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Despite outcry from staff, Fairfax School District board fails to censure board member accused of harassing employees, abusing power

A proposal to censure a trustee on the Fairfax School District board failed at Tuesday's night's meeting in a split 2-2 vote. The censure proposal, commissioned by an independent attorney, claimed trustee Palmer Moland abused his power and harassed and bullied staff — from classified workers all the way up to the superintendent — throughout the district.

The censure resolution recommended that Moland resign or hire a leadership development coach. The resolution, if it had passed, would have removed Moland from any committee or leadership position on the board and barred him from representing the district in any official capacity until he completed district-approved training in governance, school laws and regulations.

Classified staff and the president of the union that represents 130 teachers and certificated employees in the Southeast Bakersfield district all spoke or submitted public comment in support of the resolution.

One teacher, Lauren Saavedra, said she found it "disheartening" that she and other employees in the district have been targeted by someone in a position of power. She said Moland targeted her in a social media post and used her name and photo.

“I really, really hope and [plead] from the bottom of my heart that the board thinks about this and passes this censure," she said.

No one except Moland himself spoke against the resolution. During his comment, he did not address any of the claims made in the nine-page proposal. He said he looked forward to working with the classified staff, teachers and the district administration.

“I’ll make sure to make progress and try to take this as constructive criticism,” Moland said. “And if I’ve hurt anyone or said any mean things to anybody, I do apologize. It has not been intentional. It’s just I did not have any training or mentorship from the colleagues prior. I look forward to getting that training and getting that mentorship and us moving forward.”

Moland told the the board he agreed not to make any more social media posts. He vowed to pass on concerns from the community directly to the superintendent. He told The Californian that although he wished to address the claims against him, he was referring questions to Superintendent Michael Coleman, who declined to comment, saying it was a personnel issue and there was potential for litigation.

Aside from Moland himself, the board members did not discuss the resolution. The resolution's failure may not have been much of a surprise for anyone who had tuned in to the meeting just moments before; Moland was elevated to the board's president in a 3-2 vote.

A new voting block favorable to Moland seems to have emerged in the wake of November's election. The previous board, headed by Javier Moreno, is the one that not only commissioned an independent investigation into Moland but also the resolution to censure him.

But Moreno lost his seat — by a slim 30-vote margin — to incoming trustee Jose Luis Tapia, who took his seat Tuesday. He voted with trustee Alma Rios against censuring Moland and also to make Moland board president. Trustee Virginia Lawson held onto her seat this election, and she provided dissenting votes with trustee Victoria Coronel.

Though he is no longer a trustee, Moreno showed up to Tuesday's meeting to speak in favor of the resolution.

“A cheetah never changes its spots, and a liar will always remain a liar,” he said at the meeting. “I ask this board to consider the last two years of Mr. [Moland's] behavior. I believe there was sufficient time and opportunity for him to change his ways, but intentionally he didn’t.”

After two unsuccessful runs, Moland was elected to the school board in 2018. At that time he was a classified staff member as well as a basketball coach in the district. He resigned his position to become a trustee.

The censure resolution states that Moland's "animosity" toward superintendent Coleman and the director of maintenance operations and transportation dates to an incident in 2015 when Moland was disciplined for taking a district bus to transport his basketball team without authorization. Classified employees told investigators they had the feeling that Moland wanted to "catch" them in misconduct.

"The District Office staff descriptions of Trustee Moland included: bully, pushy, frustrating, demanding, manipulative, controlling, aggressive, hostile, disrespectful, hurtful, shaming, insistent, stressful and mentally draining," the resolution stated. "The MOT staff described Trustee Moland similarly. In comparison, witnesses described the other Board members as following District protocols, positive, and supportive."

Investigators found that Moland monitored classified employees, videotaped or photographed classified employees at work and reported employees’ alleged tardiness to supervisors, according to the resolution. It stated that he followed school buses, which intimidated and distracted the bus drivers.

Investigators said Moland was unreliable and gave inaccurate statements, sometimes within an interview. In one interview he was asked whether he inspected a bus and he said he wasn't sure. Later in the interview, he described district buses that were unclean. He stated that he was a full-time bus driver for a year with the district, but district records showed he had only worked 39.75 hours as a bus driver, according to the written summary of the investigation.

Moland told The Californian that he was directed by district administrators not to respond to any of the specific allegations in the resolution. But he touted his support from the board and voters in 2018. He was the top candidate who won a four-way race with 29.25 percent of the vote.

"Look at the support from the board," he said. "If those allegations were true, do you think they would elect me as board president?"

He also said that Moreno's comments against him at the meeting proved he wasn't liked from the beginning.

"My reputation working for the district for 10 years is impeccable," he added.

The investigation into Moland began when the district received complaints in August from a group of classified employees and the president of California School Employees Association, Chapter 162, the local chapter that represents classified workers. A group of those workers submitted a public comment to be read at the meeting. 

“It took a lot of courage for complainants to come forward and address the board about issues that we were having," said the statement signed by Jennifer Spaulding, Marisol Uribe, Wendy Gama, Lauren Rodriguez and Victoria Garza. "We would just like to know that our voices were heard and that we will never have to go through this again."

Laura Gaytan, a school secretary and former student in the district, encouraged the board to vote in favor of the resolution because of what she and her coworkers have experienced.

“It’s really troubling to see my coworkers go through these type of problems when they’re really unnecessary,” Gaytan said.

Kristina Budy, vice president of the Kern Fairfax Teachers Association, said Moland falsely accused her of engaging in illegal activity on Facebook and posted “all eyes are watching.” This incident is mentioned in the report, which says the claim was false. 

Budy said that many young teachers without tenure feel intimated by Moland's actions. She said he comes to campus to observe, but it makes teachers "very uncomfortable." She said her members met after Tuesday's board meeting to discuss next steps.

"We have lost our faith in the three trustees, and we are going forward with a vote of no confidence," she said. "That will be our voice for now."

Though he is named as a target of harassment in the resolution, Coleman, who has been superintendent with the district for 15 years, said he is trying to stay neutral as best he can.

"I take no position," he said. "I try to stay out of it."

Coleman was put in the position of reading the statement when Rios said that she was driving during the board meeting and wouldn't be able to do it. But Coleman said what he most wants to focus on is working on a return to school plan in the new year.

"We want to get back to teaching kids on campus," he said.