Sunday, June 7, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 14
Signup

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on May 20th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 12 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 12

After learning of a 2020 settlement involving Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District Superintendent Scott Cory, a concerned parent started digging for answers

By MALEA MARTIN

As both a parent and guardian of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School (SYVUHS) graduates, Los Olivos resident Michelle de Werd always took a keen interest in the behind-the-scenes of the high school her daughter and niece attended. 

“I was always really active at the school, and I started attending school board meetings,” de Werd told the Sun

Even after her daughter graduated from the high school in 2012, de Werd said, “The more I learned about school boards and how they operated with their budgets, I just kept going.” 

She also serves as chair for the Measure K Citizens’ Oversight Committee, so she’s a familiar face among Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District leaders and employees. That’s why, de Werd said, Laura Cypert reached out to her last year.

De Werd said she received a call in late July 2019, the day Cypert turned her resignation letter in to the district after working as the assistant to the district superintendent since 2009. Cypert, according to de Werd, had wanted to reach out to her for a while but was afraid she would lose her job as a result.


UNCOVERING THE PAST
Santa Ynez Valley School District Superintendent Scott Cory (left) answers questions at a public meeting about traffic safety back in 2015. Michelle de Werd, a parent of a former Santa Ynez Valley Union High School student, says the district kept claims made by multiple former employees against Cory, as well as a private investigation, “hidden” from the public eye.
FILE PHOTO BY DAVE MINSKY

According to de Werd, Cypert said that she was resigning because her job was taking a mental and physical toll on her greater than she could endure any longer. In the claim for damage documents that de Werd obtained from the district through a Public Records Act request, Cypert claimed damage “as a result of [district Superintendent] Scott Cory’s ongoing and never ending harassment to me due to my sex and gender,” among other claims. 

The Sun reached out to Cypert for comment, who responded with an emailed statement. 

“My attorney said I should not speak with [a] reporter, because anything I say could be construed as a violation of the non-disparagement clause in the release that I signed,” Cypert stated.

De Werd shared with the Sun some of the documents she received through multiple Public Records Act requests with the district, including Cypert’s claim for damage; similar documents for former district employees Nicole Evenson and Cynthia Luke; and the “release of all claims” contract that Cypert signed with the district. 

All told, de Werd learned that the superintendent was accused of gender discrimination in the workplace, and the district settled three different claims totaling more than $250,000 in the last four years. 

Settled allegations

Cypert received a settlement amounting to $57,500 in March 2020, according to the release she signed with the district. Years earlier, Evenson and Luke received about $91,000 and $105,000, respectively, in settlements reached with the school district in January and March of 2016, according to district documents. Both women settled after also making claims involving Cory.

“I public-record requested those two settlements because I wanted to find out who was on the board at the time, and why that wasn’t in the public domain,” de Werd said. “I got the stiff-arm from the school, and I thought, there’s more to this then. So I kept on pushing the school … . The more digging I did, the more I uncovered.”

Luke’s claim cites a failure by the district to pay overtime, discrimination on the basis of a medical condition, and unlawful retaliation in violation of public policy. Evenson’s claim, which was a combined claim she filed with her husband, cites damages for discrimination on the basis of a medical condition, retaliatory discharge in violation of public policy, abuse of process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“I think part of what started it was that he was not making correct decisions with the district money, and we were trying to tell him that,” Luke, who was an accounting specialist, told the Sun. “At the time, Nicole and I were the financial experts there at the district. He was constantly going to other male figures on campus to find out if there was another way to do it, or if we were correct.”

Some of Cory’s financial decisions included spending “thousands of dollars” on new furnishings for his office, which Luke said was already sufficiently set up when he started the position in 2013.

Luke said Cory also gave money to a student club, even though club funding wasn’t “supposed to come from the district.”

“It’s supposed to be either donations to the clubs or the students doing fundraising,” Luke said. “The auto club wanted to take the kids to the auto show in Vegas. For that, he approved taking $5,000 of district money. I don’t know if there was an agreement that the club would pay it back.”

Luke said that as the accounting specialist, she had to follow certain protocols: She needed documentation like purchase orders and receipts before she could pay a bill. 

“We weren’t getting those from the teachers,” Luke said.

As the person who handled the credit card bills, Luke said she was reprimanded by Cory for not being able to pay the bills on time, even though it was teachers and administrators who weren’t getting the necessary information to Luke on time, or at all. 

