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by Mark Scaramella, January 14, 2010
The case of former Point Arena Elementary Principal Matt Murray versus Arena Union Superintendent Mark Iacuaniello went to trial this week.
Murray had successfully lifted the historically troubled Point Arena from state probation.
Then he was fired.
Behind closed doors.
With no fair hearing, no due process, no nothing.
Except Superintendent Mark Iacuaniello's demand to his captive school board, in writing no less, that either Matt Murray went or he went.
The Point Arena School Board chose Iacuaniello over the welfare of their Elementary students.
Murray’s contract with the coastal school district was terminated at a fall 2006 school board meeting during which Point Arena's School Board announced Mr. Murray’s dismissal before taking public comment and without considering a petition by more than 300 voters, many of them parents of Murray’s students, who wanted Murray to remain principal.
But, between the time of Murray’s initial filing of his case and the start of the trial this week, many of the salient facts of Murray's dismissal had been pruned from his case.
The school district’s attorney successfully argued that the school board had “absolute immunity” as a government body and was immune from liability for anything it did as a board, no matter how illegal — a ruling which basically means that whatever little real enforcement authority the Brown Act, the law that says public bodies must do their work in public, doesn't apply.
Additionally, the court has ruled that Murray can't sue for “wrongful termination” or anything having to do with denial of due process for wrongful termination because he was not technically “terminated.”
His contract was not renewed.
Get the distinction?
The case has been reduced to “fraudulent inducement” with the only defendant being Superintendent Mark Iacuaniello.
Did Iacuaniello make promises to Murray when Murray was hired that caused Murray to take the job? Did Murray and his family move to Point Arena, accomplish what he was hired to accomplish, only to have his contract terminated when a few teachers complained about him?
(And right here is the nut of a very big problem for public education not only in Point Arena but everywhere in the United States: How do you get entrenched, protected people to do their jobs? Murray tried to get Point Arena Elementary's staff to do better, and he was fired for it.)
The fact that the school board even *asked* for immunity or to have the due process issues excluded from the case is, on its face, an admission they behaved illegally. But, as usual with school boards and government bodies, they can’t be held accountable because, in the few cases that even go to court, the courts and judges interpret the rules in ways friendly to the entities violating both the letter and the spirit of the law.
The Acting District Attorney at the time of Murray’s ouster, Beth Norman (now Assistant DA) had ruled that the school district violated several provisions of the Brown Act. Ms. Norman issued an order to correct and cure the violations, but immediately upon DA Meredith Lintott’s election that order was rescinded.
Ironically, the attorney who prepared the text of the DA’s initial Brown Act order was Keith Faulder. Faulder was Assistant DA at the time. Having been fired by Lintott the day she took office for the sin of running against her for the top spot, Faulder is now Murray’s attorney. He is assisted by a Petaluma civil attorney named Lawrence King.
Further complicating Murray’s case is that “fraudulent inducement” requires that plaintiff Murray prove that Mr. Iacuaniello acted with “actual malice.”
Difficult as it is to prove “actual malice,” there appears to be a plethora of confirmation that it was indeed pure malice on the part of Iacuaniello that got Murray fired.
The school superintendent’s attorney is a youngish Redding man named Peter Ayres. Ayres got the case after the District’s regular attorney, School and College Legal Services (the Santa Rosa edu-legal monopoly for most of the northcoast), subcontracted it out. Ayres first wanted to exclude the school’s test results from the case, saying that they don’t really have anything to do with the “fraudulent inducement” question.
Test scores radically improved under Murray, then reverted to sub-standard when he left.
Hence Ayres' desire to exclude them.
Prior to Murray's arrival, Point Arena Elementary had been declared by the state to be in “program improvement” status, meaning students were welcome to transfer out without challenge. It also means that if no improvement is made, the state can come in and run the school itself, a kind of conservatorship that occurs when school boards and their administrators are so extremely incompetent that the state intervenes. Covelo presently operates under an edict of this sort.
Murray was hired by Iacuaniello and the Point Arena School Board to make Point Arena Elementary work.
Murray did what he was hired to do.
Test scores immediately shot up under Murray and the district was removed from “program improvement” status.
When Murray left, the scores went right back into the dumper and the school is back on program improvement status.
Judge Behnke ruled that the scores would be admitted but only up to one year after Murray’s departure — meaning the scores showing that the district had reverted would not be admitted.
To the general public there’s no way to avoid the conclusion that when an enthusiastic principal pushes teachers to work harder and focus on student achievement rather than on their own bad habits and inferior performances, the school district and the superintendent will get rid of that principal rather than deal with the predictable teacher complaints — petty as they were in Murray’s case.
Ayres also wanted to exclude all testimony about what happened in closed session which resulted in Murray’s termination. Ayres didn’t want any of the school board members called to testify about what happened in closed session even though there were two closed sessions to specifically discuss Murray.
