Don’t Cry For Me, Point Arena

by Mark Scaramella, January 20, 2010

Bruce McEwen contributed to this story.

Attorney Keith Faulder was sifting the jury pool in the case of Murray v. Iacuaniello.

Faulder is representing Murray.

Iacuaniello, whose defense is paid out of public education funds, is represented by a blustery fellow out of Redding called Ayres.

Iacuaniello gets a free lawyer, Murray has to pay for his.

Iacuaniello is being sued by former school principal Matt Murray for deceptive practices, aka “fraudulent inducement,” meaning Iacuaniello brought Murray to Point Arena to shape up Point Arena Elementary then, when Murray shaped up Point Arena Elementary, Iacuaniello, supported by a nexus of energy-deficient teachers and the usual cringing school board, fired Murray.

Potential jurors didn't seem surprised that an entrenched superintendent had misrepresented the true circumstances of Point Arena's historically troubled elementary school to hire a talented young principal who just might make the school less troubled.

To make the Point Arena school less troubled the young principal would have to get a small number of tenured, resistant teachers to do their jobs.

Murray tried, the teachers resisted, Iacuaniello threw Murray over the side.

Attorney Faulder assessed the potential jurors.

“Of course you wouldn't tell someone dying in the hospital they looked, well, awful, but isn't withholding information also a lie?”

A Cal Fire veteran said he'd seen the remains of a boy in a wreck and withheld the information from the boy's father. “It wasn't my job,” he said.

Which it wasn't.

A carpenter confessed he wasn't about to report every board he sawed off too short or long unless it was for his family.

“Of course,” Faulder said, “you can always use a little caulking and there's always a higher duty to family and friends. But being a fairly moral person, don't you at least have to have some kind of standard? Yes, we've all been lied to, but most of us are as good as our word, aren't we?”

The carpenter agreed.

A Community College teacher said his paychecks were signed by Mr. Tichinin, the County Superintendent of Schools. Tichinin is a witness for the defense, and a personal friend of the defendant.

Murray is up against every entrenched school drone from Point Arena to Covelo. They all know each other, they all support each other no matter what or how incompetent, and Tichinin is their godfather.

A young woman said she worked directly under Mr. Tichinin. Others said their kids were friends with Tichinin’s kids. Many potential jurors seemed beholden, one way or another, to their local educational apparatus and its Don Corleone.

The first witness was Murray's former superintendent at the Long Beach School District where Murray's idealism was featured on The Today Show and Good Morning America. A film was made about the remarkable improvements Murray and his Long Beach colleagues had made in schools much more difficult than rural Point Arena's. President Clinton himself had come to Long Beach to congratulate the people who'd done the heavy lifting.

Mr. Ayers seems to have some educational deficits of his own.

“How do you spell beach, as in Long Beach?” he asked, looking over at Iacuaniello who looked away, as everyone else in the courtroom wondered if Ayres was joking. He wasn't.

(Ed note: Iacuaniello, along with every other school superintendent in Mendocino County, recently distinguished himself by signing a letter drafted by County School Superintendent Paul Tichinin in which Tichinin accused a Ukiah teacher's union representative of racism for using the word “niggardly” as a description of management's fiscal stance vis a vis Ukiah teachers. Iacuaniello probably knows how to spell beach, but in a county whose educational leaders don't know that niggardly means stingy, beach just might stump the lot of them.)

Ayres had made a chart showing how much the Murrays paid for their Long Beach house and how much they might get for their Point Arena house. Ayers suggested that Murray's move to Point Arena was a real estate scheme.

O yea. Sell low in Long Beach and buy high in Point Arena. You'll be rich in no time.

“One juror was,” Mr. Faulder said, “overheard by an officer of the court telling other jurors that this looked like a case of a couple of outsiders picking on a local.”

The juror was brought in and questioned by Judge Behnke.

“Do you think you can be fair and impartial?”

“Yes.”

“O.K.” said the Judge.

As the trial began, several witnesses testified to the condition of Point Arena's elementary school before and after the Murrays came to town. The weeds were waist high. The place was so gloomy and anonymous only locals would have guessed it was even a school -- a school in use! Murray spruced things up and instilled a sense of pride in a clearly demoralized enterprise.

Test scores rose dramatically. There was an optimism long absent.

