Watchdog Group Aims to Scrutinize School District

After building momentum from various meetings earlier this year, Rick Copeland and other like-minded residents have formally created a watchdog group aimed at keeping tabs on how the San Marino Unified School District runs its system and spends public funds.
The nonprofit group, called United Citizens for Responsible Government, was registered with the California secretary of state on July 25, Copeland said in a statement. He explained the group’s goal was to hold the SMUSD Board of Education and the district’s administration accountable on following state and federal laws and responsibly using money.
Copeland, an attorney who works as a mediator, has claimed numerous times this year that SMUSD has not been particularly forthcoming with public records he’s repeatedly requested, mostly as they pertain to a contentious bond proposal that was ultimately shelved.
“I think there was a perception out there that it was a few or a handful of people who were behind this, but there’s a lot of people who are concerned about the school district,” Copeland said in a phone interview. “As the documents have come in, it’s allowed us to dive deeper into them.”
SMUSD Board of Education President Shelley Ryan declined comment on the formation of Copeland’s group. A call to district Superintendent Alex Cherniss was not returned before The Outlook’s deadline. Both have previously defended themselves against suggestions of impropriety in district-related affairs, with Cherniss having specifically pointed out the extra time taken by the district staff to produce thousands of pages of requested documents.
Parents, alumni and even some teachers have said at town hall-style meetings this year that they felt the district brought up the bond proposition, which would have funded up to $148 million in infrastructure and facility upgrades, without adequately informing the community about the work that drove that figure.
Copeland has specifically decried what he alleges are decisions that have been made during closed sessions, without public input or knowledge, before essentially being rubber-stamped during open session with minimal or no discussion. He said he has repeatedly asked that the board publicly uphold its commitment to adhering to the state’s Brown Act, which governs public meeting laws, and also record closed meetings in case it’s ever needed for legal reasons, and he said he’s heard nothing in response.
“Each time I told them I’m not kidding around,” he said. “I think this community deserves accountability. I think we need to know what’s going on, especially when you’ve got a project budget that starts out with $6-8 million, then it goes to $10 million, then they play with the numbers to make it back to $6-8 million and then it comes up to $14 million.” He said he was not citing a specific instance.
Copeland’s organization has published two newsletters for its members, with 75 to 100 subscribers as of this week, he said. The first newsletter chronicled the group’s purpose and detailed some of the public-records concerns Copeland says he’s had. The second, which was published Monday, urges the district to settle the lawsuit filed by board member Chris Norgaard regarding the district’s investigations of sexual harassment allegations against him.
Copeland said he’s been contacted by a handful of other residents who want to discuss their concerns with SMUSD in a more public forum. He and others in his organization also plan to make their presence known at school board meetings, even if just for accountability’s sake, and Copeland has registered a website domain for future use.
“I personally plan to attend as many meetings as possible, and we’ve been having people go and videotape the meetings so that more people can at least see them,” he said. “That’s the buzzword right now, accountability. You see law enforcement dealing with it all the time. For the school district to not be turning over basic academic information, you basically scratch your head and ask, ‘Why?’”

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