20 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY march 28-april 3, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com Stilwell, Rita Patel and John Ellison wrote. “In hindsight, Barb’s most significant ‘weakness,’ which some, ourselves included, would not consider a real weakness, is that she’s not a great ‘politician.’ She’s always been far too honest and direct to play games or make decisions based on political favor. Maybe that’s what has led the district to this point.” Trish Dellis served as interim superintendent after Dill-Varga’s resignation, then Ted Knight was recruited from Colorado to start in 2021. He held the role until he was placed on leave on April 3, 2023, and he resigned four months later, on Aug. 11, a little over a year before his contract was set to end. Former deputy superintendent Sharon Ofek, whom Knight had hired, became interim superintendent after his departure, and on Jan. 24, 2024 the board voted 4-1 to appoint her as superintendent—the district’s seventh since 2015. Knight received a separation payment of $770,000—equivalent to two years’ worth of salary and benefits— and agreed to drop all claims against the district. Those included complaints lodged with the California Civil Rights Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the district, as well as a civil lawsuit seeking public records in Monterey County Superior Court. That has not stopped other parties from filing claims. Christine Davi, a parent of a CHS student (who also works as city attorney for the City of Monterey) raised questions about the legality of Knight’s separation package. On Sept. 28, 2023 she sued CUSD, seeking to invalidate the board’s approval of the resignation agreement. Davi claims that the $770,000 payment exceeds by $500,000 the amount allowed under California government code, which caps payments upon contract termination for a school superintendent at a year’s worth of pay. CUSD is asking a judge to dismiss the suit. After Knight’s resignation on Aug. 11, the board was eager to move on. They said as much when they met the next week for the first board meeting of the 2023-24 school year. “Let’s right the ship, correct our problems and move on,” said Jason Remynse. “I acknowledge there is more healing to be done and trust to be earned,” said Seaberry Nachbar. “Today I look towards the future and I ask my community that you do the same.” But members of the community were not ready to do the same. Instead, many of them wanted an explanation. Some were happy to see Knight go— he’d been a polarizing figure during the pandemic, generating many enemies who opposed mask mandates and the like—and some were not. But both fans and foes were confused. “I feel like Erin Brokovich trying to figure out what’s going on with this school district,” said Bobby Pfeiffer, a Carmel Valley mom of two students. “Nobody can tell me a straight answer.” For months, it was hard to get a straight answer, or any answer at all. Along with Knight’s departure, CUSD’s communications officer resigned in April 2023. Although details about matters of personnel and student discipline are confidential, little context was offered. When former CHS principal Jon Lyons was placed on leave in December of 2022, the CUSD administration began to go silent. Interviews with the local press stopped, replaced by written statements only. Students at Carmel High School’s newspaper, The Sandpiper, could not get responses from administrators or the board for over a year, until board members agreed to be interviewed in spring 2024. The Weekly repeatedly requested interviews with members of the board and administration, but none were granted until March 2024. Sara Hinds, the board president for much of 2023, said board communications were to go through her, and that she would speak only about “positive things.” That policy has changed since Jason Remynse became president in December. (This story is based on interviews with current and former students, parents, employees and board members, as well as documents gathered over a one-year period.) During the long silence, many questions and sometimes conspiracy theories emerged. Members of the community appeared again and again at board meetings to air grievances during the public comment period. “There is still stuff going on that needs to be addressed, and we aren’t addressing it,” said Ann Berry, the former CHS attendance secretary who retired in 2023 after 44 years with CUSD, during a Sept. 13 board meeting. “I want to know why Ted Knight was released. Why Ted Knight isn’t here, why he was paid off $770,000 in taxpayers’ money, I want an explanation.” A partial explanation was provided on April 18, 2023 a couple of weeks after Knight was placed on leave, by Gregory Rolen, an attorney who was representing Knight. In a letter to members of the CUSD board, Rolen wrote: “The Carmel Unified School District has long had a reputation of as a den of sexual harassment and misconduct…The board and public were acutely aware that Superintendent Knight was investigating a historic pattern and practice of sexual harassment within the district.” While Knight has not been reachable for an interview since he was placed on leave in 2023, his lawyer has suggested that Knight sought to root out a history of sexual misconduct and mishandling of complaints, then faced retaliation for those actions. Some of the issues were related to students, some to staff. There are three pending lawsuits filed in 2023 by three different Jane Does who are current or former employees. In two cases filed by custodians, the women allege lead custodian Roel Martinez verbally and physically harassed them. After one of the women, a longtime employee, reported the misconduct in 2022, Martinez was reassigned from CHS to Carmel River Elementary School, where he worked until he retired in June 2023—and received a $100,000 payment from CUSD. River School Principal Jay Marden and Knight locked horns over whether Knight had advised Marden about Martinez’s past conduct. Meanwhile, CHS Principal Lyons was marched out of the high school in December (“he got basically perp-walked out,” Ellison says) and, until he was formally removed from the job in February, Lyons continued to publicly plea for his job back. (He is now working as a high school principal in Oregon.) The board hired the firm School and College Legal Services of California to investigate Knight’s handling of Marden and Lyons, at a cost of $35,640. A June 30, 2023 letter to Knight summarizes the findings of that review. There are six issues reviewed, some of which Knight was dinged for mishandling. For example, they found that Knight should have notified Marden of why Martinez was moved to River School. On other items, the firm exonerated Knight. As to Audit/Issue #5—“Did Dr. Knight act in the best interests of the district when he placed Jon Lyons on administrative leave without the benefit of an investigation?”—the determined the answer was yes. That Carmel Unified had challenges with addressing sexual misconduct is not new. Just as the MeToo movement was gaining widespread attention in 2017, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights was completing an investigation into a complaint CUSD Superintendent Sharon Ofek shown listening to a student presentation on March 13. She says the path forward is getting back to basics at each school: “Consistency builds reliability, and it rebuilds trust.”