Computer porn, ammo found on San Rafael school property

Walt Kosta, a private investigator, walks through the San Rafael City Schools maintenance yard. Kosta, a former San Rafael police captain, was hired by the school system to help check out irregularities at the yard. Among the findings: 460 rounds of assault rifle ammunition were being stored in a locker in the work area of the maintenance yard.
Photo: Marian Little Utley

By Maia Werner

An investigation of the San Rafael City School's maintenance department has resulted in claims of misconduct and mismanagement going back at least two years.

Barbara Smith, superintendent of the San Rafael Elementary and High School Districts, would not provide a copy of the report from the investigation, but did outline its findings.

They included:

* That district time and equipment was used to download and store large amounts of pornographic material, and that that material was placed on the computers of other employees against their wishes;

* That a district computer was used as a central location for a violent computer game where off-site individuals would dial up and use the district equipment to play the game;

* That 460 rounds of assault rifle ammunition were being stored in a locker in the work area of the maintenance yard;

* That an empty box for a semi-automatic pistol was found at the maintenance yard;

* That records had been falsified to earn overtime and that employees were being paid overtime to do work on another employee's personal property;

* That employees were purchasing equipment and billing their time for work done, but actually contracting the work out to a private vendor, meaning the district was being billed twice; and

* That records had been falsified to conceal employees absence from the workplace.

The district is now trying to restructure the department in the wake of the investigation, which was conducted last August.

A top union representative who is also a maintenance worker says many of the charges are exaggerated or unproved and that the department is being used as a scapegoat for district financial problems.

These allegations have come to light at a time when many parents have criticized the district for the poor maintenance and conditions at its schools, including a recent chlorine leak at Terra Linda High School.

The Investigation

The investigation was conducted Paul Barron, a Burbank-based private investigator recommended by state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) - a state agency formed to assist school districts in assessing irregularities - and Walt Kosta, a retired police captain from the San Rafael Police Department. Barron and Kosta confirmed the findings reported by Smith.

Smith said she was made aware by parents, Board of Education members and employees when she arrived at the district three years ago of potential problems with overtime pay in the maintenance department.

An incident in the spring of 1998, when a maintenance mechanic was allegedly seen filling his personal vehicle with district gasoline, led to Smith determining that maintenance employees were earning between $5,700 and $25,000 annually in overtime just for responding to burglar alarms at district properties.

But she said the need to address other issues, as well as turnover in the business office, prevented a full-scale investigation from being conducted right away.

In the spring of 1999, Liz McManus, the assistant superintendent of administration, arrived at the district. McManus said she became aware that the elementary school district was spending about $800,000 more than it was taking in and began to look at all the departments. She said she noticed several irregularities in the maintenance department.

Then, during the summer, Smith said two maintenance employees reported the allegations about the department.

Smith said she moved quickly when the allegations surfaced and asked officials to recommend a private investigator. She also called the San Rafael Police Department and the Marin County District Attorney to apprise them of the investigation.

One of the findings - that employees had sold $1,582.87 worth of recyclable scrap metal and kept the money rather than turning it over to the district -resulted in the district attorney's office filing misdemeanor embezzlement charges against Craig Hardisty in October 1999. Hardisty was the director of maintenance, operations and environmental services at the time of the investigation.

Hardisty entered the county's diversion program on March 9 and if he completes the program, the charges against him will be dropped in one year. To complete the diversion program, Hardisty must lead a law-abiding life, complete 30 hours of community service, pay $200 in fees and restitution, and complete a theft-awareness program.

Three other employees also are mentioned as taking money in court papers filed by the district attorney, but were not charged.

Hardisty could not be reached at his home this week for comment. However, his attorney, Leonard Bjorklund, said he had intended to use the money for a department picnic.

"He had no intention to steal anything," Bjorklund said, adding that Hardisty had paid the district back by the time the charges were brought by the district attorney.

Two employees -including the one alleged to be filling his car with district gasoline - resigned prior to the investigation. As a result of the investigation, another two employees, including Hardisty, were placed on administrative leave and resigned. Another three were given 30-day suspensions and Smith said there are still some pending personnel issues.

