Murrays Lose, Point Arena Loses Bigger
by Mark Scaramella, February 3, 2010
Paula Patterson was appointed interim principal at Point Arena Elementary in November of 2006 by Point Arena Superintendent Mark Iacuaniello.
Iacuaniello and his lockstep school board had just fired Matt Murray although Point Arena Elementary's test scores, discipline, campus safety and parent support had dramatically improved during Murray’s tenure. Murray had been hired to drag the perennially troubled school out of what amounted to state failed status.
Ms. Patterson had been the English Language Development Coordinator at the Point Arena High School when Iacuaniello picked her to replace Murray.
Two months later, in January of 2007, Ms. Patterson was interviewed on a South Coast radio station by Fred Adler. She told Adler that she got her administrative credential in the summer of 2006 in the months leading up to Murray’s ouster. Patterson told Adler that a principal’s role is “facilitating,” and described Iacuaniello and the Point Arena School Board as “forward looking.” Patterson said she wanted “more collaboration time for teachers. If so, the kids win! I have to play around with days and schedules. I have to sit down together and talk to the teachers.”
“I'm a positive person,” declared Patterson, “an eternal optimist. I’m working on the master schedule. It’s difficult and cumbersome. We need a more streamlined schedule. At present it’s not the most efficient use of staff time. There are conflicts of scheduling and teacher needs.”
It was back to the future, “teacher needs” being the priority.
Patterson told Adler that she'd had “a really positive experience with the faculty and staff.”
Two years later, however, Ms. Patterson's “really positive experience” had translated into test scores going back down to pre-Murray levels and the school was back on state probation.
Take, for example, the complaints of the Point Arena Elementary teachers who testified last week in the days before the verdict last Friday. To a person, they complained that Murray “did not communicate well.”
Teacher Jan Henley said she took her complaints, which she of course described as “concerns,” complaints being replete with un-positive connotations, to the District’s “Leadership Team.” Asked if Murray ever received these “concerns,” she said that he was on the Leadership Team so must have been aware of the “communications problems” they were having.
Henley said that former Principal Rebecca Cartwright, “carried a yellow note pad around with her to make you feel that she was paying attention to what you were saying and you were important.”
Murray’s attorney, Keith Faulder asked, “Didn't Mr. Murray carry a clipboard around with him for the same purpose?”
“Yes,” said Henley, “but not all the time.”
School Counselor Holly Rawlins said that she and Murray had “philosophical disagreements.” When asked what they were she said she remembered one had to do with “retention of students.” (Retention is educratese for holding a student back for a year.)
Faulder asked Rawlins, “How many students were retained while Mr. Murray was there?”
Rawlins did not remember.
“Were there one, two, ten?”
Rawlins did not remember.
“Isn't it true that there were no students retained while Mr. Murray was principal?” asked Faulder.
Rawlins still did not remember, but she “believed” there had been students retained.
Murray had not held any students back.
Rawlins complained that Murray typed on his computer during their meetings.
Faulder asked, “Could he have been taking notes regarding the meeting?”
Rawlins replied he should have written notes instead of typing them.
Rawlins also said that she felt it was “quite inappropriate” for Murray to have left a memo slip in her box that he wanted to meet with her. She believed he should have waited until she returned to her office to tell her he wanted to see her. She said often teachers would hold slips up in front of other teachers and mockingly say “Got another one!”
Rawlins also testified as an “expert witness” when it came to non-English speaking (ELD) students. Iacuaniello hired “ELD teacher” Heather Regelbrugge without discussing her hiring with Murray. After Murray observed Regelbrugge in the classroom Murray told Iacuaniello that she should be removed from his school as she was totally unqualified to be an ELD teacher. Iacuaniello refused. Shortly after that Murray discovered that Regelbrugge had falsified her credentials and had not taken the required test (the applicable CBEST test) to become a teacher (a misdemeanor according to Government and Education Code). Expert witness Rawlins went to Iacuaniello and told him Regelbrugge was “great” and that she should stay. Iacuaniello Regelbrugge's job description from ” teacher” to “ELD coordinator” and kept her at the elementary school doing exactly what Murray had objected to.
Reading Coach Kristie Matson said that Murray's door was often “closed” when she went to the office to speak with him. (Murray denied this.) And when the teachers had meetings Murray either did not show up, or left early or did not come at all!
When Matson was asked about written complaints regarding Murray, Matson denied that she wrote up any complaints. They were, of course, “concerns” not complaints.
“Was Mr. Murray ever given a copy of your written complaints?” asked Faulder.
