National City School District
National School District / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

National School District Superintendent Leighangela Brady is facing the coming school year and the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic without a top business officer.

Brady will endeavor to provide both online learning and a hybrid in-person and online learning option for the district’s 5,000 elementary school students in National City, while also overseeing an operating budget of $69 million and a workforce of 800. The goal is to fully return to campuses as the health crisis allows.

For Brady, the task at hand is enormous.

But not having the district’s longtime assistant superintendent of business services, Chris Carson, around might be easier than if he was still there, given the tensions that consumed the upper echelon of district leadership last year.

Records obtained by Voice of San Diego under the California Public Records Act show the superintendent and all three assistant superintendents, including Carson, were under investigation most of the last school year after most filed complaints against one another.

First Carson filed a complaint in August against Sharmila Kraft, assistant superintendent of educational services, raising concerns about her spending. Kraft and Leticia Hernandez, the assistant superintendent of human resources, followed with complaints against Carson alleging a hostile work environment and discrimination. Carson later added Brady to his complaint and alleged his boss and fellow administrators created a hostile work environment for him, retaliated against him for filing the complaint and discriminated against him.

The district launched an investigation in August carried out by the Sobel Group, but findings were not issued until May – almost an entire school year later. During nearly the entire investigation, all four top administrators continued to report for work.

As the investigation dragged on, tensions rose. Brady told investigators in October all three women were “afraid for our safety … I feel like I can’t protect my employees during this [investigation],” the report said.

The investigation details various interviews held with the administrators and other district employees. Some reported the rift between Carson and the others became noticeable in early 2019, while others said things worsened closer to July or August 2019, after a retreat and other financial disagreements boiled over.

Carson became the odd man out. After spending two months on leave, he negotiated a departure deal in April this year that included 10 months’ pay, or $147,000, district records show. It came with an agreement Carson would not sue the district.

As of May, the several months-long investigation cost the district $139,000, but some final payments are still outstanding, Brady said.

Just what happened before Carson’s departure must be largely gleaned from the investigators’ report.

In the end, many of the allegations against Carson and the other administrators were dismissed, records show. Retaliation claims made by Carson were unproven, the district’s law firm said, and discrimination and hostile work environment claims by Carson, Kraft and Hernandez lacked evidence actions were tied to race, gender or another protected class. The investigation did conclude Carson used “fear and intimidation” in his dealings with the others and staff and “created an unpleasant working experience,” according to letters sent by the district’s law firm to each administrator June 1 closing out the complaints. Carson’s complaint the others were “spending wildly” was dismissed.

Brady, Kraft and Hernandez declined VOSD’s request for an interview, but issued statements indicating they are happy to put this chapter behind them and are planning for the year ahead.

Carson told VOSD he “adamantly denied the false and defamatory allegations in the report” and said “the settlement agreement speaks for itself.”

Though a few business staff interviewed by investigators described Carson as kind, friendly and easygoing, the thrust of the report gave credence to complaints Carson had a temper and was overly hostile toward several women and some men.

Tensions and Accusations Build

Carson began working in National School District’s finance office in 2005. In 2009, he was promoted to assistant superintendent of business services.

Carson’s disputes with Brady, Kraft, and Hernandez sometimes stemmed from disagreements about district spending on things like furniture, school gardens, psychologists and counselors, records show.

Fellow administrators “were trying to overspend in areas to where he has to say no,” Carson told investigators, according to the report. Even before the pandemic, the district was losing students and “Mr. Carson said their enrollment is just over five thousand students, and they should be looking at closing schools and laying off staff as a result.”

Carson told the investigator the district’s general fund reserve dropped by more than $6 million in one year after spending $2.5 million on new instructional materials and $2 million on smart whiteboards.

“This isn’t about me. You can take me out of this and the District is the one struggling,” he said, according to the report. Carson also likened the others to “mean girls” who “piss away District time at the (executive cabinet) meetings.”

The meat of the Kraft and Hernandez complaints involved Carson’s tone and behavior toward them. They told investigators they felt mistreated by him because they are women. They also reported Carson forbade his staff from speaking with anyone in their departments without his knowledge and kept key budget information from them – a claim supported by Brady.

