The people who actually live in Poway Unified School District have all known about our school district’s problems for years. It’s time the board acted to change course as they were elected to do.

Superintendent John Collins has an apparent conflict of interest in his pay arrangement giving him raises that he himself negotiates. His deputy superintendents also appear to get these raises, as well as his wife, Lisa. It does not take a law degree to understand this is inappropriate.

But those with law degrees and decades of public agency legal experience – including Bob Fellmeth, the executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, and attorney Michael Colantuono, a veteran municipal attorney – have opined that this self-dealing is a breach of a fiduciary duty to Poway taxpayers and likely illegal.

Poway Unified’s attorneys, Jerry Conradi and Dan Shinoff, refuse to offer any comment on these “me-too” contract provisions or the impropriety of self-dealing, leaving the board with little legal support on which to make a determination.

On top of that, for almost a decade, Poway Unified’s superintendent and the teachers union have negotiated behind closed doors, failing to follow “sunshine” laws requiring disclosure. The public and the board weren’t given an opportunity to learn of the negotiations until after a deal was struck. This was brought out by a complaint to the California State Public Employment Relations Board in February. A month later, all involved in these salary negotiations admitted they had broken the law.

Has anything changed to ensure this would never happen again? Or that other legal requirements are being met? The deafening silence you hear from the superintendent and the president of the Poway Federation of Teachers makes it clear that the answer is no.

But the district board is complicit in this as well. The situation has been laid bare before each of them. Four of the five board members were brought in after the capital appreciation bond debacle to ensure that the old ways were revised, that taxpayers were respected and that the children were once again made the beneficiaries of limited school funds.

Nevertheless, to date, nothing has changed. Only two board members, President Kimberley Beatty and Charles Sellers, have shown interest in rooting out problems in the district.

I’ve asked board members Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane why they feel that the status quo of conflicts of interest and illegal negotiations should not be investigated. They have not answered my question.

The teachers union will say that anyone who questions its process either does not understand or, worse yet, is looking to harm teachers. Far from it. It’s our tax dollars that pay for the teachers, and we demand accountability and assurances that we will not be subject to lawsuits and further expense because no one appears to be steering this ship.

Zane once ran the Lincoln Club and was well known for pointing out government waste and deceit. What happened?

O’Connor-Ratcliff is an attorney by training and teaches business law at University of San Diego. Shouldn’t she want to ensure that Poway Unified follows the law? Furthermore, Sellers and O’Connor-Ratcliff both have conflicts of interest with members of their families: voting to increase their family members’ incomes.

Sellers did the right thing and excused himself from voting on the salary increases with the Poway Schools Employees Association, which his wife is a part of. O’Connor-Ratcliff did not excuse herself from voting on her mother’s contract, which might not be a legal conflict but certainly isn’t great for transparency.

How do we make our district work within the law?

The answer is fairly simple: Have a qualified attorney involved in the entire negotiation process on behalf of the board. The teachers union, as well as the other unions, should have their own attorneys to protect its interests.

Mind you, this is not an effort to forego the union’s “interest-based problem solving” process. That process can continue, but someone who knows the law should be in the room. An attorney who has sufficient experience and no affiliation with this school district or any of the school districts within San Diego County would make for a good start in ensuring we follow the law.

That attorney should be hired to review existing employment contracts, sit in on negotiations and report back to the board on a regular basis to keep everyone informed and the process fair.

Anything less is an abdication of the board members’ duties to our community.

Tom Moore is a Poway resident. This post was adapted from a previous version originally published on his blog. Moore’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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