“No, but I have the complaints on my computer,” replied Matson.
Teacher Scott Fraser was asked about how his relationship with Murray went from good to bad as soon as Fraser got a “less than positive” evaluation. Fraser denied that the evaluation had anything to do with the relationship going sour. However, he agreed that it was after the evaluation that Fraser and Murray were no longer friends. Fraser said that if he did receive a less than favorable evaluation he would “count it as a learning tool,” but Murray's evaluation of him had not been “a learning tool.”
And on it went.
Then there’s the “musical chairs” as King described them, the bureaucratic contortions Iacuaniello undertook to prepare Patterson to take Murray’s job.
In the spring of 2006 emails between Patterson and Iacuaniello began about Patterson's pending principalship. Patterson was promoted from high school Spanish teacher and given a quasi-administrative position as “ELD coordinator” (a previously non-existent position which basically coordinates the coordinators) soon after getting her administrative credential so she would have the required administrative experience to replace Murray when the time came.
But Patterson’s promotion left the Spanish teacher job open.
Iacuaniello transferred teacher Wendy Platt who had no Spanish teaching credential into the job, issuing Platt an “emergency credential” on his own dubious authority. Platt’s position was then filled by former Board member Lu Beguiristain who had voted to terminate Murray a few months earlier.
Beguiristain didn’t have the necessary Bachelor’s degree he said he had. Iacuaniello testified that both he and Beguiristain “mistakenly believed” that Beguiristain had a B.A.
And here we begin another chapter of Only In Mendo.
Beguiristain claimed to have been the victim of “a hate crime” in Texas toward the end of his college term and because of that he somehow never got his B.A. But he “thought” he had it.
Iacuaniello, however, testified that he made no effort to confirm these improbable events, and even after Iacuaniello got Beguiristain’s college transcript showing he had no degree, Beguiristain kept the position he was patently unqualified for.
* * *
Closing arguments in the case of Murray vs. Iacuaniello were made last Thursday.
In his closing argument Murray’s attorney, Lawrence King, began, “This is a case about fairness and honesty. It’s about lack of disclosure, false promises, and that the defendant either couldn't or wouldn't deliver on these promises. Mr. Iacuaniello’s fraudulent inducement caused Mr. Murray to sign the contract, uproot himself from Long Beach where he had a good reputation and move to Point Arena. My client intended to spend the rest of his career here, then after he was terminated he had to move to Idaho.”
King said Iacuaniello misrepresented the position by claiming there would be job stability, promising he would support Murray in handling the inevitable teacher complaints which would surface when Murray started making changes to improve the school’s performance. “Mr. Iacuaniello knew that there had been seven principals in the last eleven years and didn’t tell Mr. Murray,” said King. “He knew it would affect my client's decision to move yet he did not tell him. That is fraud.
“Murray knew from his Long Beach experience that teachers would resist the things necessary to bring the underperforming school up to standard. Some teachers would not appreciate it at all. They prefer their own ways. Some would welcome the changes, others would not. Former principal Ms. Cartwright was so angry with the teachers that she had to leave the job although she claimed that it had to do with taking a better job.
“Of course Mr. Iacuaniello denies that there was fraud. You can't see fraud. How do you know that it was fraud? By circumstantial evidence. Mr. Iacuaniello has no recollection of telling my client about the principal turnover rate. Yet he promised that he would support him if he did his job. The failure to support is circumstantial evidence of not intending to support.
“At the time that Mr. Murray was hired in July of 2004 Mr. Iacuaniello was desperate to get someone into the position, school was about to start and there was no principal. Here comes Matt Murray, like manna from heaven. He had experience with open court [a system of carefully tracking student performance] and had even been a trainer, he spoke Spanish, he was experienced with discipline problems and minority populations, he was very well-educated. He was the ideal candidate. Mr. Iacuaniello was excited and really wanted to have him on board so that Mr. Iacuaniello could say, Look at me! I got this really great guy! However, in just a few months he told Mr. Murray he would be unable to do anything if the teachers circled the wagons. Iacuaniello had no intent to provide the support he promised.
“Iacuaniello knew that if he told Murray about the principal turnover rate that Murray would probably not apply for the job and therefore had substantial motivation to not mention that.