Assistant District Attorney Ed Berberian said the DA's office was also given information about the alleged ammunition, but did not file charges because the ammunition was not located on school grounds.

Barron said a statute of limitations prevented him from looking into allegations that this misconduct had been going on for more than two years, but he and district officials said the problems probably went much further back.

"We had a pattern of poor workmanship, dishonesty, abuse and lack of accountability that was very deep," Smith said, but she added that students were never at the maintenance yard, which is located near San Rafael High School, and were never at risk.

McManus said she suspects the problems were not discovered earlier because the maintenance yard is at a different site than the district office, and had responsibility for generating their own purchase orders. As a result, this department did not have as complete a system of accountability as other departments. She said the business department has since been reorganized and policies and procedures have been set in place to ensure this doesn't happen again.

The district has recently come under criticism from parents for not communicating well with parents, but district officials said they had good reason to keep the findings of the investigation quiet.

Smith said some personnel issues are still pending, and added that she wished to keep the issues quiet for the sake of the employees and their families. However, in a letter to parents sent out earlier this week, Smith said she was revealing the results of the investigation because maintenance department employees had notified the media.

Criticisms

San Rafael Board of Education President Gary Anspach said the board was kept informed throughout the investigation and made decisions as a governing team. He also said he was confident the investigation was conducted appropriately.

"I think that the administration took strong and appropriate action in addressing this litany of abuses in the department," he said.

However, some maintenance department employees have raised concerns about the process by which the investigation - which McManus estimated cost the district about $20,000 - was conducted, as well as its findings.

Joanne Castaldo, a secretary with the maintenance department who is now on medical leave, filed claims with the school district and the state Fair Employment and Housing Department, saying she was sexually harassed by Barron during the investigation in early August.

Her San Francisco-based attorney, Janet Brayer, said she was "interrogated in an abusive and sexually harassing manner and denied due process rights."

Castaldo, who declined to comment, also filed a second claim with the school district, saying the district failed to obey the Fair Credit and Reporting Act because Castaldo was never asked to provide written authorization for the investigation and was never provided with copies of reports relating to her.

Brayer said the complaint with the state is still being investigated, while the district has rejected the claims against it.

Barron said he was repeating back quotes from other employees to Castaldo. Smith also defended Barron, saying the investigator asked probing, tough questions, but "did nothing wrong."

Lee Port, the attorney for the school district, said the Fair Credit and Reporting Act was not applicable to this situation because it deals with doing credit checks on prospective tenants and employees, not the investigation of misconduct. She also said Castaldo would be provided with a copy of the report if charges were brought against her. Other employees have also criticized the investigation. Jon Anger, a maintenance mechanic and president of the San Rafael chapter of the California School Employees Association, said he believes the investigation was an attempt to use the maintenance department as a scapegoat for fiscal problems such as the deficit spending in the elementary school district.

He said some of the charges are true, but others were exaggerated or unproved. For example, he said the computer game was not overly violent, it was never proven that the ammunition was brought on the grounds by an employee, and the district was punishing people for isolated incidents and not taking into account their longtime dedication to the district.

He also said he believed the investigation was targeted at certain individuals, while others were not investigated.

Both Barron and Kosta said they investigated all department employees.

"There wasn't anybody that was singled out; there wasn't anybody that was left out," Kosta said.

"I got this job because of my reputation. I don't play favorites," added Barron.

Anger also said that he believes that some employees - one of whom is related to a FCMAT employee and another who did some part-time work for FCMAT - might have gotten advance notice about the investigation.

Tom Henry, FCMAT's chief executive officer, said that simply wasn't the case. Anger also said that thousands of dollars worth of equipment, including an engine, auto tools, and parts that are no longer manufactured, were thrown away during the investigation, a misuse of public funds.

Smith acknowledges that a small amount of valuable equipment may have been discarded in a widespread cleaning of the maintenance yard. But she says the majority of items thrown away were useless and needed to be discarded and recycled.

According to Smith, the discarded or recycled items included 12 trucks and vans that were no longer usable, an engine which had been sitting outside for 12 years, five pieces of heavy equipment beyond repair, two tons of scrap metal, 50 wooden pallets, and 1000 gallons of unusable paint, among other debris and hazardous waste.

