The Central Unified School District board, in closed session, voted against offering a one-year contract extension to its superintendent in January. Six weeks later, the trustees fired Mark Sutton.
That is just one revelation found in nearly 1,000 pages of documents the district provided in response to a California Public Records Act request by GV Wire.
Missing in the documents is the answer to the No. 1 question on the minds of Central Unified employees, students and families: Why was Sutton dismissed?
A text message between two trustees in January reveals the 4-3 closed session vote against retaining Sutton for an additional year. His contract would have expired June 30, 2018. Sutton earned $201,571 as a base salary. The text exchange does not indicate whether a raise was included in the failed contract extension.
On Feb. 27, the board publicly announced after another closed session that it had voted 4-3 to fire Sutton. A week later, the board appointed Assistant Superintendent Kelly Porterfield as interim superintendent.
At least two Central Unified board members discussed Sutton’s contract in the months leading up to his firing.
Sutton’s dismissal continues to divide the school district community. Many of the electronic documents GV Wire examined are communications from concerned teachers and parents about Sutton’s fate. Nearly all of the emails and texts supported the former superintendent.
Supporters of Sutton are collecting signatures to recall two trustees they feel did not back Sutton: Phillip Cervantes and Richard Solis. Cervantes however, did vote to keep Sutton.
A second group’s effort to recall trustee Terry Cox, a Sutton supporter, stalled when required paperwork was not turned in on time, the Fresno County Clerk’s office said.
One-Year Contract on the Table
A text message Cox sent to trustee Cesar Granda revealed that the board, on Jan. 9, 2018, discussed offering Sutton a one-year deal during closed session.
The proposal failed 4-3, with Cox, Richard Atkins and Cervantes voting in favor of extending the contract. The official minutes says no action was taken.
Cox blistered Granda in a text message the following day.
“I received an upbeat call from (teacher) Bernice (Bailey) this morning. She felt better after her conversation with you last night. She appreciates that you shared with her that you are supporting Mark.
“You have no idea how hard that conversation was for me to withhold from her what the reality is about you.
“You were the swing vote last night that killed Mark’s employment with Central. You had 3 votes to offer him a 1 year contract, all that was needed was for you to say yes. You said no. Now we are on the termination phase.
“Also, I am so very disappointed that you take your President responsibility as a joke. At our last meeting, you were directed by your board to ‘meet’ and ‘negotiate’ with Mark on his contract. You didn’t do that. You made a ‘phone call’ and asked for his request again. No attempt to ‘negotiate.’ Perhaps your failure to do as directed is related to your comment to (trustee) Ruben (Coronado) that I heard after the very closed session that you received board direction. ‘Don’t worry Ruben, I’ve got this handled.'”
“Not a good strategy to lie to your constituents either. It will eventually blow up on you.”
Cox additionally criticizes Granda as president of the board, saying he was the “lesser of the two bad choices we had.” She told him he was failing in his duties and doesn’t return calls from board members.
“You are the catalyst of what is to come for Central, set off by your failure to guide this board through an effective superintendent evaluation and superintendent goal setting.”
Discussions About Contract
Trustees Ruben Coronado and Cesar Granda communicated with one another in a singular email on Sept. 28, 2017. Coronado wrote, “I copied several pages of the contract and underlined the areas.” Coronado then listed eight specific elements of Sutton’s contract he had highlighted. A copy of Sutton’s contract was included.
“The email is self-explanatory,” Coronado told GV Wire.
The Coronado-Granda communication was one of the few in which district administrators and trustees discussed Sutton’s contract.
On Sept. 20, 2017, Sutton emailed Cox about comparative salaries with other Valley superintendents. Sutton specifically mentions Fresno Unified’s Bob Nelson and his $295,000 yearly salary.
Sutton joked with Assistant Superintendent Jack Kelejian about his contract situation. In an email chain on Nov. 28, 2017, the two discussed the slow pace of receiving nominations for Employee of the Year.
“We could put in the Board’s face and have the district choose their Superintendent without a contract. LOL,” Sutton wrote.
Sutton Emails About Contract
Sutton, in an email sent Dec. 8 regarding his contract being placed on the Dec. 12 school board agenda, wrote, “Requested by Coronado. I am sure after he got a call from Judee after the CUTA Meeting. What a joke!!”
