By Hannah Fry
3:42 PM PDT, March 25, 2014
The Orange County Department of Education filed suit Monday against the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and five Corona del Mar High School families in an effort to get judicial clarity about whether it can hear appeals from students expelled in CdM's cheating scandal.
Shortly after filing the lawsuit, the county Board of Education held a special meeting Monday night to determine if Newport-Mesa had reached a settlement agreement with the expelled students' families since the board last met March 12. If an agreement had been met, the lawsuit could have been rendered moot, but no such accord was in place, so the legal action will progress.
However, during a closed session Tuesday evening, school board trustees unanimously approved an amended agreement with one of the five families that filed an appeal with the county department, according to board President Karen Yelsey. The board also approved during this session a pending agreement with another of the five families. It was unclear what specific changes were approved by trustees.
The school board Tuesday also authorized legal council to defend the district from the Department of Education’s lawsuit.
At the heart of the issue are stipulated expulsion agreements each of the students and their parents signed in January to avoid a formal expulsion hearing. Under the agreements, the students were allowed to transfer to another school in the district and return to CdM in June, and disciplinary records were sealed.
But the families later called those agreements unfair and appealed to the county for relief.
After the county board discussed the issue March 12, the Newport-Mesa school board held a special, closed-session meeting where its trustees altered some words in the expulsion agreements in an attempt to negotiate with the parents.
The Newport-Mesa board then decided to change "sealed and destroyed" to "expunged" in connection with the students' records after graduation, and clarified the language in the document with regard to the students' return to CdM at the end of the school year.
Trustees provided the updated stipulated agreements to the families and said they would only be accepted by the district if all five families agreed to sign. Two families signed, and three refused.
"We were trying to come to an agreement to stop the lawsuit and additional legal fees," said Newport-Mesa Trustee Katrina Foley. "The only reason we looked at the agreements again was to stop the bleeding."
Newport-Mesa has spent $44,707 in legal fees since the CdM issue became public, said district spokeswoman Laura Boss.
Parents say the expulsion agreements should not be upheld because, they claim, the district was dishonest about evidence against their children and coerced the families into signing the documents by saying that if they were to go before the board for a hearing, the students would surely be expelled.
District officials had told some of the students during the investigation that other students had implicated them when they hadn't, said Meldie Moore, a Laguna Beach-based education and expulsion attorney who represents the families.
However, by signing the agreements, the families waived their rights to an appeal, which, according to the state education code, would normally be heard by the county Department of Education, district officials said.
Moore cited legal precedent in her assertion that the Department of Education board is required by law to hear the appeals of the students, regardless of the signed waivers, because of the alleged fraud.
However, the county board is split 2 to 2 on whether it even has the authority to hear the appeals.
The deciding vote could have been board member Elizabeth Parker, who recused herself at the start of the discussions in early March, saying that she had been contacted by too many "involved parties" and worried about her impartiality.
As it moves forward, the Orange County Superior Court lawsuit will allow a judge to determine whether the Department of Education board has the authority to hear the appeals.
This situation marks the first time that parents have approached the board after signing a stipulated expulsion agreement, said County Board of Education Trustee Ken Williams.
"This is the most complicated case I've seen come before us," he said during the meeting. "It's precedent-setting."
Williams went on to call the situation a "circus," saying he believes forcing all five families — each of whom attended Monday's hearing — to agree to the changes in the stipulated expulsion agreements is unfair.
"I think it should be done individually," he said.
Before adjourning just before 11 p.m. Monday, the board encouraged the families and Newport-Mesa officials to come to an agreement so that the board would not have to continue with the jurisdictional lawsuit.
The clock is ticking for the parents. State Education code requires the Department of Education to take action within 20 days of an appeal's filing.
The fact that the Department of Education board filed a lawsuit doesn't stop the clock, according to numerous legal opinions presented at the meeting.
Foley, a practicing attorney, called the board's lack of a decision Monday night a manipulative way of attempting to force the county Board of Education into NMUSD negotiations.
She was also frustrated because Newport-Mesa officials were unaware that the district was being named in a lawsuit until after the county board came out of a two-hour closed session.
"They should make a decision, not just leave it open-ended and place the burden on the district," she said.