Special to the Village News
It appears Superintendent Candace Singh wants to leave the Fallbrook Union Elementary School on her own terms and has made an accusation that could parlay her departure into a multi-million dollar payout.
It's a contentious period for trustees of the district. Not only are three members of the board involved in facing a contested re-election battle on Nov. 8, but there is also more controversy following the announcement on Oct. 3 that Singh would be leaving. At that meeting, FUESD Board President Suzanne Lundin said its legal counsel would meet with Singh's attorney about details for her departure after 11 years as superintendent.
Two weeks later, near the close of its Oct. 17 meeting, Lundin announced the board was going into executive session. Topics included possible violations of the Brown Act – a major story in itself – and "potential litigation related to harassment and retaliation by a board member against the Superintendent made outside an open and public meeting."
That's the bombshell.
After the near two-hour closed board session, the public meeting
was reconvened and Lundin announced, "No action taken in closed session. We are
joining this meeting."
Following inquiries by Village News to the board president and FUESD district attorneys, a response was received regarding what the "potential litigation" involved, which was revealed on Oct. 20 from attorney Jonathan Pearl of Dannis Woliver Kelly, the group representing the district. He responded by email, saying Lundin asked him to pass along her notes from a telephone conversation with Singh on Sept. 19:
"Dr. Singh relayed that we're not discussing a buyout of her contract. Rather, it's a settlement agreement to prevent further litigation from being launched against the district with a multimillion dollar award for damages to the superintendent personally, to her career, and her future earnings. This lawsuit against the district would result from (Trustee) Caron Lieber's retaliation and harassment of the Superintendent."
Details about what Singh believes is harassment have not been revealed. She didn't reply to an email requesting an interview. Lieber also declined to comment. She is one of the trustees up for re-election and has stated she has repeatedly voted against pay raises for the superintendent, who is earning one of the highest salaries of school superintendents in the county, and possibly the entire country, while
overseeing a comparatively small district.
The "potential litigation" gives Singh the opportunity to leave the district with a substantially larger settlement than she would receive from simply resigning.
In Pearl's email with Lundin's notes, he also said, "As for the remainder of your email, we are working hard to protect the interests of the district but cannot disclose anything more than what was stated by Mrs. Lundin at the governing board's meeting on Oct. 17."
There were several more noteworthy moments during that meeting, and although emotional, the board and President Lundin kept their composure. After the Pledge of Allegiance, she announced there were two letters that she received both directed to the board regarding violations of the Brown Act. The Brown Act requires local government business to be conducted at open and public meetings except in certain limited situations.
"The governing board has recently received two letters, one from Trustee Lieber and the other from Sandra Forrest raising Brown Act compliance concerns following (the) closed session held on Sept. 12." Lundin said. "As board president, and as a member of the Fallbrook community, I believe that zealous compliance with Brown Act requirements is one of the board's most fundamental and important responsibilities. The letters have been shared with the board's legal counsel for review, analysis, and response within 30 days, which is what is required by law."
Lundin continued, "I'm confident that our closed session agendas and practice complied with the Brown Act, but I stand ready to take any and all necessary and appropriate corrective action to ensure that our board's compliance with the Brown Act. I look forward to receiving our legal counsel's written responses to the letters and sharing those responses with Trustee Lieber and Ms. Forrest."
Speculation is that one of the topics during the closed session of the September board meeting may have been an evaluation of the superintendent that would have led to Singh receiving a substantial pay raise, according to her contract.
It's impossible to know what was discussed at the closed session, but it's apparent everyone is careful about what they say. Five days after the meeting and the revelation of Singh's accusation, the lead attorney representing the school district, Sue Ann Salmon Evans from the Long Beach office of Dannis Woliver Kelley, contacted the Village News with this update:
"We wanted to clarify what appears to be a misunderstanding regarding the statement made at the Oct. 17 meeting just before the FUESD board recessed to closed session. The Brown Act requires (for certain closed sessions) that the board make a statement regarding the 'existing facts and circumstances' related to the anticipated litigation which will be discussed in the closed session.
"The statement issued prior to closed session was made to comply with this requirement," she continued. "However, it did not reflect the words or statements of the board president. Instead, the board president was restating allegations made by the superintendent to the board president regarding anticipated litigation. We want to ensure this is clear – these are not allegations by the board president but rather what she was told by the superintendent."
After the Oct. 17 meeting, the Village News asked Lundin for copies of the letters about the Brown Act violations and they were not supplied. However, comments by three speakers during the public comment period at the most recent board meeting may shed some light on the district's battles.
The first speaker during the public comments part of the meeting was Forrest.
"Two-and-a-half years ago I read in the Fallbrook Village News about a letter that someone had sent about the superintendent's salary and the fact that the superintendent at that time, January of 2020, was already making $60,000 over what most people make in that position. I've lived on a lot less than that for a long time and I thought, 'that's a lot – enough for two halftime aids in the classroom.'"
Forrest said she also saw Singh's "commercial for speaking and holding workshops" (candysingh.com) and noticed that the contact person was district employee Stephanie Weaver, executive assistant to the superintendent. "I don't have a personal travel agent, but I guess someone else does," Forrest commented.
"The board president announced Oct. 3 that she (Singh) will be leaving but nobody knows when to where or why," Forrest concluded. "Depending on the reason for her departure, she stands to get up to $1 million. I believe our contract needs to be renegotiated. She doesn't deserve that kind of money. That is real money."
Michael Summers had similar comments, "I say that if it's a voluntary resignation then she should leave free and clear without any monetary retribution from the board. If there is a vote that comes up where they ask you (the board) for a payout, I am totally against it and there are many people that are totally against it."
"My question is concerning the 'negotiations,'" said Leticia Maldonado "I know that confidential issues are being discussed. But what negotiations are taking place? Maybe the anticipated litigation at the end of the agenda will answer that
question. Nevertheless, the superintendent is resigning in order to move on to
the next phase of her career as we were told."
She continued, "The public – which is the district – has gotten the short end of the stick in this contract as far as the clauses in that contract have been all in the superintendent's favor. Now, we the public must be afforded what is due to the district through that contract and that is a speedy and responsible separation. You all know your responsibilities and obligations to this district. Buying her out or awarding her more than what is required by law is unacceptable. You are to represent this community and no one in Fallbrook wants you to give Dr. Singh one more dollar than her contract requires."
Prior to heading to the closed session, Lundin explained why she couldn't say more about Singh's "harassment" charge, "I feel it's important to once again explain that the board is, and will, speak strictly adhering to all provisions and requirements of the Brown Act. This includes the confidentiality of closed session discussions which will be, and must be, strictly adhered to by each and every member of this board. With our acknowledgement here and now, we the members of this board commit to maintaining that confidentiality and each member agrees that the board should, and will, enforce the provisions of the Brown Act, here and outside this public meeting.
"Lastly, as mentioned at the Oct. 3 board meeting – and I will mention it again here today – the board's legal counsel is involved in direct negotiations with Dr. Singh's legal counsel regarding Dr. Singh's claims. Neither I nor any board member will compromise those negotiations or a possible leadership transition by making further comments."
Board members JoAnn Lopez and Susan Liebes are facing re-election as well as Caron Lieber. Lundin and Ricardo Favela serve until 2024.