Workers Allege Gorman School District’s Charter Took Retirement Funds

By Gary Meyer

Three former employees of a school chartered under Gorman Elementary School District have filed claims against the district and its Gorman Learning Center (GLC) charter school based in San Bernardino County.

In records obtained by The Mountain Enterprise on October 1, three separate claimants allege that retirement fund contributions deducted from their paychecks were misappropriated by Gorman Learning Center and Gorman Elementary School District.

Former employee Lora Mosher’s claim states, "As a result of GLC’s falsely reporting to Mosher that sums were withheld from Mosher’s paycheck and deposited into STRS and PERS [retirement] accounts, GLC has withheld from Mosher’s pay and converted to its own use a sum in excess of $100,000…."

Claimants Jill Barrett and Kenya Corley each stated in their claims, "I…became aware that Gorman Learning Center and the Gorman School District had not transferred any of the money withdrawn from my paycheck to the Los Angeles County Department of Education or to the State CALPERS department."

In a written response to a request for records by The Mountain Enterprise, Gorman Elementary School District’s attorney, Linda Rhoads Parks, initially refused to release the former employees’ claim records and characterized those records as ‘non-releasable’ by the school district.

The attorney’s statements indicate that Gorman school board members Ruth Ralphs, Julie Ralphs and Steve Sonder have been voting to reject claims against the district without ever seeing the claims.

She explained that, "The District did not provide board members with any documents in addition to those provided in the board packet...[which did not include the specific claims–Editor]."

Rhoads Parks went on to say, "The Board’s decision to deny the three listed government tort claims was based on the verbal recommendation of Keenan & Associates, the administrator for the Joint Powers Authority (JPA) that administers the District’s self insurance program."

The request by The Mountain Enterprise for the claim records was resubmitted with mention of board members removed and was then fulfilled- further indicating that the board had made decisions to reject the three claims without seeing them.

The second time around, the district, under Superintendent Sue Page and Business Manager Karen Kingsley, omitted seven exhibits that include documents which establish numerous facts of the case.

Business Manager Kingsley told The Mountain Enterprise on October 2, "We provided you with the documents that we had received. There were no other documents received as part of the claim."

When The Mountain Enterprise contacted Mosher and her attorney, they said the entire claim, including all attachments and exhibits, was delivered to the Gorman Elementary School District in Gorman on July 31, 2007. They also provided a copy of the United States Postal Service Certified Mail receipt showing, "Attn: Sue Page, Superintendent."

The claims of Barrett and Corley are limited to alleged misappropriation of retirement funds. Mosher makes numerous additional allegations including: slander, wrongful discharge, violations of whistleblower protection laws, denial of due process and several other claims.

While none of the three claimants specified a sum for their claims, Mosher did state that the amount of deductions allegedly misappropriated exceeded $100,000 and that the value of a vested retirement "over her lifetime is estimated to be in excess of one million dollars."

Gorman Elementary School District Board President Steve Sonder said Tuesday, Oct. 9 "The district had nothing to do with the PERS and STRS [retirement] accounts. When you are the chartering district, control over what is happening [at a charter school] is minimal."

[Gary Larson of the California Charter Schools Association explained, "That is a fair statement, as day to day authority is at school site level, but that does not excuse the district from oversight duties. Districts do have authority and responsibility. It is a problem if they take the oversight fees but then do little or no oversight…" Larson also said that Gorman Learning Center had been denied certification by the Charter Schools Association.- Editor]

At the October 9 board meeting, President Sonder went on to say, "When we became aware of the problem we made it a priority to see that these accounts become current immediately."

Gorman Learning Center’s "Weekly Report" on operations, written by Jean Cummings and presented at the October 9 district meeting, stated that retirement account payments and corrections were being made for 2003 to 2007—the years covered by the employees’ claims against GLC and GESD—although board members said at the meeting that they could not confirm these corrections are related to the claims.

Between public sessions at the October 9 board meeting, the board’s attorney Linda Rhoads Parks told The Mountain Enterprise, "All PERS and STRS funds owed for those years have been collected and are being held by the California Local Agency Investment Fund while GLC’s corrections are brought up to date."

Claimant Lora Mosher is doubtful. "They’ve been saying for several years that they are making those corrections, which are not even the full amount owed," she said by telephone October 9.

Rhoads Parks said she is not aware of any dispute over the amounts owed, only delays in making the payments.

The board’s attorney offered an explanation as to why the board did not view the claim documents before voting: "This district has never had a government claim filed against it and it’s been a learning experience for the board. They were acting under advice of their JPA (Keenan & Associates) and the JPA did not advise them to attach the claims to the agenda."

She indicated that the JPA should have advised the board to attach the claims to the meeting agenda, which would have caused the claim documents to be included in the board packet (for the public to see).

Though the attorney claims board inexperience, Julie Ralphs, Ruth Ralphs and Steve Sonder (also a member of the Ralphs family) are not new to these responsibilities. Ruth and Julie Ralphs have held their seats on the Gorman Elementary School Board for over 30 years and Steve Sonder for 15 years.

Background to the Gorman School District Report 

In the March 23, 2007 issue of The Mountain Enterprise, an astute reader asked whether the Gorman Learning Center (GLC) in the news for a government audit showing millions of dollars in misappropriated state funds was our tiny mountain school, which has under 60 students.

We replied that it was a different school operating in several southern California counties, with 2,200 enrolled students. Technically, that was correct-it is a different school-but we discovered the day after our paper went to press that GLC is chartered under the Gorman Elementary School District (GESD), which is headquartered right here in our own Gorman Elementary School. [GESD is in Los Angeles County and has a different board from the El Tejon Unified School District, which is in Kern County and serves about 1,300 mountain students.–Ed]

In the March 30 issue of The Mountain Enterprise we printed a correction. Since then, we have continued to report the many positive contributions of our locally-based Gorman Elementary School. Its students all live in our Mountain Communities and Neenach.

Simultaneously, we continue to research and report about the school district, its own financial problems, benefits to trustees, issues related to the Gorman Learning Center and funds derived from sponsoring the GLC.

The legal claims filed by former charter school employees against GLC and GESD [see story above] result from alleged mismanagement and financial troubles at GLC. The claims include the district in the allegations.

The effects of Gorman Learning Center’s problems are pervasive and have brought GLC’s and GESD’s finances under scrutiny from Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County and State of California investigators.

The district attorneys of both counties are unwilling to comment on their ongoing investigations.

Among the questions to be resolved are:

  • Will Gorman Learning Center be required to repay $7.6 million ingovernment funds?
  • Will Gorman Elementary School District be required to repay $1.7 millionin government funds?
  • Are there additional irregularities which require investigation?
  • Will the former employees’ claims (totaling over $100,000) that GLC andGESD misappropriated their retirement funds be found to have merit after
    the Gorman Elementary School District Board rejected them?
  • Are the district attorneys in two counties investigating both GLC andGESD and will they find grounds to pursue criminal charges?

This is part of the October 12, 2007 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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