Southern California school district paid absentee trustees against state, district policy through loophole
Trustees of the El Monte Union High School District have been drawing monthly stipends even when they haven’t attended board meetings, possibly violating state and internal policies.
CalWatchdog found at least nine instances since 2015 where stipends were paid despite absences, although a loose interpretation of what constitutes a meeting provided a loophole.
While not a large sum of money, the lack of accountability over trustee stipends builds on a lawsuit and scathing news report earlier this year that the district was either not tracking millions in bond expenditures or hiding the records.
Trustees earn a $252 monthly stipend for attending a board meeting on the first Wednesday of the month, as per the board’s bylaws. According to district and state regulations, stipends are to be divided evenly by the number of meetings per month and then trustees are to be paid only for the meetings attended.
The board can still choose to pay a trustee for a missed meeting as long as the absence meets certain criteria and payment is authorized by a resolution.
A review of meeting minutes shows that no such resolutions have been approved by the board, even though stipends to board members were usually allocated.
According to interim Superintendent Edward Zuniga, one trustee, Maria-Elena Talamantes, opted to forgo her July stipend for a missed meeting, so no resolution was brought forward. She again missed a meeting in August, and it is unclear if she’ll still be paid as stipends are allocated a month behind.
However, Talamantes and Trustee Maria Morgan received monthly stipends despite missing June’s meeting. However, despite this being the first Wednesday of the month, it was made a special meeting, flipping with a meeting later in the month. Neither Talamantes nor Morgan responded to requests for comment and it’s unknown if they would refund the money.
Other attendance issues
The Education Code allows for absent trustees to get paid if the board finds that he or she “was performing designated services for the district at the time of the meeting or that he/she was absent because of illness, jury duty or a hardship deemed acceptable by the board.”
But the Education Code also states: “Any member who does not attend all Board meetings during the month, is eligible to receive only a percentage of the monthly compensation equal to the percentage of meetings he/she attended, unless otherwise authorized by the Board in accordance with law.”
While the board has one regular meeting a month, it almost always has at least one “special” meeting each month as well. Since 2015, Talamantes has missed two and Board Vice President Carlos Salcedo missed three, while former trustees Salvador Ramirez and Juanita Gonzales each missed one in 2015.
The year prior, Gonzales was censured by the board for using her district-issued credit card to buy $150 worth of alcohol, meals for friends and to get reimbursed for meals she received for free. She agreed to refund the district.
Board meetings are also split into open and closed sessions. While tardiness would likely be permitted in most instances, Talamantes once missed an entire open session and then an entire closed session at another time, but she was in attendance for the other sessions on those nights.
Zuniga said attendance at special meetings has not been considered a factor in the stipend allocation, despite the bylaws and state law clearly stating “all Board meetings during the month.” Zuniga said partial meetings have not been discussed either, but said he would bring both examples to the board’s attention.
Zuniga has been in his role since March, when Superintendent Irella Perez was placed on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons. In August, the board voted 3-2 to fire Perez, and Perez has since filed suit.
In August, Salcedo tried to increase the stipends by 5 percent. However, no other trustee seconded the motion and it died.
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