For an entity that must rely on the good will of the public, parents and students, it seems that the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is always shooting itself in the foot.

The latest flap concerns a leaked, confidential memo to the school board from outgoing superintendent Tim Cuneo about three former members of the district’s Special Education Program Task Force (SEPTF). Cuneo claimed the three were likely to cause trouble when the district negotiates with City Hall on divvying up Measure Y (sales tax increase) funds.

Cuneo named Tricia Crane, Claudia Landis and Lee Jones as disgruntled parents who resigned from the SEPTF because they were unhappy that its draft report on special education didn’t address their specific concerns. They also felt that the report received no real support from Cuneo or district staff.

In a mean-spirited, verging on paranoid, three-page memo which included resignation e-mails from the three women, Cuneo predicted they would be "very vocal in not supporting the report.” He would, based on past experience, “anticipate that at least one of the three may attempt to sabotage the district’s efforts (to secure Y funds) if they do not get their way.”

Cuneo’s memo enumerated complaints about gag orders and unfair treatment Crane and other “special ed” parents took to City Council in May of 2007. City Council froze its annual “shared facilities” funding increase to the district and withheld $530,000 pending the promise of an independent investigation. That investigation, known as the Barber Report, recommended a number of policy changes including the formation of a task force to review and revamp special education policies.

“Parents continue to come to me because they are afraid to speak out on their own,” Crane e-mailed “If they could they would tell the community that there is still no district-wide research-based reading program. There is still no special education math program. And there is still no district-wide program for children on the autistic spectrum. Those are the facts.”

Crane added, “This memo was leaked to me is because someone inside the district feels that this sort of secret character assassination is wrong… It brings isolation and shame…”

Dr. Landis said that she found the content of the memo “chilling” and inappropriate as it referenced her own child’s need of what she felt was a confidential education plan.

“It took me by surprise, I got sick to my stomach,” Landis told the Daily Press. “It was the sharing of privileged information and the connection to my child that I found intimidating.”

Cuneo also referenced Councilmember Bobby Shriver in his memo.

“In the past, Tricia Crane has gone to Bobby Shriver in an attempt to influence the City Council’s relationship with the district.”

Shriver took umbrage to Cuneo’s comments in his letter to the editor ("Heroes, not saboteurs,” March 2, 2011, Page 4.) “He is 100 percent wrong.” Shriver penned. “She (Crane) and other parents described a culture of conflict, intimidation, and expensive legal battles between these families and the district. Convinced the district would not change its practices without outside intervention, these parents appealed to the council for help … It took courage for these parents to speak up against the entrenched education bureaucracy.”

Shriver wrote that Crane and her friends were trying to improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

“Their motive was not, as the memo says, ‘to sabotage the district’s efforts’ to receive city funding. The parents who came forward are not saboteurs. They are heroes.”

In the face of strident criticism, Cuneo apologized for the memo at Thursday’s school board meeting. While Cuneo apologized for offending, he still didn’t apologize for what he did — a subtle but notable distinction. For Cuneo, the memo was a serious error in judgment and proof that a toxic atmosphere of fear and intimidation still infuses the SMMUSD.

Another question being raised is whether Cuneo broke the law with his memo. It speculates on the personal and political motives of members of a public school district committee, therefore does it qualify as a confidential communication which may be withheld from public scrutiny? Inquiring legal minds are looking into it.

There’s more. In defending confidential memos to the board, Ben Allen lamented the leak which he described as “a breach of trust and one of the board’s trust.” I don’t think Allen knows, after three years on the board, who it really serves.

Allen could learn from fellow board member Oscar de la Torre who nailed it when he referred to Cuneo’s memo as a "black list.”

“This behavior and culture of looking at parents as adversaries is endemic, and must change,” he said. Right on, Oscar!

How about the rest of the school board? Or PTA heads? What? You expected leadership?

Who else is on Cuneo’s hit list? Is “Bauer” under the Bs? You betcha.

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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