[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Dr. Terry Jones
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Globe Trotter: Dr. Terry Jones, Orchard School District superintendent, drives a 2000 BMW paid for with school money and has submitted $40,000 in national and international travel reimbursements during the past three years.

Orchard Blight

One of San Jose's smallest school districts, Orchard, has big problems with teachers accusing the superintendent of wasting money on frequent-flying

By Will Harper

THE PILLOWY CADENCE OF HIS VOICE makes Dr. Terry Jones sound like the Mr. Rogers of school superintendents. Well, except Mr. Rogers didn't welcome the children to his neighborhood in a pristine black BMW 740IL--paid for with school money.

And Mr. Rogers didn't have teachers and parents calling for his resignation.

The Orchard School District chief's soothing tenor easily carries to the back of the boardroom, which is perhaps only a shade larger than the original 20-foot-by-30-foot Orchard School founded by gold rush settlers in 1856.

"I know there were concerns expressed at the last [board] meeting," Jones tells the audience of 40 teachers and parents assembled for the most recent school board gathering. But the controversy, he argues, "has spurred us in a positive direction."

He announces a series of upcoming community focus groups where people can come and chat about school issues. Jones even warmly suggests people call him personally to go out for coffee and talk.

"I will make myself available to you," he promises, "if you will make yourself available to me."

The teachers don't appear interested in joining Jones' Kumbaya sing-along. Some sit with their arms crossed. Many aren't even paying attention. Their eyes are transfixed on an 8-page list of Jones' and two other administrators' credit card expenditures for the past two years, compiled by a KGO-TV reporter and passed out by teachers before the meeting.

The expense summary shows that Dr. Jones likes to travel enough to earn major frequent flier miles. Detroit. New York (at least five times). Minneapolis. Washington D.C. Denver. New Orleans. Dallas. Charlotte. Pittsburgh. Chicago. St. Louis. Las Vegas. London. Cuba.

All in all, Jones has billed the district approximately $40,000 in travel-related expenses for trips outisde the Bay Area since November 1998, credit card statements and other records obtained by Metro indicate. That might seem reasonable for the superintendent of a big city school district. But the Orchard School District is barely a district at all. It is one K-8 school with 785 students and an operating budget of $4.3 million.

By contrast, San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, who manages a $1.8 billion operating budget in a city of nearly 1 million people, has spent only $12,500 on travel since starting office in 1999.

Jones' prolific traveling habits and district-paid BMW have become sore points for Orchard's teachers who complain about having out-of-date textbooks and nonfunctioning computers in their classrooms.

"There is a misappropriation of funds," argues eighth-grade math teacher Liz Chew, president of the Orchard Teachers Association. "The funds were not spent on children as they should be. We're seeing money spent on things not oriented to students and we're concerned about that."

But it's not like Chew and other teachers didn't know about any of this before now. The five-member board authorized the purchase of the BMW when it extended his contract in November. Jones parks it directly in front of the school in the space that says "superintendent" where everyone can see it.

Before last month, there had been quiet grumbles about the car and the trips and the $133,000 base salary (which is slightly more than the superintendent of the 8,500-student Berryessa School District earns).

That all changed on March 21 when Jones put Principal Debbie Coco on indefinite administrative leave and ordered his assistants to search teachers' computer hard-drives and interrogate school staff to find out who was out to get him.

That set into motion a series of unpredicted consequences including a no-confidence vote by the teachers union, the dismissal of a substitute teacher and the resignations of two board members.

Illegal Activity

'THERE IS tangible evidence that illegal activity has taken place on campus," Jones wrote in his March 21 memo to all staff, "through the commingling of politics with district time, resources, supplies, property and equipment.

"As this is a very serious matter," he continued, "I have instructed staff to conduct a thorough investigation into who may be responsible for these actions. ... Abuse of district time, materials, equipment and property will never be allowed to continue."

He didn't sound like Mr. Rogers anymore.

Jones was fuming over a flier that apparently had been attached to an official district newsletter being sent to parents.

The flier began: "Do you really know what's going on at your child's school? Do you know that the Superintendent (Mr. Terry Jones) does not care about your child's safety? He makes over $130,000, plus $20,000 for travel expenses and drives an $80,000 car (which we pay for)? ... There is NO supervision when our children are waiting for the bus."

Jones charged the district's chief business officer, Jana Drazich, with interviewing teachers one at a time to ask them what they knew about the flier and who made it. Drazich taped the interviews, teachers say.

Meanwhile, Jones directed his assistant, Ted Gardener, a tech expert, to search every teacher's computer to find the flier's author. Gardener never found the author, though he says he discovered some "inflammatory material" not complimentary of Jones. "It seems apparent," Gardener says, "that the flier was generated on district equipment and copied on district equipment."

While neither Gardener nor Drazich nailed the author, on March 21 they did coincidentally place Principal Debbie Coco on indefinite administrative leave. Coco, who returned to work a week later, refuses to say why the superintendent put her on administrative leave. Gardener also won't say, citing confidentiality of personnel actions. Teachers, however, say that Jones has accused Coco of insubordination.

