Editorial: Don’t shoot the messenger ’til you fix your problems

  • Bron Sanders' whistle-blower suit opened up inquiry into illegal mountain lion hunts on Tejon Ranch under V.P. of Ranch Operations Don Geivet (now retired). This was local and national news in January 2012

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    Bron Sanders' whistle-blower suit opened up inquiry into illegal mountain lion hunts on Tejon Ranch under V.P. of Ranch Operations Don Geivet (now retired). This was local and national news in January 2012

  • Nick Onyshko and Tammy Christenson shown at the senior prom, after confronting members of the ETUSD Board of Trustees and asking that ASB funds be returned to their accounts.

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    Nick Onyshko and Tammy Christenson shown at the senior prom, after confronting members of the ETUSD Board of Trustees and asking that ASB funds be returned to their accounts.

  • Fernando Nieto, newly named as ETUSD chief business officer (CBO), goes over data with Audrey Weingarten, administrative assistant for district.

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    Fernando Nieto, newly named as ETUSD chief business officer (CBO), goes over data with Audrey Weingarten, administrative assistant for district.

By Patric Hedlund, Editor

We all know an overheating engine will not be fixed by disconnecting the temperature gauge. Smashing the fuel gauge with a rock before the needle points to “empty” doesn’t magically re-fill the tank.

So why would a retiring El Tejon Unified School District employee try to convince people that the urgent problems in our schools would vanish if the newspaper would just stop telling the public what is happening? The retiring manager of ETUSD finances, in that position for over two decades (after starting as a teacher’s aide 34 years ago), used her farewell speech to the board of trustees November 14 to say, “I hold the local newspaper responsible for the downfall of this district.” She asked us to quote that.

But Terri Geivet didn’t mention that she may have a personal bone or two to pick with the newspaper. We reported last year about her husband’s involvement in a long-running defiance of California state law. He was accused in a whistleblower’s suit of allegedly ordering illegal mountain lion hunting on Tejon Ranch. Vice President of Ranch Operations Don Geivet denied the allegations, then retired quickly when the California Department of Fish and Game produced evidence supporting charges of illegal kills under his supervision of the hunting program. The Kern County District Attorney filed a second suit. Tejon Ranch Corporation settled the suit quickly and closed its hunting program for about eight months.

Using Ms. Geivet’s magical thinking, it was the newspaper that shot the lions…or perhaps they might have sprung back to life if the local newspaper had just not reported they’d been illegally killed.

Nobody will dispute that Terri Geivet’s term “downfall” refers to the school district’s financial troubles. We’ve had to report several disturbing chapters in the financial history of this district under Terri Geivet’s watch—even before the impacts of declining enrollment and state cutbacks hit.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Economics at FMHS

There were the attempts, for instance, to cover up a lack of fiscal responsibility at Frazier Mountain High School from at least 2006 through 2009. While the kids were holding car washes and bake sales to raise funds because the principal told them their class was “in debt,” it was learned that Associated Student Body (ASB) funds had been used by the principal and a friend to purchase a golf cart for the administration and to buy alcohol for prom chaperones.

There was an attempt to pressure ASB officers to sign a letter that the students did not write and did not agree to. It said that the golf cart was a “gift” the students wanted to give to the district.

The Mountain Enterprise received midnight calls from parents, teachers and students distressed about what was happening, saying they were afraid of retaliation against their kids and for their jobs if they spoke up publicly.

So the owners of this newspaper personally paid for a forensic accountant to help the students learn where their money had gone.

We estimated about $450,000 was in question. It looked like poor financial record keeping rather than major theft. Two students had the guts to stand up in the trustees’ board meeting to ask for their money back.

The newspaper’s reporting, which we first showed to Trustees Anita Anderson and John Fleming, triggered two audits by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. They confirmed ASB funds had been used in an unlawful manner. Auditors also reported that the school’s QuickBooks accounts were in such chaotic disarray it would be impossible to know how much might be owed to the students’ ASB account.

Who was in charge of overseeing this small school district’s financial accounts during that time?

Before it was over, there was more buck-passing and another attempt to pressure the ASB students to “just move on.” Finally the teacher serving as ASB advisor was laid off. And eventually—two years later, under Superintendent Katherine Kleier—the high school principal lost his job.

We still receive calls from FMHS graduates thanking us for following through for three years to find the answers and to stop the abuse.

But who was responsible for district financial oversight when all this was happening? Who let it go on so long?