Murray was doing the job he'd been hired to do.

Which put him at odds with the tiny minority of people, some of them teachers, who preferred the lethargy and sloth to energy and accomplishment.

The civil court attendant came to me and asked me to leave the courtroom.

“Why?” I asked.

“Judge's orders,” he said.

I stood harrumphing in the hall, indignant I'd been given the heave-ho.

When I was let back in I asked Judge Behnke why the press, which is me most days all by myself in all the courts, had been excluded.

“There was an ethical question, and that's all I'm going to say for now,” Behnke replied.

Attorney Ayers murmured something I didn't catch. The court reporter caught it with a nod and typed it into her steno laptop. Attorney Faulder also caught it.

“Wait a minute. Your honor,” Faulder said. “Counsel made an accusation on the record suggesting that we -- my co-counsel, Mr. King and I-- summoned the press. This is not the case. Your, honor, you know the AVA as well as any of us, and Mr. McEwen is here only at his editor's bidding, if that, but certainly not ours!”

“What do you want me to do?” Judge Behnke asked Faulder with a laugh. “No -- wait. We're off the record here, aren't we? Ha ha ha.”

* * *

Mark Scaramella knows how to spell beach as in Long Beach, Seal Beach, Palm Beach, and even a day at the beach. He also knows that Redding is north of Red Bluff. Scaramella, bona fides established, picks up the trial narrative.

When the Murray trial continued Thursday afternoon, Judge Behnke announced that he had ruled that there would be no discussion of what exactly the Point Arena School District's captive school board had done in closed session unless there was an offer of proof that the board's closed door behavior was relevant.

The board, of course, had simply backed Iacuaniello’s move to fire Murray.

Murray's co-counsel, King, said that he was only interested in closed session discussions in so far as they dealt with what Mr. Iacuaniello said.

Murray then took the stand again and described the circumstances of his move from Long Beach to Point Arena in 2004.

Murray said that he had been a college professor in New York but, teaching Moby Dick to young people who had not mastered the basics of reading and writing made him wonder if he wasn't trying to teach at the wrong end of the system. Speaking with a candor seldom associated with school bureaucrats, Murray said he'd decided to try first grade teaching. Maybe the deficiencies he saw at the college level began there, maybe at the elementary school level is where the real teaching should be done. He said he'd mistakenly thought the transition from college students to young children would be easy. It wasn't. He soon learned that instruction must be explicit and clear, a lesson he later brought with him to Point Arena.

He soon became an assistant principal at a middle school in Long Beach where he dealt successfully with underprivileged students from a variety of minority groups.

When he read the on-line description of the elementary school principal job in Point Arena, Murray said he first did some research about Point Arena; he discovered that it was a low performing school in “program improvement” status — not meeting state standards, nor was the school showing progress toward meeting those standards. Seeking yet another educational challenge, Murray applied.

About here we should probably mention that the Murrays, like so many unwitting Americans before them, could not have known they were about to step through The Green Curtain, the Northcoast equivalent of Alice's Looking Glass. One parts the curtain just north of Cloverdale and steps unwittingly into a lightly populated vastness where the ordinary standards of human behavior only randomly apply, and apply even more randomly at the higher levels of authority. One enters at one's peril.

Murray soon found himself in an interview with a dozen or so Point Arena school people including Superintendent Mark Iacuaniello. The group included teachers, the high school principal, the superintendent’s secretary, and some school board members. After more discussions and interviews with the superintendent, Murray was offered the job. He did not know that Point Arena Elementary had gone through seven principals in eleven years. That turnover, along with low test scores, made Point Arena Elementary a one-armed basket case.

Murray told Iacuaniello that he could only accept the job if there was a clear understanding that when the entrenched, inert teachers began to complain that they were actually being required to do their jobs, the superintendent would support him. Murray said he had experienced similar complaints at Franklin Middle School in Long Beach, but the superintendent there had dealt with the problems directly and discussed them with Murray and the teachers as they arose. The teachers in Long Beach were not allowed to go directly to the superintendent with their secret complaints; complaints were confronted and dealt with when they occurred.

This policy of direct management keeps the whiners and the malingerers on their toes. But at Point Arena, the whiners and the malingerers went directly to Iacuaniello who couldn't, wouldn't stand up to them.

