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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

What Did Cary Know & When Did He Know It?

Some parents at San Marcos High are challenging, as misleading or dishonest, comments made by school board superintendent Cary Matsuoka during a Newsmakers interview about an online threat video.

In the interview, Matsuoka said that his executive cabinet “was not informed” about the chat room matter, in which a group of older boys made threats by name about a number of freshman girls, until Tuesday, January 23, even though then-San Marcos Principal Ed Behrens knew about it four days earlier, on Friday the 19th.

Parents spoke and wrote to us after publication of the interview and said they are certain that Behrens, through an assistant principal, contacted district headquarters and informed the superintendent's #2 about the situation soon after learning about it himself. Matsuoka, they claimed, has tried to muddy the precise chronology of the event, in order to scapegoat Behrens and support his March 13 firing from the top administrative post at San Marcos.

“In the interview, Mr. Matsuoka repeatedly was quoted saying that his ‘cabinet’ was not notified of the online chat incident until Tuesday late afternoon, January 23rd,” said Marcy Wimbish, a parent who often speaks on behalf of the pro-Behrens faction. “That is false.”

Looking askance at San Marcos. At a time when some parents privately are discussing pulling their kids out of the school next year. the challenge to Matsuoka’s veracity is significant because it reflects lingering hostility and ongoing tension between SB Unified School District headquarters and many parents, hundreds of whom publicly opposed Behrens's removal.

Amid the upset and controversy that have rocked San Marcos since January, some parents also are organizing a district-wide political effort to win a majority on the five-member school board, which has the power to hire and fire SBUSD's superintendent.

The stakes over the superintendent’s statements were raised further last week, when Behrens filed a lawsuit against the district.* The suit seeks a court order, instructing the board to reinstate him because the process used to do so allegedly was flawed; it also charges, in part, that by these and other comments to Newsmakers, Matsuoka damaged the personal and professional reputation of Behrens and interfered with his ability to find another job.

Dueling narratives. Here is what the superintendent said last month, when we asked him to walk us through the chronology of the incident:

January 19th, a Friday – that’s when the school first started catching wind of this. My cabinet team was not informed about this until Tuesday January 23rd, Late afternoon is when my cabinet team started to become aware of the depth of the incident.

So there was a four-day delay in my cabinet team being informed so we could support, investigate, help with communication, and get the word out. When we get these kinds of serious incidents I tell my principals, your first call is to one of us, just so we’re aware and, two, we always make these really quick assessments – is this like low, medium, high?

I think this one, we would have said immediately, this one is a big deal and just assigned one or two of us to get on the ground and just help to collect information.

But then more importantly, writing communication statements to assist our principals. Because this stuff moves super fast and I love the days when media cycles were 24 hours, and then it dropped to four hours and now it’s seconds.

Parents, several of whom are involved in the campaign to capture school board seats, contacted us to dispute his version of events.

"Frann Wageneck, a member of Cary’s cabinet, was contacted and gave directions to the San Marcos administrative team on Friday, January 19th, within one hour of the initial incident report,” Wimbish said. (emphasis hers).

Another parent, involved In the “Save Our Schools” political effort, agreed: “What the Superintendent said about a four-day delay is…a falsity,” they emailed. “Matsuoka uses truth loosely.”

For the record. After hearing from the parents, we reached out to the district for clarification.

In a 223-word statement, spokesperson Lauren Bianchi Klemann agreed that Wageneck was contacted early, as the parents stated, and expanded on Matusoka’s earlier comments, saying that Behrens gave the assistant superintendent only a very sketchy account of what was happening.

This is the full statement that she sent us:

Dr. Frann Wageneck received a brief notification of an alleged online threat in a two to three minute phone conversation with an assistant principal of San Marcos High School on Friday, January 19, 2018. Per district protocols, she gave direction to conduct a formal investigation to substantiate the threat and contact law enforcement.

Dr. Wageneck, who is a member of the district leadership team, did not receive a follow up on the investigation. Therefore, she requested details from Principal Behrens of the incident on Monday, January 22, 2018. She did not receive a response. She again requested information on Tuesday, January 23, 2018, when Principal Behrens called her for guidance on a different incident.

It was at this point that Behrens provided details on the outcome of the investigation. Dr. Wageneck provided direction for the principal to meet personally with the families of the victims that day. She later found out that did not occur.

Ultimately, the district leadership team recognized that while notification of law enforcement occurred immediately by the assistant principal, there was a four-day gap in communication between school site leadership and the district that impacted the timely execution of district threat investigation protocols. ‘

The Superintendent took responsibility for that gap in communication at a subsequent school community forum. That sentiment of responsibility remains the same to this day."

The Behrens defense. Despite our repeated efforts to reach him, Behrens has not spoken publicly about these events since the night the school board voted to fire him.

However, a timeline assembled by supporters, a time sequence confirmed earlier by Matsuoka, shows he received a Letter of Reprimand for his handling of the chat room incident on Feb. 7, and was given 10 business days to respond its assertions; just five days later, a week before Behrens formally responded to criticisms of his handling of the matter, however, Matsuoka wrote the "letter of reassignment" that effectively fired him.

According to Behrens's lawsuit, a copy of his response to the district's censure of his response to the online threat was never acknowledged, nor placed in his personnel file, one of the alleged violations of proper procedure now claimed in his legal action.

And there the matter stands. For today, at least.

And another thing. Simmering rancor at San Marcos also has been fueled by what many see as a botched effort to replace Behrens.

Matsuoka's initial search committee was unable to find suitable applicants for the position; Cary then reconstituted the committee and the terms of the search, and the board recently approved the hiring of Richard Rundhaug on a one-year contract.

“Mr. Matsuoka told the Board that they needed to act quickly in demoting Mr. Behrens so an appropriate permanent replacement could be hired. He said he had a deep pool of candidates for the position, which proved to be false,” Marcy emailed us. “In the end, one of the best high schools in the state has been left with only a 1-year interim principal with less experience than Mr. Behrens.”

Our recent interview with the new guy is here. The district's announcement of his hiring is here.

*Full disclosure: 1) Behrens is represented in his action against the school board by Cappello & Noel, the SB law firm run by high-profile attorney Barry Cappello. 2) The host and editor of “Newsmakers” spent five years defending himself against the firm in litigation brought by one of their clients. 3) We prevailed eventually, but these guys play hardball.


Images: Superinendent Cary Matsuoka; logo of San Marcos High School Royals; Assistant Superintendent Frann Wageneck (Twitter); new interim principal Richard Rundhaug.

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