Citizens Oversight Committee a Sham

“School Bond Oversight Group Has Never Met, Never Seen Audits”

That was another headline we had to write in 2009 when we found the Citizens School Bond Oversight Committee hadn’t met in 2.5 years, even as local citizens saw their property taxes rising to repay the bond’s $11 million in principal and interest.

Fuzzy Math or Just Neglect?

We could go on. In March this year we reported the failure to monitor collection of attendance data at the high school in 2011, which cost this district $133,000 and could have cost hundreds of thousands more.

Wouldn’t a competent fiscal manager confirm each quarter that the data needed to bill the state for payment was properly on file?

Some of the worst publicity this district has earned could have been avoided by maintaining basic bookkeeping standards and exerting tighter monitoring of the school’s fiscal management. Respect for the public’s right to accountability rather than crafting a chain of cover-ups would have helped too.

Superintendent’s Co-Pilot

In all our reporting on these issues before today, we did not point out Ms. Geivet by name. But Superintendent Katherine Kleier has told the public Geivet is her closest advisor about this district.

Since June 2010 Geivet has been serving as a co-pilot, advising the fledgling superintendent to just ignore the flashing lights and alarm sirens going off all around the district office, in the schools, in the community and in the newspaper.

That advice is not working out well for Kleier’s first solo flight as a superintendent.

A culture problem threatens the El Tejon Unified School District’s head office. It is short on facts, long on secrecy and drenched in fear—a bunker mentality.

Geivet’s 34 years may end as a textbook example of the Peter Principal. She has been an enabler to Kleier’s veer into a ‘circle the wagons’ management style, seeing only allies or adversaries, perceived as treating the people she is being paid to serve as if they are the enemy.

Referendum on District Management

The retiring financial manager’s counsel to turn a deaf ear to the outcry of families of the Mountain Communities transformed the November 6 trustees’ election into a referendum on the job Kleier has done so far.

Those elected were unanimous in their criticism.

Protecting a Treasure

Voters know they have a treasure to defend. This is a beautiful place to raise children. This is a beautiful school district.

There is a devoted staff to teach and care for these students. But there are also bad apples from time to time. There are accidents. There are good people who make mistakes or who simply do not have the updated skills or the stamina to do the job that needs to be done.

We’ve all seen trustees look the other way behind a smokescreen of “loyalty” to the superintendent they helped to hire rather than to the people they were elected to represent. We’ve lived through the superintendent who gets into trouble and gets outta Dodge, leaving the community to pick up the pieces.

Meanwhile, this independent local newspaper has been plugging along, reporting the facts to the public because this is America and that is our job.

Fiscal Management and the ‘Downfall of the District’

Before the outgoing lame-duck 3-2 board gave its own good-bye speeches on November 14, they met in their executive session to approve, 3-2, Kleier’s latest plan to keep a protective circle of allies surrounding her in the district office.

She asked the board to promote a nice man, said to be her family friend, who currently serves as director of maintenance, operations and transportation (MOT). Kleier suggested he receive the title of ‘chief business officer’ (CBO) of the district, with a $20,000 raise.

When we asked, Fernando Nieto gently agreed he does not have accounting or bookkeeping expertise. He said he has a rusty knowledge of QuickBooks and really enjoys working with spreadsheets. Kleier said she suggests “enrolling him in a class.”

Ironically, Linda Sheldon, a highly qualified bookkeeper and financial manager who lives on the mountain, teaches seminars around the country on QuickBooks and financial management, and has 10 years experience working as a school CBO, was running for the school board when Kleier opened this position. Sheldon submitted an application for the position.

We do not for a moment doubt that Fernando Nieto will try very hard to do a good job. But is this the best choice for such a critical position? Do the numbers work when adding in consultants, classes and two part time clerks? Did the 3-2 board ask those questions?

Harmony Is Really Not that Hard to Find

In just two weeks with us, Interim Superintendent Bud Burrows showed how quickly harmony can be restored if you listen to people and show respect for their questions by answering with facts. This is a sign of hope.

Let us hope Kleier will return from her month on medical leave with a new spirit, committed to building a fresh culture of cordial openness to the public and to the press.

We are thankful that Proposition 30 will bring $382,823 back to the district this year. We have a new board of ETUSD trustees who can apply integrity, fresh energy and facts to creating solutions.

As they do, this local newspaper will be reporting all about it. We, too, look forward to a new chapter filled with good news.

This is part of the November 23, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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