“Mr. Iacuaniello’s failure to deliver on the promise of support was proven by his [Iacuaniello’s] so-called open door policy in which teachers could beat a path to the superintendent’s door and not stop at the principal's office. This amounted to intentional undermining of Mr. Murray's ability to develop the very relationships that Mr. Iacuaniello wanted him to develop. When problems developed Mr. Murray dealt with them as best he could given the unidentified and unattributed complaints. He did a survey of teachers asking for their feedback and instituted the shared decision-making model. But even after that Mr. Iacuaniello continued to let them beat a path to his door and make vague complaints and voice concerns without identifying who was making them which undermined his ability to do his job.
“On the stand, Mr. Iacuaniello frequently said he didn't recall, didn't remember. He told Murray that his son could attend other schools when he knew that those other schools would be a problem and then when Murray looked into it, Mr. Iacuaniello said that would not be a good idea.
“Mr. Iacuaniello continues to insist that Ms. Hartman left for a better job but that was not the real reason she left. As she told the local newspaper, she left because a majority of teachers were uncooperative.
“Mr. Iacuaniello consistently tells only part of the story, half-truths, the half of the truth that benefits him, but not the other half. Even though Mr. Murray's first year evaluation was outstanding on all the elements, he rated Mr. Murray as less than satisfactory. In a confidential report to the board he reported that Mr. Murray was ‘good but not outstanding’ and if there was no improvement in teacher relations he would not recommend a raise or contract renewal. He effectively manipulated the board in one direction while telling Murray the opposite.
“Mr. Iacuaniello insisted that the teacher who falsified her credentials and background continue to work at the school under a change in title and slight change in job where she was no longer the teacher of record, but still the teacher of the class.
“Then there was the Beguiristain fraud in which Mr. Beguiristain didn't have a bachelor's degree but Iacuaniello continued to let him teach Spanish even though he had seen a transcript showing that he did not have a bachelors degree.
“Mr. Iacuaniello had already set up Paula Patterson as principal in the months prior to Mr. Murray’s termination. He had planned it and asked for her resume in the spring of 2006. [Murray was terminated in November, 2006.] Then he placed her into a coordinator job so that she could get administrative experience. Mr. Iacuaniello wrote that he would continue to support Mr. Murray while at the same time he was developing 'the Patterson Plan.'
“A game of musical chairs was used to move staff around so that Paula Patterson could become principal. She was made English Language Development Coordinator so she would be ready to take the job. Mr. Iacuaniello used Wendy Platt who did not have a Spanish teaching credential to replace Patterson and then replaced Wendy Platt with Beguiristain who, as a board member nine months earlier, had voted to terminate Murray and was then rewarded with a teaching position even though he did not have a bachelor of arts degree and did not have the proper certifications.
“Mr. Iacuaniello continued to insist that complaints be described as 'concerns' so that they would not have to be reduced to writing. Yet at the same time he was raising these so-called concerns in private confidential reports to the School Board. Murray never got an opportunity to see or respond to these complaints or concerns.
“Mr. Murray far exceeded Mr. Iacuaniello’s and the district's expectations and yet in his second evaluation he was rated as 'still working hard.' The only criticism he got was that he ‘failed to build positive relationships with teachers.’ A core of the teachers simply did not like his style and they beat a path to Mr. Iacuaniello’s office and circled the wagons. And Mr. Iacuaniello supported them, not his principal.
“Mr. Murray was the first principal to be hired in recent memory who purchased a home in Point Arena, joined the church and engaged in various community activities. When encountering people in town they always wanted to know, Are you staying? Murray was committed and wanted to stay, and then he was let go.
“What if all the allegations against him were true? Is that even a basis for termination?
“Somewhere between 200 and 400 community members, most of them parents, signed a petition to keep Mr. Murray on. They said he had made a big difference and that school had become a serious place for students to learn.
* * *
Defense attorney William Ayres was next.
“The plaintiff is saying that my client is deceitful and a bad guy. Credibility is the key here. Murray claims that he mailed the application on July 7 after a final phone call to get more assurances about job stability. But the application was signed on July 6 and obviously it was mailed on July 6. The July 7 notes were just his notes, as were the Denny's notes. The notes were prepared by Mr. Murray. There was no fraud. My client is a decent, honest guy. I really doubt whether it's likely anything he did was harmful or hurtful. Do Mr. Murray's notes constitute fraud? No. He never asked about the principal turnover rate.
“Is it wrong for my client to try to convince Mr. Murray that there was job stability? The whole interview committee said that there would be job security. He tried to reverse this into blaming Mr. Iacuaniello, but it's really his own fault. That makes no sense.
