School Board Bars Norgaard From Cherniss’ Evaluation

Despite protests by Chris Norgaard, his four peers on the San Marino Unified School District Board of Education have agreed to compartmentalize both the evaluation of Superintendent Alex Cherniss and also the handling of Norgaard’s legal complaints against the district.
Those legal threats also include Cherniss, which is why the board voted to exclude Norgaard from the evaluation process.
Norgaard’s opposition to the formation of a committee to handle his legal complaint was more nominal — he had already pledged to recuse himself from such discussions — but he remained defiant about being excluded from Cherniss’ evaluation, insisting repeatedly he only would focus on facts regarding Cherniss’ tenure and withhold any opinions about the superintendent.
“I have said that my participation and my comments are aside from that situation,” Norgaard said at the board meeting last Tuesday, May 8. “I will only point to facts of what the superintendent has done or not done. I’m not going to add editorial comments. The actions speak for themselves. The facts are the facts.”
Norgaard, elected in 2003 and currently serving a term through 2020, filed a legal complaint in April against SMUSD, Cherniss and Assistant Superintendent Linda de la Torre regarding a series of internal investigations of sexual harassment allegations against him. He alleges defamation, emotional distress and civil rights violations as a result of the investigations, the first of which was announced by SMUSD in January in a news release that identified Norgaard by name.
The first investigation concluded in March in Norgaard’s favor, but a second investigation was launched in April after Cherniss said he received allegations Norgaard had allegedly intimidated district employees regarding the allegations. Norgaard claims no wrongdoing in his complaint and alleges that Cherniss and de la Torre fabricated both of the complaints.
Board President Shelley Ryan told Norgaard that, ultimately, those allegations against Cherniss tell the rest of the board Norgaard could not avoid bias in his evaluation and could also expose the district to a wrongful termination lawsuit if the evaluation resulted in a firing. Reiterating his pledge, Norgaard went as far as to promise, in jest, the board a meal at Parkway Grill or Smitty’s if he were to step out of line during the evaluation.
Other board members agreed to bar Norgaard from the evaluation.
“The problem is, in light of the fact that you’ve filed a claim against the district and individually against Superintendent Cherniss, with all of the allegations you’ve said in your claim, there is an inherent conflict of interest,” said board member Nam Jack, an attorney. “No matter how much you’ve said you can be fair in your evaluation, you have in essence made a claim against Cherniss individually. If you are a part of the process, there is the potential that the district will be exposed to liability.”
“If the district were your client, and they came to you with this situation, would you tell your client to feel completely safe about that? There’s no chance he would sue the district for wrongful termination?” asked board member Lisa Link, also an attorney.
“There’s no chance,” Norgaard responded. “I am only talking about submitting factual statements.”
Norgaard had earlier also argued that excluding him from the closed meeting talks regarding his complaint was unnecessary not only because he had recused himself already but because he didn’t think he needed to.
“I don’t understand the legal need whatsoever, because I am one of the clients, but I have volunteered to recuse myself,” he said.
“Because, if someone were suing me, I would not invite them in to strategize with my lawyer,” Link responded.
Norgaard also used the meeting as an opportunity to proclaim his innocence as it relates to the allegations. Following a battery investigation conducted by the San Marino Police Department, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against Norgaard, citing that the woman — a current SMUSD employee — who said Norgaard inappropriately contacted and kissed her on two occasions, did not want to prosecute.
“Not a single person claimed that he or she had been harassed, abused, etc. Those are the facts,” he said. “There’s a saying in baseball: three strikes and you’re out. There’ve been three strikes. The investigations have affirmatively found zero in every case.”
Cherniss spoke briefly last week, defending his and the district’s actions.
“The district has an obligation to investigate employee allegations and so we did,” he said. “We are just doing our job.”
Norgaard, again, claimed it had “been determined” there never were allegations of misconduct reported by a district employee.
“That’s just not true,” Cherniss responded.

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