Grand jury probes deal over school segregation
Just as the dust was starting to settle in the Sausalito Marin City School District, another investigation is kicking up more.
The Marin County Civil Grand Jury has launched its own probe into the district’s historic desegregation settlement with the California Attorney General’s Office.
Normally, the grand jury’s work is concealed until it issues a report. But in this case, the attorney general’s office opened the curtains.
It did so by filing a motion to quash the grand jury’s subpoenas against several figures involved in the settlement talks. The state says its settlement discussions are “confidential and privileged” and the grand jury is exceeding its authority.
But the grand jury says it is exercising its oversight role on public expenditures and potential government misconduct.
“The documents should shed light on the acts of public officers and board members who were involved in intentionally segregating the district,” jury foreperson Lucy Dilworth wrote in a subpoena attachment, “and will also illuminate other facts that may have influenced the district to sign on to such an expensive, incriminating, and public settlement.”
The K-8 school district consists of Willow Creek Academy, a charter school in Sausalito, and Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Marin City. The state accused the district of years of systematic racial discrimination and segregation by diverting more resources to Willow Creek.
On Aug. 9, state Attorney General Xavier Beccera came to Marin to announce a settlement
with the district. The settlement requires the district to complete a five-year desegregation plan, establish a scholarship program and create a counseling program, among other mandates.
“Depriving a child of a fair chance to learn is wicked, it’s warped, it’s morally bankrupt and it’s corrupt,” Becerra said. “Your skin color or zip code should not determine winners and losers.”
The state took no punitive action against individual board members.
The civil grand jury, an investigative arm empowered by the local judiciary, issued its subpoenas on Sept. 30. The recipients included Joshua Barrow, a board member in the school district; the district’s unidentified custodian of records; and Terena Mares, a county education official who acted as interim superintendent for part of this year and last.
The subpoenas cast a large net for information, including copies of “all written communications” between the attorney general’s office and district staffers or trustees between Dec. 21 and Aug. 8. The jury also wants written notes and copies of draft agreements.
“The settlement of the complaint requires the district to pay hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars,” wrote Dilworth, the grand jury foreperson. “During the press conference in which Attorney General Becerra announced the settlement, he stated that the district’s board had acted intentionally, and that its actions were ‘ wicked,’ ‘ warped,’ ‘morally bankrupt,’ and ‘corrupt.’ Three out of five of the same board members still sit on the board today.
“The Marin County Civil Grand Jury’s role is to act as a government watchdog. It is empaneled to inquire into the willful or corrupt misconduct of public officers, and into the expenditure of public money. We believe it is our duty, and incumbent upon us, to investigate this settlement.”
In the motion to quash the subpoenas, the attorney general’s office said the grand jury was violating the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. It also said settlement talks are necessarily confidential because otherwise parties would be reluctant to cooperate.
“Nothing precludes the grand jury from soliciting and obtaining facts from the district relating to matters that may be under the grand jury’s jurisdiction and not subject to this strict confidentiality,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Garrett Lindsey.
The dispute has been assigned to Judge Stephen Freccero in Marin County Superior Court. A hearing date is pending.
Assistant County Counsel Jack Govi, who represents the civil grand jury, declined to comment on the motions to quash the subpoenas.
“Grand jury matters are conducted confidentially and any motions concerning the grand jury should be filed under seal with the courts,” he said.
Barrow, the subpoenaed trustee, said: “For legal matters, I defer to district counsel. I will say that I am always glad to speak to the grand jury on public matters while obeying the Brown Act on matters of closed session or otherwise
The district administration did not respond to a request for comment.
Mares, the former interim superintendent, said: “The Marin County Office of Education has always maintained a positive relationship with Marin County grand juries and are committed to do so in the future. However, given the California attorney general two-year investigation into the Sausalito Marin City School District and negotiated settlement I am at a loss as to why the Marin County grand jury is pursuing this issue.”
Mares has returned to her regular job at the county office. In June, the district hired a new superintendent, Itoco Garcia.
The district is working on a plan to merge its two schools. Meanwhile, Willow Creek Academy has reported financial duress from declining enrollment.
David Levine, a University of California law professor familiar with civil grand jury operations, said the subpoena conflict is unusual because civil jurors generally research narrow local matters. He said a judge might allow the grand jury some access to the information, while maintaining limits.
“I suspect you would get a court order saying you can ask officials stuff but not get into confidential communications,” said Levine, who teaches at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “A court would be pretty leery to give the civil grand jury an open door to this material.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announces a desegregation settlement with the Sausalito Marin City School District on Aug. 9 at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy.