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Allman investigation: Trustee 'vindicated' after $33K investigation into misconduct claims
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Allman ‘vindicated’ after $49K investigation into misconduct claims

ENCINITAS — San Dieguito Union High School District Trustee Michael Allman announced Wednesday that he was cleared of any wrongdoing in an investigation into claims of misconduct levied against him by the former superintendent earlier this year. 

Former Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward filed a complaint with the district back in March alleging harassment and discrimination by Allman based on her gender, along with eight other claims that Allman used profanity toward her, undermined her publicly and privately, pressured her to take action against certain employees and attempted to control her role as superintendent.

James-Ward was placed on administrative leave in April and fired from her superintendent position in late June following public outcry over her remarks which many said negatively stereotyped Chinese families in the district.

The recently ousted superintendent has since stated her intention to file a lawsuit against the district, claiming in an interview with NBC7 that she was placed on leave not due to her comments but in retaliation for her complaint against Allman. 

As of June 30, San Dieguito paid law firm Best Best & Krieger just over $49,318 for attorney Arlene Prater to independently investigate the claim, according to a district spokesperson. In a July 15 notice of outcome emailed to James-Ward, district administrators said the investigation determined that while Allman may have been disrespectful, he had not discriminated against or harassed James-Ward based on her gender.

Notice of Outcome 7_15 (1)

“The evidence shows that Allman as a district trustee can be demanding and disrespectful regarding the specific goals that he wants to accomplish and interests that he wants to satisfy (referred to herein by the Investigator as ‘Political’) while this conduct is not because of Ward’s gender,” the notice stated. 

District officials declined to respond to The Coast News’ questions related to the findings and allegations, citing a confidential personnel matter. 

Allman, a controversial figure on the school board who has been accused of bullying and unprofessional behavior by fellow board members and community members, said Wednesday that he was “completely vindicated” in the findings of the three-month investigation.

“In summary, the final report cleared me of every single one of the charges that Cheryl James-Ward made against me,” Allman said at the board’s Thursday meeting. “The investigator did not find sufficient evidence to support any of the charges levied by Cheryl James-Ward — not a single one — as I knew would happen when I called for the investigation.” 

The investigation’s findings mark the second time Allman has survived allegations related to his official and personal conduct. Last year, Allman avoided a recall effort spearheaded by the San Dieguito Faculty Association after the group, alleging several ethical and legal violations against the first-time trustee, failed to gather enough signatures.

The teachers union came under fire after members of a third-party communications firm, hired by the union to collect signatures, were recorded in public making “false and defamatory” statements about Allman, prompting the trustee to issue a cease-and-desist letter to the SDFA president Duncan Brown.  

Notice of Outcome

The notice of outcome stated that eight witnesses were interviewed apart from James-Ward and Allman, including fellow trustees Maureen “Mo” Muir, Julie Bronstein and Katrina Young, Interim Superintendent Tina Douglas, deputy superintendent Mark Miller, associate superintendent of educational services Bryan Marcus, associate superintendent of human resources Olga West, and former interim superintendent Lucille Lynch. 

However, the notice did not include input or interview transcripts from any of the other witnesses and instead only provided Allman’s response to each of James-Ward’s nine claims made in her complaint. The investigator then presented brief findings related to each claim. 

In response to several of James-Ward’s claims — including that Allman admonished her publicly and made attempts to control her actions and negotiate her responsibilities as superintendent — the investigator argued these actions were based on Allman’s expectations of her job responsibilities while admitting they did not investigate whether these expectations were consistent with the district’s policies or education code.

James-Ward’s attorney, Josh Gruenberg of Gruenberg Law, called the investigation “a joke,” noting that Prater, who led the investigation, has historically represented corporations against harassment claims. 

“The district purchased that report, and they knew exactly what they were going to be getting when they agreed to buy it from Ms. Prater,” Gruenberg told The Coast News. “Corporations and employers will from time to time hire so-called investigators to ‘investigate’ claims, and I have never seen one of them come back in support of my client’s claims. It’s an attempt to whitewash the facts, it’s rubbish, and we plan to prove that.” 

Gruenberg confirmed that James-Ward is still planning to file a lawsuit against the district for alleged retaliation but declined to share when that might occur.

Public demands transparency

Community members are also calling for more transparency about the investigation into Allman, mainly because it was financed with district funds. 

“The investigation only clears him of discrimination/harassment based on gender. In no way does it clear him of his profane, intimidating, and harassing behavior as evidenced through public record video, trustee emails, screenshots, and likely other witness testimony,” said resident Robyne Ruterbusch. “I consider this ‘independent’ investigation to be a sham and believe the taxpayers deserve to know the full truth.”

“I trust the investigation, which cost us a lot of money … will become public without redaction soon,” resident Jen Sherratt told the board on Wednesday. 

While Allman expressed a desire to move on from what he called “a sorry and disappointing chapter in the board’s history” at its Wednesday meeting, Bronstein and Young noted there are still areas for improvement in the board’s conduct.

Meetings of the San Dieguito board have grown to resemble a contentious battlefield over the past year, with frequent accusations between trustees of disrespectful behavior and hostility that have not gone unnoticed by the community.  

“The concerns I have to share are not only my own,” Young said. “Students, parents, staff, board members and other local ladders — we have all heard their testimony against [board] behavior at virtually every meeting and even in the news.”

Bronstein called for model behavior from board members on all platforms, hinting that Allman has used his social media pages to criticize decisions made by both her and Young on the board.

“We, as the collective body, serve as role models to our students and should act accordingly,” Bronstein said. “I, for one, am steadfastly committed to ensuring my actions are supportive to all of our school community, including students, their families, teachers, administrators, certificated and classified staff and district staff. I am also committed to not utilizing social media in any way to call out those on the school board.” 

A board facilitator will also be stepping in to help establish common goals and expectations for district leadership. The board approved an $8,600 contract with K-12 leadership consultant Jim Huge & Associates to guide a governance retreat for the board and interim superintendent Tina Douglas. 

The board is also currently in the process of self-evaluation.