Smith said both the San Rafael Fire Department and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the site and made reports detailing safety improvements needed.

Anger said he has been trying to address members of the San Rafael Board of Education regarding his concerns about the investigation, but they have refused to hear him.

At a March board meeting, Anger tried to address the board during a discussion of Terra Linda High School issues, but was denied the opportunity to speak by board members who said his comments were not specific to the agenda item.

Smith said that Anger has not yet been given the opportunity to address the board because it was unclear if he needed to address the board in open session or closed session. She said he still has the opportunity to address the board in open session at any meeting or in closed session, if he files a specific complaint against an individual.

'Clean house'

Smith said the goal of the investigation was to "clean house, make sure everything was safe, protect the district's resources and rebuild that part of operations to ensure it doesn't happen again."

Following the investigation, Smith asked the state FCMAT to do a management review. The FCMAT report has several recommendations for restructuring the department.

The recommendations include:

* Adding staff and hiring skilled journeymen with specific skills - electrician, plumber, carpenter, painter, glazier/locksmith and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician;

* Developing a new alarm system program; and

* Implementing a computer work order system.

While McManus said funding constraints will prevent the district from adding staff, other changes have already been made, including implementing a computer work order system and changing who responds to alarms.

Others changes are in process, including attempting to hire skilled technicians for four open positions.

However, the administration must first negotiate the new job descriptions with the union representing classified workers. Since that process is not complete, the district last week declared an emergency which will allow them to hire contractors without using the normal bid process to do needed maintenance work.

McManus also said that she hopes that the implementation of two bond measures totaling $39 million which were passed by voters in December will improve the schools to a point where such a high level of maintenance is not needed.

In the meantime, parents say that maintenance at the schools is a big problem.

At a recent Board of Education meeting, Terra Linda High School parents expressed a wide variety of concerns about the maintenance - from a lack of a working telephone system in the classrooms to lack of upkeep of fields.

Anger also says maintenance remains a big problem. He said that he and other maintenance mechanics have raised concerns with their supervisor and the district administration, but the appropriate actions to fix the problem aren't taken. And because the district is cutting back on overtime, he said it is difficult to finish work in a timely manner. He also said that employees are being asked to do work that they are not trained for - for example, someone whose job it is to deliver mail has been changing fluorescent light fixtures.

"They don't care about the safety," Anger said. "What are they going to do, wait until somebody dies?"

Matthew Laws, the acting director of maintenance, operations and environmental services, said efforts are being made to ensure safety, adding he is looking into issues as they are raised. Laws, who was the assistant director of maintenance overseeing custodial workers when the investigation was conducted, also said the mail delivery person had been trained and approved by the person who normally changes the lights.

Smith said the majority of maintenance issues in the schools do not reflect problems within the department, but rather, are the result of "aging, broken equipment and buildings that are in dire need of renovation."

Smith said she believes that with the ability to hire contractors, the district's maintenance needs will be covered.

Board President Anspach agreed.

"I think that between our ability to contract out the work because of the emergency resolution we passed, to get job descriptions passed and the renovations with the bond money, we are going to see major improvements to all our sites."

He added that there are several steps in place to ensure that the bond money is spent properly, including hiring a project manager and three architectural firms, and forming a bond oversight committee.

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Contact Maia Werner via e-mail at


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School scandal stuns San Rafael

By Maia Werner, Marin Independent Journal 4/20/00

San Rafael parents reacted with a mixture of shock, frustration and relief yesterday to revelations that the school district's maintenance department has been the focus of an investigation into years of widespread mismanagement and misconduct.

"I think that the people who are responsible for supervising this have been grossly negligent, and are not doing their job," said Peggy Parks, a mother of two students at Coleman School.

A private investigation San Rafael City Schools officials initiated last August revealed that maintenance employees were using district computers to download pornography, storing rifle ammunition at the maintenance yard, falsifying records to conceal overtime and billing the district for work they were not completing, among other findings.

School officials acknowledged the investigation this week only after employees in the maintenance department went public with the information. John Anger, a maintenance mechanic and president of the union representing classified workers, conceded that many of the findings are accurate, but said the district was using the investigation to make the maintenance department a scapegoat for broader fiscal problems.