“Dr. Brady said Mr. Carson likes to have control and tell the other Cabinet members if they can spend money but he does not like to show them their budgets,” the investigation report says. Brady added Carson will often “stand over you or block you” and, “He will come into your personal space.”

By mid-2019, Brady reported Carson was “like a pressure cooker” and “was yelling at everyone. He was screaming at me,” the report says. She urged him to take time off or go on worker’s compensation leave. He obliged the vacation request but was appalled to later find a worker’s compensation form in his file filled out by Brady citing stress and burnout, the investigation says. He demanded it be removed since he did not take worker’s compensation leave.

On one occasion, Carson yelled through the halls at Brady after questions were raised about payouts made to departing employees, which exceeded the district’s 44-day limit, including a payout to the former superintendent, Brady reported. That superintendent – Chris Oram – reportedly reached a deal to repay the district $15,000, according to the report.

“I doubt if I were a guy he would treat me this way,” Kraft told investigators, according to the report. “She believed Mr. Carson invades women’s personal space as a form of intimidation,” and said he made uncomfortable comments about her birthmark. Kraft also alleged during budget meetings, Carson “starts talking quieter and quieter after she asks questions so she cannot hear his reply.” She also reported seeing a notable difference when meeting with Carson with another man in the room.

The district’s attorneys told Carson after the investigation “there is not sufficient evidence” to show he caused Kraft or Hernandez “to suffer any adverse employment action or disparate treatment based on race or gender, or that any person outside of (their) protected classes were given more favorable treatment.” Carson’s actions created “an unpleasant working experience,” for the women, but did not amount to racial or gender discrimination, the attorneys said.

The tensions caused Kraft to consider leaving the district, but she said I “don’t want to reward him,” the report says.

Hernandez told investigators she reported being fearful of “verbal attack.” Hernandez also reported Carson entered her office to file his complaint and shut her door after she told him not to. She reopened it, and he shut it again.

Carson denied the encounter.

“When you do that [close the door when someone wants it open] it is a physical confrontation and that is not me,” Carson said, according to the report.

There were even suspicions Carson might have slashed or put nails in the others’ car tires in the district parking lot, but the investigators found no conclusive evidence any district employee tampered with the tires – including those on Kraft’s car. Her tire blew out on a drive to Los Angeles.

Once the investigation opened early last fall, several other employees – whose names were withheld by the district – reported problems with Carson, some recent and others going back years before Brady or Kraft joined the district.

Staff told investigators Carson was a bully who angers easily, used intimidation and made everyday tasks harder – especially for women, according to the investigation.

At least one male warehouse worker also felt women were unfairly targeted and had problems of his own with him.

Carson “talks and treats the women around him in a disposable way. I find it difficult to deal with,” said the male employee. “He [Mr. Carson] causes a real stressful work environment. There is a stressful vibe. I never know when something is a major big deal or not … Communication with Mr. Carson is like ‘walking on eggshells.’”

Some employees reported things were so bad they experienced physical illness due to the stress Carson caused them, leading one to go onto worker’s compensation, Brady reported. Others over the years left the district or sought new district jobs outside of Carson’s direct supervision.

But Carson’s reach at National School District was large and wide. In addition to managing the district’s multimillion-dollar budget, Carson oversaw nearly all non-teaching positions in the district other than human resources. That included departments like child nutrition services, facilities, transportation and others.

According to employees interviewed, Carson was sometimes intimately involved in the workings of those departments under his purview – going beyond the norm for a top business official.

One employee reported Carson would frequently send him photos of things needing custodian attention at school campuses.

Another employee reported Carson searched a school site looking for employees mishandling petty cash. He accused one employee of money laundering and threatened they would lose their job, then held meetings with the employee and union representatives about cash handling without telling human resources, the report says.

While dealing with the petty cash issue, Carson reportedly warned, “She [clerical staff member] gives me a letter of resignation or she will walk out of here in handcuffs.”

One school site employee involved in the petty cash matter filed a complaint against Carson last October and said, “I have a feeling there may be a bit of chauvinism … In all of my time at the District I have never had anyone at the District speak to me the way he [Mr Carson] has.”

Carson told VOSD he was not made aware of that complaint until after the investigation wrapped, even though board policy requires notification within five days.

