‘There’s no trust’: Paso residents want state to investigate school district’s finances

Paso Robles residents are pushing for a state investigation into the events that propelled the school district into a financial crisis and caused the resignation of the previous superintendent.

Community members in attendance at a Tuesday night school board meeting called for a state audit of district finances. Some even suggested board trustees who served during former Superintendent Chris Williams’ administration should resign.

“We have to clean up what has happened before we can move forward,” said Peter Byrne, who spoke at the meeting.

Williams resigned in December 2018, and the school district is still trying to rebuild its depleted budget reserve and make up a $3 million shortfall. The district’s financial problems are largely attributed to policies implemented during Williams’ tenure.

A memo released last week by new Superintendent Curt Dubost, School Board President Joel Peterson and Board Trustee Chris Arend attributes the district’s problems to mismanagement, irresponsible spending and favoritism.

But, as of yet, no illegal conduct has been disclosed.

A closed-session discussion related to stolen assets did not result in any reportable action on Tuesday.

Even so, rumors of past misconduct continue to swirl, and attendees at the packed board meeting said they want a more comprehensive look at district transactions.

An independent audit?

Before anything could be elevated to the state level, however, the district would have to conduct a $30,000 to $50,000 private audit

Based on the community’s lack of confidence in the district, the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education recommends that as the next step, Dubost said. The results of the audit would determine whether there’s a need for a state investigation.

“I wish that there were a level of trust where people would say, ‘OK, we’re satisfied. Don’t spend your money on this. Move forward,’” Dubost said. “But clearly, that is not the case. And I have to accept that, and it comes to this recommendation.”

Jim Brescia, county superintendent of schools, said his office — which has been heavily involved in getting the district’s finances back on track over the course of the last year — has found no evidence of illegal conduct.

“If one allegation with information came forward, I would be on the phone to Dan Dow immediately,” Brescia said at the meeting. “During my tenure, I have lodged multiple concerns or complaints with different agencies, because that’s what I’m elected to do.”

Brescia said the state requires credible evidence of wrongdoing to step in and perform an investigation. He encouraged anyone with solid information about misconduct to report it immediately.

“I cannot do something based on a rumor,” Brescia said. “I have even heard people saying, ‘You have sold property to some of these individuals.’ And I laugh at that question. .... They’re rumors.”

‘There’s no trust’

Some community members agreed with Dubost, saying they don’t want district officials to spend time and money on a private audit.

Jill Ogorsolka said she thinks board members have learned from their past mistakes and have been transparent about what happened. She encouraged those who are unhappy with the current trustees to run for office in next year’s election.

“I would prefer them to spend their time working toward the budget solutions and moving our district forward, rather than chasing after accusations lacking evidence, rumors and fake news,” Ogorsolka said.

Others said there are still people who need to be held accountable for problems that occurred during Williams’ time as superintendent.

“There’s no trust,” Berkley Baker said. “Too many of the people responsible for this mess are still sitting up there.”

He said the harm caused by the previous administration makes it hard for people to get over their anger and move on.

“It’s really unfortunate that we’re here,” Baker said. “But we need to do something to get the trust back.”

Trustees will consider whether to move forward and fund an independent audit at the next school board meeting on Oct. 8.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.