Grand jury: School district overlooked misconduct when hiring administrator

Atascadero Unified School District officials recommended hiring Atascadero High School principal E.J. Rossi despite allegations that he had misappropriated public funds at another school district, according to a grand jury report.

“When we hired Mr. Rossi (in 2007) as assistant principal, it was our understanding that the issues with his former district had been resolved,” district Superintendent John Rogers said. “Apparently the issue wasn’t resolved. That became revealed later.”

In its nine-page report, the civil grand jury examined whether Atascadero Unified failed to perform due diligence in hiring and promoting Rossi.

Rossi worked as a superintendent and principal for the San Ardo Union School District in Monterey County from September 2003 to July 2007. He accepted the position of assistant principal at Atascadero High School in August 2007.

Days after Rossi’s departure, however, the San Ardo district discovered about $6,000 in missing equipment and funds, the grand jury found. Rossi agreed to pay restitution.

Then an annual district audit for fiscal year 2006-07 revealed “improper accounting and documentation leading to a shortage of $56,000,” the grand jury reported. The shortage was attributed to Rossi. Another audit ordered by the Monterey County schools superintendent confirmed those findings.

The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office also investigated the case, concluding in January 2009 that there was insufficient evidence to support criminal prosecution.

When San Ardo learned Atascadero was eying Rossi as a potential principal, the school district sent copies of its audit findings to the Atascadero Unified School District Board of Trustees and school administrators. San Ardo’s superintendent also discussed the situation with an Atascadero administrator, the jurors found.

“Testimony revealed that this information was not shared with the hiring committee, and it was disregarded because the audit referred to ‘the previous superintendent’ rather than to Mr. Rossi by name,” the grand jury said.

When Rossi approached Atascadero’s superintendent and director of human services “to explain he was under investigation,” the grand jury reported, “both chose to treat this as a minor misunderstanding between Rossi and his former employer and again, failed to inform the hiring committee.”

In addition, jurors found that Atascadero Unified conducted only two telephone reference checks when considering Rossi for the principal position. (The Monterey County schools superintendent later denied being contacted by Atascadero Unified.)

“Our typical practice is to have six,” Rogers said. “Why six weren’t recorded? I can’t answer that at this point.”

Rogers said he couldn’t speak about what information was shared by Atascadero administrators with the hiring committee, as he was on medical leave “pretty much through the hiring process.”

However, he noted the allegations that Rossi had misappropriated funds were viewed as just that.

“Certainly, the more information that’s available, the better the decisions are going to be,” Rogers said. “At the same time, the information needs to be other than allegations. ... That’s problematic too, to make decisions based on other than what is known.”

Rossi, who became the Atascadero High School principal in August 2008, signed a settlement agreement in December 2009 in which he agreed to repay $32,000 of the missing $56,000.

“To our view, the conflict was resolved satisfactorily by both parties,” Rogers said.

In its report, the grand jury also investigated allegations that Rossi mishandled student activity funds at Atascadero High, but it was unable to find supporting documentation.

Jurors recommend that Atascadero Unified implement a new policy requiring the superintendent to conduct a full investigation whenever civil or criminal complaints are lodged against staff members. The grand jury also recommends that the district contract with an outside agency to conduct pre-employment background checks on job candidates with access to public funds.

The Atascadero Unified School District has until Sept. 16 to respond to the grand jury report.

“We will be reviewing district hiring practice and modifying it as it is appropriate to do so,” Rogers said.