In another instance, Carson intervened in a large delivery that was shipped to a school site because the floors where the pallets were dropped were being waxed the next day. The items had already begun to be dispersed to classrooms, but Carson ordered they be gathered and returned to the district office, only to be re-delivered to the campus a day or two later, the report says.

There were also times Carson asked employees to do things they felt uncomfortable with, and two large mistakes made by staff in the business office caused concern: One totaled nearly $11 million and another totaled $18 million.

‘They Felt it Was Like Sweetwater’

Carson had a reputation for being fiscally hawkish, which did not mesh with some of Brady’s plans for the district – like new furniture across all classrooms and libraries.

Carson also objected to decisions to pay for staff using one-time reserve funds, and took exception to a contract awarded to a firm led by a friend of Brady, alleging it was a “sweetheart” deal – a claim the investigator did not support after seeing the firm won a competitive bid.

Two multimillion-dollar mistakes that happened on Carson’s watch were highlighted in the report.

In 2019, staff discovered purchase orders sent to the school board for approval did not include sales tax for the prior three years, and some purchase orders were not board-approved at all before being paid.

In total, the oversight – which was the result of using the wrong report pulled from the PeopleSoft software program – amounted to an $18 million discrepancy, the report said.

On the advice of legal counsel, staff printed out revised purchase orders that included sales tax and the left-out orders for retroactive board approval, but the board’s frustrations were made plain to Brady when they learned of the issue.

Brady told Carson the board members were “upset because they felt it was like Sweetwater,” referencing the financial debacle that left that neighboring district under investigation by a specialized fiscal crisis team and the Securities and Exchange Commission. A recently released audit found Sweetwater officials deliberately covered up the district’s financial problems.

Brady said Carson rejected the comparison, and told Brady and the school board, “This is nothing like Sweetwater,” the investigation says.

During the re-approval process, another issue was discovered. A purchase order approved in 2016 for $12 million for PeopleSoft software should have only totaled $1.2 million. The higher payment was never made, and the error was quickly changed by staff, but the approval was never modified and re-approved by the board.

The employee who made one of the mistakes told Hernandez they “had stomach issues because Mr. Carson told him he was going to lose his job as a result of the purchase order issue,” the report says.

Brady told investigators “there is a ‘theme’ with Mr. Carson that ‘you will lose your job,’ if you make certain decisions.”

Meanwhile, another employee reported to investigators when the time came to re-approve the old purchase orders with revised amounts, Carson wanted to leave the wrong $12 million order out – even though the board asked for a comprehensive three-year purchase order report. Doing that further concealed the mistake and made them uncomfortable.

Before the investigative report was finalized and all complaints were closed, Carson agreed to resign in exchange for 10 months’ pay after spending two months on paid leave. He agreed not to sue the district and the parties would keep the settlement confidential to the extent the law permits.

No Business Chief for Now

School district finance can be complicated in a normal year, with districts routinely battling to balance budgets and remain solvent. Add the public health crisis and you are in for an even bigger challenge, with an ever-shifting government and health landscape that also impacts school budgets.

Sometimes the impact is good, like when coronavirus aid rolls in. National School District received $87,000 in coronavirus aid at the end of the last school year and will receive another $6.6 million for the coming year, Brady said.

But the virus also comes with bad impacts, like higher costs to make school campuses safe again or distance learning feasible, and possible enrollment declines necessitating cuts.

Brady said the choice to keep Carson’s job vacant was made when Gov. Gavin Newsom released a budget proposal with deep education cuts in May. The governor has since signed a much friendlier budget that replaced the cuts with payment deferrals – but the school board has yet to modify its budget with the improved numbers.

The school board may decide to replace Carson when it revisits the budget Aug. 12, Brady said.

Brady said she now hopes to fill Carson’s position, but remains unconcerned about the void left behind. A retiree took the job on an interim basis and helped them finish out the year, but left June 30.

“I was an accounting major in college, and I recently participated in an intensive training program for school business officials (CASBO 360),” Brady wrote in an email. “My two assistant superintendents also have doctorates and have worked with me to divide up the duties during this transition time. Of course, with the demands to reopen school, time is probably our greatest need, so we hope to fill the position to lesson (sic) the daily workload.”

National School District begins a new school year Aug. 24.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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