In one, Iacuaniello told the Board that Murray had to go. In the second meeting two days later the Board told Murray he would indeed go.
There was no public notice of the first closed session, and no report out of that closed session, clear violations of the public meeting laws.
Murray was told at the second meeting that he could either go quietly, accepting his dismissal and a one-year buyout, or he could fight it and get nothing.
Murray asked for one day to consider the ultimatum, but was denied even that courtesy.
In the first closed session aimed at getting Murray's job, the school board was presented with a brief unsigned letter from AUTO, the Arena Union Teachers Organization, which listed several minor gripes from teachers about Murray. Some teachers claimed that he entered their classrooms unannounced, and that he had told teachers what to do in front of students. These complaints, even if valid, could have been easily dealt with by a reasonable superintendent; they're hardly grounds for dismissal. (Americans over the age of 50 will remember from their own school days that school administrators often entered classrooms unannounced and critiqued the teacher. It was their job.)
Neither Murray nor the public was shown the AUTO letter until after Murray left. Murray was never given an opportunity to refute or respond to the complaints — again serious violations of due process and the Brown Act.
Murray also waived his right to a closed session termination hearing, formally requesting an open hearing which the Board, of course, denied. Illegally.
Government Code Section 54957 (part of what’s called the Brown Act) reads:
“…(b) (1) Subject to paragraph (2), nothing contained in this chapter shall be construed to prevent the legislative body of a local agency from holding closed sessions during a regular or special meeting to consider the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline, or dismissal of a public employee or to hear complaints or charges brought against the employee by another person or employee *unless the employee requests a public session*. (Our emphasis.)
But all this has pruned from the case.
On Thursday, Behnke didn’t rule on whether Murray could testify about what had happened to him in those closed sessions where his fate was determined. Behnke said he'd think about it over the weekend. He did rule that he would not compel any board members to discuss anything that had gone on in closed session, saying the Brown Act protected *the board.*
Behnke also excluded the petition signed by more than 300 members of the public saying that Murray was the best thing to happen to Point Arena Elementary in many years. The judge said Murray’s lawyers could mention the petition if they could show that it was pertinent to Superintendent Iacuaniello’s “state of mind.” If there were objections by Ayres — and there will be; he objects a lot — Behnke would deal with them.
Also excluded was the grim fact that Point Arena Elementary School has gone through eleven principals in the last seven years, a clear indication that the teachers refuse to work for anyone who pushes them.(The current “principal” is one of the teachers who complained about Murray, not an experienced supervisor or administrator.) Behnke ruled that the principal turnover rate had nothing to do with the “fraudulent inducement” question. There is, however, some chance that one or two of the former principals will be called as witnesses.
Basically what happened to Murray was this: Point Arena Elementary School's underperforming faculty went to Superintendent Iacuaniello and told him that he had to get rid of Murray. Iacuaniello, a smarmy fellow not known for his backbone, caved to the teacher complaints although Iacuaniello had told Murray when he was hired that when the expected teacher complaints arose Iacuaniello would back Murray so long as the test scores were improving.
And that’s when a letter which Iacuaniello’s own attorney, Mr. Ayres, describes as the “smoking gun” of the case was written Judge Behnke has ensured that the rest of the arsenal won't be seen by the jury.
As described by Ayres, Iacuaniello wrote an “it’s him or me” letter to the Board, which he presented to the board at their first illegal closed session. Iacuaniello told the Board that if they didn’t fire Murray as Iacuaniello demanded, then Iacuaniello would quit and leave the entire district without a Superintendent.
So even though the most important aspects of the case have been removed and the school board has been given “absolute immunity” no matter how illegal their actions were, there’s still a good chance that Murray will be able to prove beyond all doubt that the Superintendent’s “state of mind” at the time was a cauldron of “actual malice.”
Further tilting the scales of justice into injustice, however, are the stakes themselves. Only the aggrieved party, Mr. Murray, stands to lose. If Murray wins his case, Iacuaniello’s insurance company will pay, not Iacuaniello, not the school district. If, however, Murray somehow loses, he’ll be out a substantial amount of legal fees.
You’ve got to give Murray a lot of credit for even pursuing this case against an education system (and a local legal system) skewed to defend what is objectively indefensible — a good man fired simply for doing his job well, a job that briefly roused a disgraceful elementary school from its habitual torpor.
Murray has since moved to Idaho and taken a job as a principal there where his bilingual abilities and administrative skills are serving him well. Idaho’s gain is Mendocino County’s loss. (Murray is using his entire “vacation” time to attend this trial.)
Jury selection began Monday, January 11. The case is expected to take two or three weeks. Murray’s attorneys have listed upwards of 20 witnesses.
But to the ordinary observer Murray has already won in the court of public opinion. The only remaining question is whether the jury will see it that way, too.