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San Jose Unified School District’s leadership is “adrift,” says Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury

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San Jose Unified School District’s leadership is “adrift” and failing to address a host of concerns from high staff turnover to a lack of student mental health services and inconsistent campus lockdown and safety protocols, according to a scathing report from a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury.

The 42-page report was based on more than 80 interviews of community members and current and former board trustees and employees. The Civil Grand Jury, empaneled as a local government watchdog, also reviewed nearly 500 emails and district documents, and compared San Jose Unified with nine other school districts in the county.

“The system of checks and balances between the trustees and district leaders of the San Jose Unified School District is broken and negatively impacting SJUSD’s ability to fulfill its
responsibilities to serve students, teachers, administrators, and the community,” the report published Monday said.

The report cited six areas of concern:

  • High turnover among principals and assistant principals at schools and management-level employees at the district office driven by leadership culture issues such as lack of support and respect.
  • A lack of accessible student mental health services.
  • Gaps in school site safety planning for emergencies, causing unnecessary risks to student safety.
  • An “inability or unwillingness” to conduct thorough and prompt employee investigations of allegations, including inappropriate behavior by a coach and theft money from a school club.
  • “Problematic” management hiring practices.
  • Board meetings that are “among the least accessible of any large district” in the area.

The district’s elected board  — President Wendi Mahaney-Gurahoo, Vice President Teresa Castellanos, Jose Magaña, Carla Collins and Brian Wheatley — did not respond to the Bay Area News Groups’ request for comment.

San Jose Unified has 90 days to file a formal response with to the Civil Grand Jury’s report.

Superintendent Nancy Albarrán said the district welcomes “fact-based” and “constructive” feedback, but described the report as a failed opportunity to provide such feedback.

Instead, the grand jury “produced unrepresentative, misleading, and inaccurate information about SJUSD operations and practices,” Albarrán said in a statement. “SJUSD will use our required response as an opportunity to reflect on areas of potential growth. We remain deeply committed to preparing today’s students to be the thinkers, leaders, and creators of tomorrow and supporting our innovative workforce.”

The investigation over the past year found an “unusually high” rate of leadership turnover within the district and said data showed more than 40% of all district leaders positions left their jobs between June 2021 and December 2023.

Though trustees and district administrators attributed the turnover to “higher pay in nearby districts” and “COVID-19 pandemic-related job burnout,” the report said the majority were voluntary resignations of long-serving, mid-career employees.

The Civil Grand Jury cited other reasons for those departures, including fear of retaliation and speaking up to senior leaders, a tolerance for “verbally abusive behaviors” at the district’s office and a lack of support and respect.

The investigation cited a lack of consistency when it comes to lockdown and emergency drills as well as inconsistent responses when it came time to lock down a school during an actual emergency event.

“Some students were told to continue taking a standardized test while others were told to continue to run laps during PE class while the school was under lockdown,” the report said. “Some students were told to barricade doors and others were told not to. Some students had a substitute teacher who had no training in emergency events and did not know what to do.”

The investigation also found that the district does not have a single person responsible for emergency planning and response, and when district leaders were asked to name who was responsible, the responses varied and included several different people.

The report also said the district does not stock Narcan at schools, naming San Jose Unified as a “distinct outlier” compared to nearly all other major Bay Area school districts.

And when it came to investigating employee misconduct, the report found improper reviews and unaddressed allegations, raising questions about the safety and integrity of the district’s schools.

One example included a case of missing funds adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars from a parent-led organization associated with one school, which the report said the district refused to independently investigate and instead encouraged the organization to file a police report.

Another case involved a high school head football coach, who was video recorded in 2023 appearing to shove a sideline official who was also a parent from the opposing school, who later was suspended for the rest of the season. A parent group later complained there wasn’t a proper investigation and evidence supporting the coach was ignored.

The grand jury said it had “no opinion regarding the culpability of the coach/teacher but, rather,
takes issue with SJUSD’s investigatory approach,” which it said “failed both the coach/employee and the community.”

The report also called out the district’s board of education for its failed leadership and lack of transparency when it comes to public viewing and participation of its board meetings, noting other large districts livestream and video-record meetings and allow remote public participation.

“The Trustees were unaware that SJUSD Board meetings were outliers in terms of technology or access,” the Civil Grand Jury reported, “nor did any Trustee express concern over this situation.”

 



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