After Coco's exile, the Orchard Teachers Association took the principal's defense and accused Jones of violating privacy rights.

Liz Chew of the Orchard Teachers Association announced at the March 26 school board meeting that the union had issued Jones a vote of no confidence.

That wasn't all. All the rumors and gripes about Jones weighing on the minds of teachers and some parents came to the fore at that meeting.

People complained about Jones' salary, his district-paid BMW and his new office furniture. A parent questioned whether two board members even lived in the district anymore. Both board members later resigned.

Debbie Coco
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Principle of the Matter: Orchard Principal Debbie Coco was placed on indefinite administrative leave after a witch-hunt for the perpetrator of a flier criticizing the superintendent.

Terry, Quite Contrary

ORCHARD SCHOOL principal Debbie Coco describes Terry Jones as "a quiet man."

"And I certainly am not," she adds.

Since being put on adminstrative leave, speculation has grown about the rising tension between Coco, a veteran school administrator from Missouri, whom Jones wooed to come to Orchard in August, and her boss. Coco insists that the two have an appreciation for each other's abilities.

When asked to describe their style differences, she cautiously offers, "I'm a very collaborative, open person. He likes to give directives."

A teachers union rep says that to survive under Jones someone "must be a yes person."

In the fall of 1998, the Orchard School Board went out looking for a new, highly qualified superintendent who could raise the district's naggingly low test scores. According to current board president Ron Baker, the district's test scores had been so low that the state had fined the district for noncompliance.

As Ted Gardener puts it, the board "wanted someone who would put Orchard on the map."

From a literal standpoint, Orchard barely registers on a Thomas Brothers' map of San Jose. There are only 3,300 voters in the district and about half of the students hail from nearby mobile home parks.

To get a sense of Orchard's provincial quality, one need simply look at its elected board. Up until recently, three of its five board members all lived in Casa del Lago, a mobile home park on on Oakland Road. Another board member, Alan Fong, is the brother of Liz Chew, the president of the Orchard Teachers Association.

In the past, Orchard had made do with a part-time superintendent. But in 1998, the board wanted to get a full-time school chief who could whip the growing district--whose number of students has doubled in the past few years--into better shape.

Ultimately, the board unanimously settled on Dr. Terry Jones, the director of curriculum of Santa Cruz city schools with a Ph.D. in education from Gonzaga University in Washington state, according to his assistant.

Since Jones came to Orchard, the school's test scores have risen dramatically, Baker says. They've perhaps gone up enough to earn the scrutiny of the State Education Department, which found that Orchard and 50 other California schools had suspiciously high numbers of wrong answers erased and corrected.

Carrot Stick

THE BOARD HAS offered him generous incentives to keep him happy.

School board member Carol Orr says that buying the BMW--which officials say belongs to the district and not Jones--made economic sense. For one thing, she reasons, BMW offered five years of free maintenance for the car.

"It was economics," Orr says. "They [BMWs] keep their value. They're the district's asset."

The board has also given Jones the green light to travel extensively.

Last year the board gave Jones permission to attend an invitation-only event held by the Oxford International Roundtable, which was held in England. The board also gave Jones the OK to travel to Cuba this January on a "cultural exchange" trip sponsored by People to People Ambassador Programs.

Jones' son also went along on the Cuba trip, but district officials insist he paid his own way. Metro has requested to see the receipts for the trips to England and Cuba, but district officials have yet to turn them over. Chief business officer Jana Drazich said Jones only billed the district $800 for the England trip. A representative for People to People said the Cuba trip package cost $3,750, which included airfare, hotel and meals. The package, however, didn't include the $750 satellite cell phone his assistant says Jones bought with district money to use in Cuba.

Determining if Jones travels frugally or in style is nearly impossible. That's because, Ted Gardener admits, "There are no receipts."

Where Do We Grow Now?

THE ESCALATING TURMOIL at San Jose's oldest public school comes at a time Orchard officials are gearing up to spend the $16 million bond voters approved in November to expand and improve the school's facilities.

Drazich says that the district is in the process of revamping its purchasing procedures and establishing a vendor account with Uchida Travel so in the future there will be a more complete paper trail of how Jones spends taxpayer money.

But updating purchasing procedures won't be enough to quiet the storm at Orchard.

Coco, who signed on for two years last August, now says she doesn't know if she'll return next school year. Orchard Teachers Association president Liz Chew predicts teachers will look for work elsewhere.

Aside from the teachers' union, Michelle Riley, president of Orchard's Parent-Teachers Organization, is also calling for Jones' ouster. "Dr. Jones is for the money and the money he siphons," says Riley, who has a son in first grade at the school. She says the money used for Jones' trraveling could be spent on hiring another school aide to supervise the kids waiting for the school bus.

As for the man people want out, Jones is not saying much. He did tell Metro after the most recent board meeting, "There's no substance to the allegations" that he misappropriated district funds.

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the May 3-9, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate