By JW August, journalist and Past President of Californians Aware

It’s not always easy to stand up for what you believe.  Cases in point: two school board members from two very different communities—Laguna Beach and El Cajon—who found that out the hard way.

Dee Perry is a board member of the Laguna Beach Unified School District. Jill Barto is a board member of the Cajon Valley School District. Both got blackballed from their boards’ closed-door meetings about district  business.

Media coverage shows that both women engage staff and fellow board members on issues by asking tough questions. Both also have demonstrated a willingness to discuss the public’s business in public.  While that’s a refreshing approach for transparency advocates, it’s not something some members of their respective board—or the staff—seem comfortable with.

Each board has a contract attorney to make sure everything that is done meets the letter of the law  or the board bylaws. But what’s “legal” is a squishy thing when it comes to some of the issues boards face.  In the cases of Perry and Barto, the lawyers for each district appear to support the board’s hierarchy and line up in opposition to these two women, who I’m told ask too many questions and raise too many issues.

Take the attorney for the Laguna Beach district, who sent a letter to Perry telling her while his letter was not a threat, she could get sued for telling a reporter that some parents told her they were reluctant to complain to the superintendent and other staff members, fearing retaliation.  The attorney said she needed to stop “making public derogatory comments about district employees.”

Instead of shutting down, Perry spoke up, telling  the public and the media about the lawyer’s letter. The board subsequently punished her, not allowing her to attend closed sessions where personnel and litigation issues for the district are discussed.  Parents in the district have taken note of her treatment. Reporting for the Laguna Beach Independent, Daniel Langhorne related how a number of parents have protested the “Board of Education’s creation of a confidential affairs subcommittee that excludes board member Dee Perry.”

Californians Aware general counsel Terry Francke says this sort of behavior is highly irregular and might be exposing the board to potential legal action.

Similar circumstances befell Jill Barto in Cajon Valley. She too has been shut out of some of the board’s closed sessions.

The reporters tracking Barto’s battles are East County Magazine’s editor, Miriam Raftery, and reporter Paul Kruze, who has been threatened with arrest by the board.

Raftery  told me Barto is “asking hard questions about the superintendent.”  She is wondering how the district is able to come up with “money for trips for the superintendent and board members   to go around the world” but has no money to address security concerns recommended by the district’s own consultants as well as the San Diego County Grand Jury.

The staff at Cajon Valley ignores Barto’s records requests.  A new rule was created saying she can’t get all the documents concerning an agenda item unless a second board member says yes, which they usually won’t do. And as any educator will tell you, knowledge is power.

In Dee Perry’s case, she also had problems trying to get an item on the board’s agenda.  Since she was the outgoing  board secretary last year, the assumption was that she would become the new president and have a bigger voice on deciding what the board’s agenda looks at. But it didn’t happen. Her fellow board members changed the long-running board policy under which the board secretary succeeds to the president’s position, and simply reinstated the sitting president.

CalAware’s Terry Francke says local bodies’ punishment of dissenting or over-inquisitive members may be more widespread than suspected because the conflicts are discussed and decided in closed session as “personnel” issues”—a secret process prohibited by the Brown Act.

“If that’s what’s happening, we’d like to know about it,” he says.