Judee Martinez is the president of the Central Unified Teachers Association, the teachers’ union.
Coronado replied to GV Wire that he had no idea what Sutton was talking about.
Sutton also engaged in a series of email messages with Bernice Bailey, a teacher and one of his supporters. She sent him a preview of what she wanted to say to the board, but Sutton requested one change.
“You are too kind and I appreciate what you have written,” Sutton replied. “Some think I spend too much time in the area of athletics, so could you just remove the comment about Valley Championships. I support athletics, but am not responsible for our teams winning the Valley as our Volleyball and Football teams did this year.”
Sutton may have also shed light on who was behind the effort to have him fired. In a communication to teacher Fred Baldwin on Jan. 11, Sutton wrote:
“[H]owever, some of our Board Members are being swayed by a certain individual and her husband who are working very hard behind the scenes to convince them that they need a change in leadership.”
Many in the district have speculated that Judee Martinez and her husband, Richard Martinez, figured prominently in Sutton’s firing.
In the past, Richard Martinez has denied that he played any role in Sutton’s departure other than being a concerned citizen.
Judee Martinez told GV Wire that she didn’t do anything improper.
Cox Continues Granda Criticism
Cox expressed more frustration at Granda, in a text message on Jan. 24, 2018.
“I find it interesting that you are still telling people as recently as last night that you support Mark,” Cox texted Granda.
“You said no to Phil’s proposal of a 1 year extension, no raise. That is a very clear I don’t support Mark stand. If I am misunderstanding you please let me know. How and when will you be reporting to the board the status of your conversation as directed in closed session with the attorneys giving us options on how to proceed and give Mr. Sutton a heads up (on) the boards intention?”
More Cox-Granda Clashing
Granda sent an email to the other six trustees on Feb. 13, reminding them “all public statements in the name of the Governing board shall be issued by the board President.”
To which Cox replied, “Reminder. Each board member has the right to state personal opinion.”
“Yes, I agree,” Granda responded back. “Each board member has the right to state personal opinion.”
However, he continued to tell the rest of the board that “any public statements” shall be issued by the board president or superintendent.
Cox Urges Soria to Get Involved
Cox’s interaction with community members reiterated her public stance backing Sutton. She was one of three votes against his firing.
When she is not serving as an elected trustee, Cox is the chief of staff for Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria.
Cox emailed Soria Jan. 20, 2018, urging her to support Sutton. Parts of Central Unified are within Soria’s District 1. The trustee told GV Wire the email followed a meeting between Soria and Coronado.
“Esmeralda you said you could help. In my opinion there are one of two ways that you could assist. I would be grateful for any assistance. You would be a huge champion for the Central Community if you were to succeed,” Cox wrote.
Cox’s suggested to Soria that she convince two board members to vote for an extension. “Not just a one year but 2 yr extension…With all this drama Mark will not want to be in this position again next year.”
The second suggestion was to “Convince Miguel to get out of this and distance himself from this issue entirely. Aligning himself with any of these board members now or in Nov. will cost him votes in Central. Pics are all over Facebook with Pacheco, Miguel, Ruben and Rama. Rama and Ruben are already posting the support they have from Miguel. He will already have difficulty erasing this.”
The reference is to Miguel Arias, running for the Fresno City Council District 3 seat. He is also a State Center Community College District trustee. The other names referenced in the email are Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco and Central trustees Coronado and Rama Dawar.
Cox said she wanted to advise Soria and others regarding the volatility of the Central Unified situation.
Union Leader Expresses Surprise at Sutton Firing
Two days after Sutton’s firing, CUTA President Judee Martinez sent an email, expressing surprise.
“We are saddened for the divisions that have broken out in the Central Community, and we are committed to working together with teachers, parents, and students to help rebuild trust as well as refocus on our Association’s core mission: to provide the best possible education for our Central children in the safest and fairest schools in the Central Valley,” she wrote.
Rio Vista Middle School teacher Jerome Davis emailed his wife who is Assistant Superintendent Ketti Davis: “Oh geez. (Is) she for real?!”
Granda and Sutton did not respond to GV Wire’s requests to answer questions for this story.
[Update 5/08/18: through the school district’s lawyer, Granda had no further comment on this story.]