Update:                 

04/29/2016        
Civil Jury Trial continued pursuant to stipulation
to 10/28/2016
at 09:15AM in Department N-28.
Vallecitos school trial to begin in May
One board seat filled, district searching for second candidate
By Pat Maio
March 15, 2016

RAINBOW — A civil jury trial is set to begin May 27 for a tiny North County
school district that has become embroiled in a lawsuit with its former
business manager, who alleges the superintendent failed to notify parents
for nearly a year that the district was facing sanctions from the state due to
poor performance.

The suit was filed against the Vallecitos School District by Patricia Bell,
who worked there from 1989 to late 2013. Settlement talks collapsed last
week between attorneys for the two sides, and the case will be heard by
Superior Court Judge Earl H. Maas III in Vista.

Vista attorney Randall Winet is representing the Vallecitos district, while
Orange County attorney Thomas Borchard is representing Bell. Both
declined to comment on the case.

The district is in the rural community of Rainbow and serves just under 200
students. It was pushed into the state’s “program improvement” status in
September 2011 after failing to meet a series of goals for student
performance. The setback came shortly after the district hired a new
superintendent, David Jones.

When a school is placed on program improvement, parents can opt to
move their children to another campus or school district and the
transportation expenses must be borne by the home district. That district
must promptly notify parents of their rights under the state program.
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Bell’s lawsuit says the district didn’t realize it had been flagged by the state
until early 2012, when she discovered problems with student demographic
data. The data is necessary to maintain eligibility and funding for student
services paid by the government, such as for free and reduced lunches
and English learner programs.

Bell said she notified Jones about the data problems and the program
improvement status in January of that year, but that he failed to take
action.

The district didn’t notify parents about program improvement until August
2012.

Jones declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Bell, a 24-year veteran of the district, said she was ultimately fired in late
2013 — several months before her contract was set to expire — because
she complained about Jones.

However, the district said in legal filings that Bell wasn’t qualified for the
job, which is why she was dismissed.

In her complaint, Bell alleges she was wrongfully fired and is due
unspecified punitive damages because the district brought “fabricated and
erroneous charges, without proper investigation” against her.

That was just a few months after Jones began his new post. He apparently
wasn’t aware of the notification until early 2012, according to Bell’s lawsuit.

In a November 2013 legal notice to dismiss Bell, Vallecitos’ attorneys
argued she should lose her $110,000-a-year job because she was
“incompetent and inefficient;” falsified information submitted to the district
and others; used “abusive conduct or language” toward employees,
students and the public; and gave herself raises that enriched her
retirement benefits.

Borchard has disputed the allegation that her client took raises to enrich
her retirement. Bell previously stated that she had taken cash in lieu of the
value of medical benefits, which equated to roughly $9,000 annually. In the
last year or so of her employment, she included the cash as part of her
salary, which effectively boosted her future retirement benefits.

Borchard said Jones misunderstood how the cash was treated under state
retirement laws.

As Bell’s lawsuit moves forward, the district is facing challenges on other
fronts: A list of desperately needed repairs, and recent turnover on its
school board, due to the March 6 death of Trustee Robert T. Cheatham,
90, and the resignation of Gary T. Drake earlier in the year.

Drake’s position was filled this month by Rae Lynn Heilbronn, who has
worked for local nonprofit organizations and in-home health care services.

She also is involved in jump starting a community campaign in Rainbow to
raise $10,000 to build security fences and replace rotted wooden ramps
leading into classrooms of the district’s single elementary school.

“Overall, the school needs some loving,” Heilbronn said.

Jones said that his district was recently notified that it failed to qualify for a
“hardship loan” with the state’s office of education to renovate classrooms,
bathrooms and other facilities.

“It is disappointing,” Jones said.

The board may consider a bond measure in November to raise at least $1
million for capital improvements, he said.

The district is taking applications for Cheatham’s post through April 11.
The terms for each of the trustee positions expire in November.
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