could I have known?"
According to board member Bill Parker, the 2001 vote, which dealt primarily with college issues, was a byproduct of the way former Superintendent Walt Hanline conducted school business.
"He was always bringing things in to us after they were already organized after he had everything already up and running," Parker said. "All these things with the college came in at the same time. And it really irritated me, because I didn't know what the heck was going on."
Parker suggested that had each item been brought before the board in a timely manner, the vote on the equipment and the course would have been more clearly defined for board members.
In the district's response, the board points to two sections of its Conflict of Interest Code which it claims clears Berkowitz of an improper vote.
In the first section, 82030, it indicates Berkowitz was allowed to vote retroactively for "salary and reimbursement for expenses."
In the second section, 18705.5, a more detailed explanation is offered. It states that a board member may vote on an agenda item that includes a fixed salary or reimbursement for the official and/or an immediate family member so long as it does not include hiring, firing, promotion, demotion, suspension without pay or otherwise taking "disciplinary action with financial sanction."
The grand jury suggested the board periodically review its Conflict of Interest Code. In response, the board claims it already reviews the code annually.
Because of state budget cutbacks, the grand jury suggested the next grand jury monitor the district regarding its balance in staff reductions and any resulting decline in morale.
"Any help the grand jury can lend toward solving this statewide problem would be appreciated and would go a long way toward solving the morale problem that we face," the board said in its reply.
The board said although it will monitor district morale during the state budget crisis, the greatest percentage of cutbacks thus far have been administrative. It also noted that many teaching positions that were eliminated were the result of attrition as opposed to layoffs.
Berkowitz, who called the grand jury report "deplorable" and a "sham," said he didn't feel the jury was properly trained.
"In school, when students fail to do their homework, it usually shows up in the grade they get on a test. By failing to do their homework, the grand jury got an F' for a final exam grade and flunked the course," Berkowitz said. "I only hope that this year's grand jury takes advantage of the education and training which has already been included in (the county) budget and is offered by the American Grand Jury Association."