The Sacramento City Unified School District issued $12,000 in checks to eight trustees for board meetings they did not attend dating back to 2011, a new district audit shows.
The district will seek to recoup the amount in checks that trustees cashed, plus state-mandated annual interest of 10 percent. The audit comes after a Bee report in November revealing that the district had paid thousands of dollars to trustees for missed meetings in violation of board policy and state law.
After the story appeared, trustees agreed to sign in at the start of meetings. For the first time in recent years, the district also began docking trustee stipends to reflect unexcused absences.
A Sacramento City Unified board member who attends all meetings is entitled to a monthly stipend of $787.50, equal to $9,450 a year. The 47,600-student district apparently paid trustees their full stipends no matter how many meetings they missed and regardless of the reason for the absences. Spotty meeting minutes hampered district efforts to verify when a trustee was absent or merely late, the latter of which still entitles a trustee to a stipend.
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Though the district issued $12,000 in missed-meeting checks, it is attempting to recoup just under $7,000, including interest. Trustee Gustavo Arroyo left so many checks uncashed, including those for meetings he attended, that he owes no money despite having the most absences.
Board President Patrick Kennedy had two unexcused absences since January 2011 and last week won board approval to be paid for three other meetings he missed because of illnesses. Meeting attendance, he said, “is extremely important. It’s the responsibility of all board members. That’s pretty basic.”
“The thing is, that’s not all a board member does,” he said. “There is a lot of time spent outside the formal board meetings. That is not an excuse for not attending a board meeting. But it is a fact.”
The board, by a vote, can authorize payment for acceptable absences such as a work hardship or illness. But that process, common at other school districts, had apparently not occurred at Sacramento City Unified in recent years.
Board members are eligible for payment if they attend any part of a board meeting – either open session or behind closed doors where legal, personnel and labor decisions typically occur. The district’s audit from January 2011 through October 2013 showed that some trustees routinely missed closed sessions, which start at 4:30 p.m.
Arroyo was absent from 17 open meetings and 66 closed-door meetings during the 34 months examined, the audit showed.
The district issued $5,435.46 in checks to Arroyo for meetings that he missed. But because he failed to cash $9,156.61 in checks, he owes no money.
At a board meeting Thursday night, Arroyo emphasized the district’s lack of verification for his reported absences. He subsequently did not respond to multiple requests for interview after the meeting. In November, he said that his hours at work as a legislative aide “went crazy” during the previous year and a half.
Trustee Diana Rodriguez missed 40 closed-door meetings during the audit period but attended all accompanying open sessions, the audit said. The audit docked her for one missed closed-door meeting, for a repayment of $227.54, including interest.
Rodriguez said many of the closed sessions in which she was marked absent were actually late arrivals. She said she couldn’t always break away from her former job as a manager at a state agency.
“The likelihood of me arriving late was very, very good,” Rodriguez said. “When you work for your job and that pays your mortgage, you have to make them a priority.”
Former board member Donald Terry, elected in 2012 to the Rancho Cordova City Council, missed two meetings in 2011 and faces a $934.94 bill. Terry said he missed those sessions because he had the flu and traveled on business.
Terry added that he saw some trustees miss numerous closed sessions and believes the district’s audit is not far off the mark.
“To have a handful of board members who weren’t engaged in what is the most important part of the meeting is really unfortunate,” Terry said. “I took my time on the board seriously. This is not a highly paid position. People signed up to do a job and need to be held accountable.”
District officials calculated that former trustee Ellyn Bell received $2,335.45 in missed-meeting checks, the second highest amount after Arroyo.
Bell said she had a stellar attendance record her first five years on the board. Then she took a San Francisco job in March 2012 and struggled to attend subsequent meetings. She resigned mid-term, in December 2012.
“I owe money? For what?” Bell asked The Bee when contacted last week. “This is the first time I’ve heard it.”
The district later emailed Bell, she said, and asked her to verify attendance records they gleaned through reading minutes and watching meeting videos. Bell responded with a list of explanations.
There were at least four occasions where the demands of her new job as head of a nonprofit group prevented her attendance, she wrote. She was sick on four other occasions, she said, adding that legal staff told her to stay away from meetings in which the board considered her replacement.
The board appointed Jay Hansen, chief strategy officer for the California Medical Association and a co-founder of the Sacramento Stonewall Club, to replace Bell. The audit shows he was paid $932.45 for sessions missed in 2013.
Unless Bell appeals to the board, she owes about $2,000, including interest. That total is less than the amount of checks issued because she left one uncashed.
Besides Kennedy, board members Rodriguez and Christina Pritchett won a board resolution last week enabling them to keep pay for seven excused absences.
Pritchett, who otherwise had perfect attendance in the audit period, won approval for pay on Nov. 7, 2013, “due to an unavoidable employment obligation.”
Rodriguez won approval to keep pay for six meetings missed in 2011. Three were due to hardships related to her job. Another was for bereavement of a family member. And two others were because she was performing work on behalf of the district.