By Paul Kruze
Longtime Cajon Valley Union School District board member Jilanne “Jill” Barto has filed a federal lawsuit against the district, Superintendent David Miyashiro and four trustees over what her attorney, Mike Aguirre, alleges are violations of her civil and First Amendment rights.
The suit filed Tuesday alleges that since being re-elected in November 2018, she experienced retaliation from Miyashiro and others after questioning his use of district funds and travel at public expense.“The School District Board Superintendent and four other board members have retaliated against Plaintiff and conspired against her in violation of her First Amendment rights under the United States Constitution,” the suit alleges.
“Defendant’s retaliatory conduct has repeatedly tried to prevent Plaintiff from fully representing the constituents that elected her to the Board,” it continues. The suit lists Does 1-50, leaving open the possibility of adding other defendants.
The complaint says Barto “raised issues about how much money District Superintendent Miyashiro has spent on his travel and conference costs, and raised questions about the size and nature of expenditures from his discretionary funds.”
The suit seeks an order that prevents the district from barring Barto from speaking to her constituents and taking part in open and closed board meetings as well as district events.
She also wants to resume using her canceled CalCard (a credit card issued to board members to make purchases when conducting district business) and be allowed to visit district schools, attend relevant conferences and obtain “information requested to do her job.”
She seeks the cost of legal and attorney fees and wants a jury trial. The case has been referred to Judge Karen S. Crawford in downtown San Diego federal court.
Barto was first elected to the Board of Trustees in 1994 and has served for 25 years.
NBC 7 San Diego, which has also been investigating the district alongside East County Magazine, confirmed that the district staff took frequent trips at taxpayer expense and Miyashiro attended professional conferences, World of Work and TED Talks events in Vancouver, British Columbia; Chicago; Beijing; Hawaii; London; and Tallahassee, Florida.
NBC 7’s investigation found that Miyashiro took 59 trips and spent $1.1 million at conferences since March 2017. Miyashiro funded 51 of those 59 with “discretionary” funds approved by the CVUSD Board of Trustees. View video of NBC 7’s investigation, including an interview with ECM journalist Paul Kruze.
The Barto situation and overspending allegations come at a time when the district is preparing to go to voters in March for a 40-year bond issue.
East County Magazine has previously revealed that the district has spent over $600,000 on promotional videos over the span of five years since Miyashiro took office — many times more than neighboring districts spent on videos.
Although the CVUSD has refused to answer and provide receipts requested by ECM, it spent at least $21,500 for a professional dance choreographer based in Los Angeles to conceptualize and hold rehearsals for a “flash mob” video shot at the Parkway Plaza Mall in El Cajon that was released in mid-August to almost 68,000 views on YouTube.
San Diego 10News called out Miyashiro on his excessive spending habits on videos in 2016. Then the Cajon Valley Union School District superintendent defended spending $20,000 on two videos to promote the district’s Red Ribbon Week and its relationship with local first responders.Miyashiro defiantly told 10News that it was intending to do it again.
Ironically, all of the monies spent by the district on Miyashiro’s and staff travel expenses and promotional video would more than cover the $1.2 million needed to fulfill the critical recommendations made by the San Diego County Grand Jury to improve security at Cajon Valley’s over two dozen elementary and middle schools in the wake of mass school shootings across the nation.
Barto has indicated that Miyashiro, Board of Trustees President Tamara Otero, and the other board members, Jim P. Miller, Karen Clark-Meija and Jo Alegria, began retaliating against her after her re-election in 2018 when she openly questioned the travel expenditures and raised other concerns on issues ranging from alleged bullying of a Somali Muslim student to money spent on videos.
The district has refused to meet public records requests made by Barto, including requests for audiotapes of public meetings.
ECM has had its own challenges obtaining records and protecting First Amendment rights of our reporters to cover public meetings. It’s taken threats of legal action by two attorneys to enforce its rights as journalists.
Similar requests for audio recordings made by ECM were also denied, with the district claiming it destroyed a tape in which a parent complained of numerous schools failing state Dashboard standards for math and English, until ECM had attorney Terry Francke with Californians Aware sent a cease-and-desist letter to the district.
Miyashiro has said the Dashboard measures the “wrong metrics.”
When ECM began recording CVUSD meetings to assure public access, the district demanded that a reporter move under a noisy air condition in the back of the room and threatened to arrest the journalist if he did not comply. The district ceased its threats only after receiving a letter from attorney Cory Briggs on ECM’s behalf.
Things did not get any better for Barto when she questioned a $665,000 building contract awarded to Otero’s son, Dryw Otero, and his new El Cajon company, Otero Construction.
In that situation, as reported by East County Magazine, prior to the vote Otero was asked by fellow board member Jill Barto, “It looks like … is this your husband’s company?”
Otero replied: “No,” and immediately brushed off the question, saying the internet connection to her computer on the dais was disconnected.
(Barto says she asked about the family connections but her phrase, “and your family” was masked by Otero’s response. Otero abstained from voting, but did not state why, and remained in the room during the discussion.)
According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, “Certain officials (including city council members, planning commissioners, and members of the boards of supervisors) have a mandated manner in which they must disqualify from decisions made at a public meeting (including closed session decisions) and must publicly identify a conflict of interest and leave the room before the item is discussed.”
Barto also alleges that Miyashiro expressly prohibited her from contacting district employees directly and prohibited her from using her CalCard to pay for a ticket to an event put on by El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells.Miyashiro last month canceled her “CalCard.” Barto has also been barred from closed-door meetings and banned from attending an education conference slated for San Diego in December in her capacity as a board member.
Specifically, as written in the lawsuit, Barto “is endowed with a First Amendment right to speak critically of her government. As an elected Trustee of a board charged with governing the school district, [Barto] has an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that her constituents can be fully informed by them.”
The lawsuit then claims that the defendants, “acting under the color of law within their official positions in the district … violated [Barto’s] right of free expression under the First Amendment of the United State Constitution.”
Although Barto has not released an official statement on her court action, she emailed family and friends Wednesday.
“As you know over the last year, I have been continuing to ask for accountability and transparency on this board,” she wrote. “But I have been blocked, marginalized and retaliated against and hindered from serving my community.
“After careful consideration and prayer, I had no choice but to file a lawsuit against the superintendent and fellow board members in Federal Court for Civil Rights and First Amendments violations to protect my rights to serve my community.”
“I can’t thank all of my family and friends enough for your support during this hard time. I trust that soon the great work in the district will be again the priority and the focus will once again be back to what is best for our students, staff and community over retaliation for me trying to do my job. Please continue to pray for us as we continue to fight for what’s right. I’m honored to serve my community as I have for the past twenty-five years and will continue to be your voice on the Cajon Valley Union School Board,” Barto wrote.
ECM contacted Miyashiro for comment on the civil rights lawsuit, but he did not return a phone message. Tamara Otero answered ECM’s call, but said she did not have a response, stating she was “out of town.” Jo Alegria did not answer ECM’s inquiry, nor did James P. Miller. Clark-Meija’s phone line was busy the several times ECM tried to contact her.
Paul Kruze is a contributing editor at East County Magazine, where a version of this story first appeared. East County Magazine is a member of the San Diego Online News Association.
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