Regardless of any motive for the investigation, Coleman School parent Jeff Turnquist said district officials should have come forward long before now to notify parents about a situation that could have put children's safety at risk.

"I'd like to find out more about what's going on, and feel satisfied that the problem is not entangled in the schools themselves," Turnquist said. "If there was any risk to the school children, parents should have been notified."

School officials have acknowledged being aware that at least some of the problems existed in early-to-mid 1998, but that they didn't begin looking into the problems formally until more than a year later.

Superintendent Barbara Smith said students were never in danger.

Parks said parents should have been given a chance to decide that for themselves.

"I think that the parents have a right to know when something like this happens," Parks said. "It concerns all of us. It is not only our children who are vulnerable, but our tax dollars that are being spent and our tax dollars that are being wasted."

Turnquist said the revelations have shaken his confidence in the district administration and leadership that they have a firm grasp of the operation of the district. He said he's also troubled by the idea that school officials knew about the problems with the maintenance department last year at the same time they were asking parents and voters in the district to support a $39 million bond measure.

The measure approved by voters in December in a special election was billed as necessary to renovate and expand cramped schools that district officials said suffer from years of neglect.

Smith said the district's maintenance problems have less to do with the problems in the department than the age of the buildings. She said proceeds from the bond measure will allow the district to address those problems.

Other parents said they were happy that the district discovered the problems.

"I think that Ms. Smith and other administrators have done a really good job of identifying the problem and dealing with it," said Steve Levin, a parent with children at Coleman and Davidson Middle School. Levin is active on the parent's council, which advises the district administration.

"Once you admit you've got problems, you can kind of solve them," said Skip Corsini, a father of students at Davidson and Sun Valley School. "It's not a good picture, but it's something you can work with. ... My hope is this will cause an outpouring of action of some kind."

Other parents said the district couldn't be expected to know everything that was happening in the maintenance department.

"If someone wants to do something like this, they can find a way," said Norman Hering, who has a child at Laurel Dell Elementary. "You can manage as much as you want, but at some point you expect adults to act like adults."

Liz McManus, assistant superintendent for administration, who has been with the district since last spring, said the maintenance yard's location away from the district office and its operating with a lot of independence could have led to a lack of accountability.

She said the district business office has since been reorganized, and policies and procedures have been put in place to ensure the problems don't recur. The district is also in the process of restructuring its maintenance department.

Still, some parents say the problems and the time, energy and money the district has invested uncovering them has distracted from the proper maintenance of the schools.

Parents at Terra Linda High School have been vocal at recent school board meetings about their concerns - which range from unkempt restrooms to a recent chlorine leak at the pool.

The scandal has put a strain on the operations of the maintenance department. As a result of the investigation, which was estimated to cost $20,000, two employees were placed on administrative leave and resigned, including former maintenance director Craig Hardisty, and three others were given 30-day suspensions. Two employees resigned before the investigation.

"I'm very, very concerned about the safety of the kids," said Jeanne Tumpane, a parent of a Terra Linda High School student. "By focusing on the investigation of the maintenance department, (Smith) has allowed the schools to fall into such a state of unhealth and unsafety. They don't have the protocol in place to handle an emergency and they don't trust their staff."

Smith said in a letter to parents this week that the district was hoping to resolve the problems quietly. But she said in an interview with the IJ yesterday that the problems had been "concealed by a conspiracy of silence in the department," and that she moved quickly when serious allegations surfaced. Smith said that since the school board recently declared an emergency allowing them to hire contractors without going through the normal bidding process, she believes the district will be covered in terms of maintenance needs until the department can be restructured.

Both Parks and Turnquist agreed that lack of accountability and checks and balances in the operation of the maintenance department are at the root of the problem.

"It is unbelievable that something like this would happen in the San Rafael School District," said Billie Goodman, a junior at Terra Linda High School. "It is a serious irresponsibility of anyone who knew anything about it."

Although news of the problems surfaced during a week in which the district is on spring break and many parents are out of town, Turnquist said district officials can expect plenty of questions when classes resume.

"Next week, it's going to be interesting," he said.

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Contact Maia Warner via e-mail at