It was within this context of financial strife that Luke said Cory began to treat her and Evenson differently.

“I was plain old harassed,” Luke said.

Cory insisted that Evenson write Luke up for the lack of appropriateness of her work attire, according to Luke, who said her attire was a little hippy-ish—she enjoyed Birkenstocks and dresses with faded tie-dye prints—but “fine to wear in a business office.” When Evenson refused to do so, Luke said Cory wrote Evenson up for not following his orders. 

Luke said she often worked more than 12-hour days, without additional overtime compensation. The stressful work environment led to anxiety and depression that she is still dealing with today, years after leaving her position with the district. 

These are among the damages that Luke alleged in her lawsuit, which she settled in 2016.

Private investigation

De Werd believes that the absence of such settlements from board minutes or agendas indicates a lack of transparency from the board of education

Luke said that, to her knowledge, the settlement was worked out between Cory and the litigators before the board approved it. According to Luke, retroactive board approval of expenditures was something she had witnessed before.

In an emailed statement to the Sun, Cory responded to the allegations over the “hidden” nature of past settlements, stating, “while I cannot speak to any of these cases specifically, often settlement negotiations occur in closed session whereby direction is given to legal counsel so they are not recorded in open session minutes.”

De Werd also believes that the district’s hiring of a private investigator to look into Cypert’s claims—as well as the claims made by another district employee who resigned shortly after Cypert—wasn’t as transparent as it should have been under the Brown Act. The Brown Act is a California law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. 

The Sun reached out to all five of the district’s board of education members for comment. Only trustees John Baeke and Jan Clevenger responded before press time. 

Baeke wrote that, months ago, “the board decided by majority vote that media relations would be handled by the superintendent. Thus, I am prevented from speaking with you.”

Clevenger wrote that “any negotiations held in closed session remain confidential and direction is given to legal counsel so they are not recorded in open session minutes.”

While the Brown Act does allow for closed and confidential board sessions, it also requires that the “meeting and items discussed must still be properly agendized,” according to “Navigating the Gray Haze of the Brown Act,” a document created by Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP. “In many circumstances, actions taken in closed session must be ‘reported out’ to the public after the closed session, announcing the vote or abstention of every member present.” 

According to de Werd, “In the board minutes, there’s no record of this investigation: any discussions at the board, at the public meetings.” The Sun looked through board minutes for meetings from July to December of 2019, and didn’t find any references to a private investigation. 

While the district denied de Werd’s request to access the private investigation report, a former district employee shared it with her. De Werd said that the employee requested to remain anonymous. The December 2019 investigation report, which de Werd shared with the Sun, details actions taken by Cory toward employees and girls’ sports teams. 

“There is sufficient evidence to show Superintendent Cory had the SYVUHS girls’ volleyball team posters removed from the school approximately three years ago because he thought players’ shorts were too short,” the report said. “There is sufficient evidence to show Superintendent Cory made comments to district employees ... that he thinks females look more professional in skirts or dresses than pants.” 

Regarding the investigative findings, Cory told the Sun, “Unfortunately, the documentation is incomplete and the context inaccurate.” When the Sun asked for clarification on what was incomplete, Cory said, “It is incomplete in that the investigation found no violation of law or policy.”

Much of the investigative report that de Werd shared with the Sun is redacted, but one finding that isn’t redacted does appear to absolve Cory of discriminatory behavior, to an extent.

“There is sufficient evidence to show employees reasonably perceived that Superintendent Cory spoke differently to female employees than male employees,” it reads. “There is not sufficient evidence to show [the] superintendent engaged in severe, persistent, pervasive, or discriminatory behavior based on a protected class against you or other female employees.” 

De Werd said that she hopes to see new faces on the board in the future who might bring a fresh prospective on the issues within the district.

“I encourage parents of high school students, or prospective high school students, or even recent grads, to run for the board. There are two seats that will be available in a few months, in November 2020,” de Werd said. “I would just encourage someone that is a little more involved with the school, in terms of having children there, to actually see what is happening. That is my goal.” 

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@santamariasun.com.








Weekly Poll
What do you think about Aera Energy canceling its project in Cat Canyon?

It's a victory for the environment!
It's a loss of a lot of potential jobs that are needed in North County.
I'm all for renewable energy, but we still need oil and gas.
The county should never approve another oil and gas project.

| Poll Results






My 805 Tix - Tickets to upcoming events