Sacramento school board members got full pay, even when they missed meetings

The Sacramento City Unified School District has doled out thousands of dollars to board members for meetings they did not attend for at least the last 16 months, in apparent violation of board policy and state law, a Bee review shows.

Under the law, when a member is absent, the district must reduce the current monthly $787.50 stipend based on the share of board meetings missed.

But a review of meeting minutes, video archives and payment records shows that for the last 16 months, no absent member has lost any portion of monthly compensation. Interviews with board members show that the disconnect between attendance and pay likely has existed for years.

“If we are in violation of state law, we need to remedy it as quickly as possible,” said board President Jeff Cuneo, who has served on the panel for the last three years.

After learning of The Bee’s inquiry, Cuneo said he talked to district general counsel Jerry Behrens. “We said, ‘Uh-oh,’” Cuneo recalled. “We got together and said, ‘Let’s run an audit and see if those checks were actually cashed.’”

Cuneo said the district superintendent has been asked to look back “at least a couple of years.”

Minutes for the meetings were spotty, did not always reflect a roll call at the start of the public meetings and did not record late arrival times for those initially marked absent – making any audit more difficult.

Board members can be paid if they miss meetings. But the state Education Code and district policy require the board, by resolution, to find that absentee members were performing services for the district or that they were absent because of “illness, jury duty or a hardship deemed acceptable by the board.”

Minutes and video archives from July 2012 through last month show that board member Gustavo Arroyo missed eight meetings, more than any of his colleagues. He arrived late for 17 other meetings closed to the public.

The closed sessions typically precede the public portion of the meetings and include discussions and votes on some of the district’s most sensitive issues, such as hiring, firing, legal settlements and the progress of ongoing lawsuits.

Arroyo said he takes his position on the board “extremely seriously.”

“I think the community knows I have been a strong voice for them,” he said.

But Arroyo said that in the past year and a half, “my hours went crazy” at work.

“It’s possible there were seven to eight meetings when I was not there,” he said. “But it didn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention to my constituents. It didn’t mean my representation of the community or the impacts were any less. I worked really hard to make sure those things were not suffering.”

Arroyo, who serves as chief of staff to state Sen. Norma J. Torres, D-Pomona, said historically he has had good attendance at board meetings. He was first elected to the board in 2008 and re-elected last year.

He said he has not cashed at least 10 stipend checks over the last 18 months. “There are other expenditures that I have not claimed (such as) mileage.” When he does cash a stipend check, he said, he uses it to support the costs he incurs carrying out his duties as a trustee.

Arroyo said he proposed a reduction in stipend pay temporarily to $590.63, which trustees approved in February 2012 when the district imposed layoffs and other cuts.

As of February of this year, maximum compensation per board member returned to $787.50 a month.

District officials said they could not explain how the district’s practice of paying full stipends despite absences was allowed to develop and persist.

“I don’t think we know the answer to that until we have an opportunity to really dig in with the audit that the board is spearheading,” said district spokesman Gabe Ross. “Clearly there are some questions we need to ask to figure out how long this has been an issue and what steps we need to take to address it.”

In all, nine members have served on the seven-member board over the last 16 months, with compensation reaching $11,222 per seat during that time.

Most board members had few or no absences. During the 16-month period, the district held 34 board meetings. The Bee looked at 27 of the meetings for which minutes and video archives were readily available.

Former board member Donald Terry, who left the panel last year to wage his successful campaign for Rancho Cordova City Council, had no absences.

Board member Christina Pritchett, elected to Terry’s seat, had none, as did member Diana Rodriguez.

Cuneo and board members Darrel Woo, Patrick Kennedy and Jay Hansen each had one absence, according to the minutes. Board member Ellyne Bell, who resigned from the board a year ago to take a job in San Francisco, was absent twice in the last half of 2012 – including once while she was away at training for the district.