Murray had insisted that teachers keep accurate records of student progress. Such records are essential in determining if instructional changes are working. The teachers immediately balked at this, Murray said. Murray said he tried to explain that the instructional process resembles medical procedures; it's first necessary to document the current situation so that you can tell if a treatment works.

Murray must have wondered why he was being compelled to explain the obvious.

During his interviews for the job, Iacuaniello had told Murray that the Point Arena Elementary teachers already kept such records, but when Murray arrived he discovered that that was not true.

Murray also addressed problems with discipline and school safety. Discipline and safety, along with enhanced academic achievement, were the areas Iacuaniello had said needed immediate attention. Murray moved to tighten up the dress code, and after discussions with staff and parents, the school instituted standards short of uniforms. Murray said that it was clear that after implementation of this dress code much of the tension leading to fights simply went away.

(If you are the product of a more sedate elementary education you should know that there are now millions of parents who allow, nay encourage, their pre-pube children to dress and behave in ways that are objectively psychotic.)

Mr. Ayres commenced a long, irrelevant and ultimately failed attack on the Murrays real estate transactions that soon had the jury rolling its eyes. Ayres yammered on about how Murray had sold a home Long Beach to move to Point Arena, and how the Murrays had bought a home near Manchester, as if these pedestrian transactions were somehow sinister.

Murray’s Long Beach realtor said that the Murrays ended up having to sell their house in Long Beach for less than its market value because they didn’t have much time to move after accepting the Point Arena job. Then, upon being terminated by Iacuaniello, Murray found himself caught up in the nationwide housing market collapse and was unable to sell his Point Arena house, which he now rents.

Murray's Coast realtor, a mild-mannered graying man named Ron Eich, explained his and the Murrays attempts to assign a market value to the Murrays' Point Arena property, all to no sales avail.

Defense attorney Ayers went after Eich as if Eich were a criminal defendant, repeatedly suggesting that Mr. Murray was trying to profit from his subsequent move to Idaho and had exaggerated his losses. Mr. Eich politely disagreed, and Ayers looked like a bullying fool as Eich coolly parried Ayres' clearly misguided attempts to portray the Murrays as opportunists.

When Murray took the stand again he repeated that Mr. Iacuaniello had assured him he would back him up as he brought badly needed change to Point Arena Elementary. Murray said that Iacuaniello had told him he understood that the kinds of changes Murray had instituted in Long Beach would be necessary in Point Arena and that he [Iacuaniello) would handle the complaints.

Within two years Point Arena Elementary showed noticeable improvements in test scores, discipline and campus safety. Murray believed that he had done much of what he had been hired to do and that the school had turned around and was moving in the right direction for the first time in years.

After Murray had been on the job for a few months, Iacuaniello mentioned in passing that Point Arena Elementary had seen seven principals in the last eleven years. Murray said he was shocked. He now wondered how secure his job was in the context of constant turnover.

“We were on the way,” Murray said, on the way to turning the school around. He also noted that being bilingual allowed him to make good contact with the Mexican parents, and that all communications at the school were done both in English and Spanish, including notices to parents.

But the teachers were upset. They didn’t want to keep records. They didn’t like enforcing the dress code. They didn’t like being pestered about improving the school’s test results.

“Mr. Iacuaniello told me,” Murray testified, “not to let the teachers circle the wagons, because if they did there would be nothing he could do about it,” adding after a pause, “and I would be on the outside.”

Having told Murray he'd support him, Murray's boss now said Murray was on his own.

But the teachers indeed circled the wagons just as Iacuaniello had predicted. Murray, outside the circle, was never told what the teachers’ specific concerns were.

And Iacuaniello was inside the circle with the teachers.

Murray said that he was very uncomfortable about Iacuaniello’s statement that there was nothing he could do about it. There was never any identification of which teachers had complaints nor what could be done to address them. Iacuaniello simply told Murray that he had instructed the teachers to come to Murray, not him, but they never did, and Murray was left to fight the anonymous people making anonymous complaints.

After the first year on the job Murray got a good evaluation from Iacuaniello and was told again that Iacuaniello had instructed to teachers to come to Murray with their complaints, not that any of them had.

Iacuaniello will take the stand soon. He's been in court every day. He gets paid out of educational dollars to be there, just like his lawyer.

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