“What we have here is two different views of the same circumstances. One view says that it was fraud, the other does not. High school principal Warren Galletti is still there. He has stability. He worked for the same superintendent. Dr. Hartman left when she had a job offer to stay. Yes, she said tough things. Yes, some teachers resisted the changes that she wanted to do, but she left for a better job. Ms. Cartwright left with an offer for continued employment and would still be there if she had accepted it.
“Mr. Murray told Iacuaniello at one point after being told that he had not developed positive relationships with staff that, ‘It's not my job to draw out or coddle people.’ That's no way to run a school!
“Why didn't he tell people about the late evaluations and that Mr. Iacuaniello had said he was not a good fit for the school district when people asked him why he had left? Mr. Murray was just not a good fit for this school.
“The petition gathering exercise was a political act.
“Why would a board member want to have a personnel evaluation in public? Is that a good idea? Closed session is to protect the board and Mr. Murray.
“There's nothing wrong with a chain of command, but such an approach does not work with all schools.
“Would you really ask for complaints to be put in writing if you had the personality that my client has? Instead, he called them 'concerns' so that they could be dealt with without being reduced to paper.
“Was Paula Patterson's promotion to English Language Development Administrator a sinister plan? They are just throwing things on the wall to see if they stick. It's just smoke and mirrors. Was anyone wrong? You know the answer to that. The prior principals had standing offers. Not one teacher stood up in support of Mr. Murray at the November board meeting when he was terminated.”
King got the last word.
“Mr. Murray met his end of the bargain to the children and parents. People in the community asked him if he would be staying and he bought a house and committed himself to the job and improved academics, student discipline and campus safety. Principals must hold teachers' feet to the fire to get a school on track. Of course it will ruffle some feathers and my client is not the warmest, fuzziest guy. It takes some time to build up the necessary relationships. But in the few cases when specific problems arose they worked out the problems.
“My client kept up his end of the bargain. Mr. Iacuaniello is not a negative person so he does not consider teacher complaints to be complaints because that would be negative. Basically, he is so nice a guy that he cannot fulfill his own promises. Mr. Ayers is deaf to this. Mr. Iacuaniello simply doesn't have the backbone to stand up to conflict. He never did demand open discussion, he avoids it. Do you think that avoiding the notion of conflict is a good enough reason to not renew a contract? What about all the community support? The situation simply didn't sit well with the defendant.
“In the fall of 2006 Mr. Iacuaniello simply decided that he didn't want to deal with teacher complaints anymore and that the solution would be to terminate Mr. Murray. Mr. Iacuaniello told Mr. Murray that he had to develop positive relations with staff but the teachers knew they could always go to the superintendent with their complaints. It was a prescription for failure.
* * *
The jury came back for Iacuaniello in just a few hours. Of the four elements of the allegation — misrepresentation, concealment, false promises and damages, the jury found that there was indeed concealment and at least one false promise, but some jurors felt that Murray should have tried harder to find out about the principal turnover before applying. Apparently they found the false promises were not made maliciously or intentionally, a very high legal bar for Murray to overcome.
The Murrays at first took the verdict pretty hard. “I knew it was a gamble,” Murray said, visibly shaken, perhaps surprised that the case would end up being stripped of its most outrageous components — Judge Behnke's odd ruling that the School Board had “absolute immunity” for its failure to follow the Brown Act or insure due process before terminating a successful principal. Behnke also emphasized that “actual malice” on the part of the Superintendent would have to be shown. These stipulations significantly weakened Murray's case.
After the verdict was announced, a number of the jurors openly sympathized with the Murrays’ plight, but added, “Our hands were tied,” implying that their interpretation of the instructions boxed them in, preventing them from doing the right thing.
Asked if he had a comment after the verdict was announced, the defendant’s attorney, the graceless Ayers barked, “No.”
Iacuaniello, passive-aggressive to the end, cooed, “I wish Mr. Murray the best. And his wife.”
Following the verdict Murray’s attorney, Lawrence King, wrote, “What struck me most was that each of the jurors without fail either shook Matt's hand or gave Claire a big hug. Moreover, the jurors that we had a chance to speak to made clear that they thought Matt was a great guy, a great educator and that the few teachers who complained and the school administration just did not appreciate what Matt had done for the students, the school and the community. The Murrays left the Courthouse, and Mendocino County, with their heads held high.”
For their part, after thinking about the outcome over the weekend, the Murrays rightly think they got a raw deal from the insular little school district with a hard core of mediocre teachers who can't be held accountable for their work in the classrooms.
“If we had it to do over again, even knowing the outcome,” said Claire Murray on Monday, “we’d still do the same thing.”