San Dieguito Union High School District offices
San Dieguito Union High School District offices in Encinitas. Courtesy of the district

Besides the obvious impact coronavirus is having on our society, the contagion has the potential to threaten us in other insidious ways.

Citizens need to pay attention to the actions of school districts and other governmental agencies now more than ever, as open meeting and public records act rules may be relaxed or even suspended.

So is this the right time for top-level management to give themselves a raise?

Apparently it is — at least it is in north county’s San Dieguito Union High School District.

At the district’s March 19 board meeting, on page 192 of a 194-page agenda, was an item prepared by Superintendent Robert Haley, asking the five-member board to approve a 3.5 percent raise for himself, and for Deputy Superintendent Mark Miller and three associate superintendents.

The raises, retroactive to July 1, 2019, were granted unanimously for all but Haley whose raise was approved 4-1 with trustee Maureen Muir opposed.

Haley’s original contract with San Dieguito, signed in October 2018, granted him a salary of $259,000, not including benefits. In June 2019 it was increased to $261,590. With the March 19 decision, it’s now at $270,746.

That this item was buried at the end of a lengthy agenda is one concern.

That it was proposed in the midst of a pandemic is another — and proposed for a meeting on the very day that Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered everyone to shelter in place.

Yet another is that only one trustee was actually present in the boardroom. The other four teleconferenced in.

With the requirement to shelter in place, members of the public could not be expected to attend a meeting to address the board — particularly with just one board member there.

Although citizens may have wanted to speak to the board on this item, which is their right, the circumstances prohibited gathering in groups while maintaining proper audience separation.

Furthermore, public participation of any kind was virtually impossible because the district made the conditions for the public to address the board so onerous that no one could reasonably have their say.

Pleas came from some constituents to board president Beth Hergesheimer to delay this non-critical item until the need for social distancing ended and people were not distracted by their own and their families’ needs during this crisis. But these requests were ignored.

As we hear on the news of people without basic essentials like food and with only pennies in their bank accounts, the timing could not have been worse.

The perception is legitimate that this was pushed through while the public was adhering to self-isolation advice and was justifiably involved in the rigorous demands of staying healthy and feeding their families.

With worries about the spread of COVID-19, it’s natural for the public to pay less attention to school board agendas, which even in normal times can make anyone’s eyes glaze over.

But we need watchful oversight, especially during times like these when governmental administrators and elected officials have an opportunity to take advantage of a national crisis and adopt questionable action items like salary increases, while stakeholders are otherwise preoccupied.

The outlook for California’s state budget is grim, which is bad news for school districts struggling to meet financial obligations. Budgets are squeezed as bills must be paid, facilities must be maintained and sanitized, and employees still need their paychecks.

Transitioning to distance learning, which may be the new way of teaching and learning well after this crisis has passed, requires immediate attention and extraordinary time and energy from staff, in the areas of instruction, human resources and finance.

Digital learning devices are needed for students, and teachers need considerable support and resources to provide comprehensive education for on-line learning.

The impact of coronavirus on school district budgets will cause immense disruption and shifting priorities — not to mention a potential financial crisis.

This is not the time for school districts to engage in extraneous action items that include anything other than how best to address this major challenge of providing high-quality remote education. The only exception is meeting to review and approve basic functions needed to keep the operation afloat.

What happened in San Dieguito is but one example of what could be taking place in other districts, if dedicated citizens don’t pay close attention.

Operational transparency in government is crucial, today more than ever, as temptation and opportunity can combine to thwart the public’s right to know.

Although people are consumed with worry and keeping their families safe, we cannot overlook the need for diligent oversight of our governmental agencies which continue to meet and make decisions that affect us all.

Let’s hold school districts and other public agencies accountable to focus on what really matters as we slog through this crisis together.

Marsha Sutton is an education columnist covering North County schools for the past 20 years.