Story: Sounds of Silence on ‘Separation Agreement’ for Community College Chancellor


Spot.Us Note: After several months of digging Andrew Khouri and John Guenther from Neon Tommy have done this story a great deal of justice. They have requested documents, files and asked the hard questions when everyone else turned away. Unfortunately, as their report below details, no hard answers were returned. As a result, Spot.Us and the reporters have agreed to reimburse the original donors. We do believe, however, that the following information will prove invaluable. At the very least, as noted below these "circumstances raise important questions over public access to the decisions government makes, especially when it involves large amounts of taxpayer dollars."

Marshall Drummond left his job as chancellor of the Los Angeles community college district in July 2009 with a hefty payout of nearly a half-million dollars. No reason behind his departure or large settlement was provided.    

Nine months later, the reason behind his sudden and mysterious departure is still unknown.   

Over several months of working on the story, Neon Tommy published two articles (available here and here republished below) detailing his departure and the secrecy surrounding it.   

In January, Neon Tommy took up the story again for, but was stymied in its efforts by the district. 

Every step of the way district employees refused to answer questions and requests for information about the precise reason Drummond left, citing an employee’s right to privacy. 

Attempting to dislodge some useful information, we filed a sizable public records request with the district. We asked for all correspondence between Marshall Drummond and/or his attorneys and the district for a period of time surrounding his departure. 

What we got in return was administrative e-mail messages and well wishes from LACCD staff after it was announced that Drummond was leaving.  

Linda Spink, the president of Los Angeles Harbor College at the time, sent an e-mail on June 25, 2009, expressing sadness over the announcement. 

“This district will be all the worse for your leaving, and especially now,” wrote Spink. “Budget and the politics is your strength and if folks don’t realize that they are fools.” 

David E. Beaulieu, the president of LACCD’s District Academic Senate wrote to Drummond in an e-mail with the subject line of “concern” later that afternoon. 

“I met with Carl this morning for a few hours to go over the story,” wrote Beaulieu. “Know that I also am very concerned, and very eager to get you back as soon as possible. If there is anything that I can do, just let me know. You'll be hearing from Carl again soon.” 

It is unclear what Beaulieu is referring to when he mentions “the story.” But items that were not released by the district were in fact far more interesting than these messages. 

The district’s lawyer Camille Goulet, withheld several e-mails between the Office of Legal Counsel and Drummond that were sent beginning on July 1, the day Drummond signed his separation agreement. Goulet cited employee privacy and the confidentiality of settlement negotiations as the reasons for doing so. 

A letter the district sent to Drummond on June 29, 2009, was also held withheld due to employee privacy. 

It is very likely that these documents and e-mail hold answers to why Drummond left, and why the district gave him such a large payout. 

The circumstances raise important questions over public access to the decisions government makes, especially when it involves large amounts of taxpayer dollars. 

Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Community College District has decided that the community at-large and the students who depend upon the colleges, do not deserve answers as to why it gave Drummond $428,750 to walk away.

The Mysterious Departure Of Marshall Drummond

by Andrew Khouri and John Guenther
Staff Reporters

Questions abound about $428,000 giveaway to Marshall Drummond.
(L.A. City College)

Board members won't say why they paid the Los Angeles Community College chancellor $428,000 to leave office.

In July, the seven-member board of the Los Angeles Community College District paid then-Chancellor Marshall Drummond nearly a half-million-dollars to quietly leave office.

Neither Drummond nor the board cited any reasons, saying they were bound by confidentiality rules and a clause in the severance pact that forbid either side from discussing the matter.

The sudden and puzzling departure of the high-profile career educator, who once oversaw the entire 110-campus California community college system, drew a short piece buried inside the Los Angeles Times, before vanishing from the media radar.

For the past three weeks, Neon Tommy sought to reopen this issue and pry loose the exact reasons that led Drummond and the board to part ways with two years remaining on his contract. None of the board members would budge and reveal any of their reasoning that led to Drummond's $428,750 severance.

The board's penchant for secrecy angered open-government advocates.

"We are in such dire financial straits that the public is owed an explanation why this was given to him," Bob Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies said.The Elected Seven-Member L.A. Community College Board of Trustees:

  • Mona Field, President
  • Georgia L. Mercer, Vice President
  • Kelly G. Candaele
  • Tina Park
  • Nancy Pearlman
  • Miguel Santiago
  • Sylvia Scott-Hayes
  • Rodney Robinson, Student Trustee

Among the questions posed to the board by Neon Tommy: 1) Was the $428,750 payout given to Marshall Drummond contractually obligated? If so what provision? 2) Who, the Board of Trustees or Chancellor Drummond, initiated the process of his resignation? 3) Why may the board cite confidential personnel issues in refusing to answer questions over Chancellor Drummond's departure? 4) How can taxpayers evaluate whether you're spending their money properly if you won't tell them what prompted you to give your chancellor nearly a half million dollars to leave before his contract was up? 5) How would you explain your reasons for paying Chancellor Drummond nearly a half million dollars to students and teachers who've seen classes cut and the general state of public education deteriorate throughout the community college district?

Board President Mona Field declined to comment on the reasons and when asked how the public should know whether she and the board acted in the best interest of taxpayers, she referred to a vague, incomplete press release available online.

"No comment except what is available online," Field said. "We do not release to anyone anything on an employee, period." 

Neon Tommy addressed a formal e-mail to all board members, seeking to understand their rationale for secrecy at a time of tumultuous budgets.

One of the six questions: How can taxpayers evaluate whether you're spending their money properly if you won't tell them what prompted you to give your chancellor nearly a half million dollars to leave before his contract was up?

None of the board members responded to the e-mail.

In our quest for a full airing of the reasons for Drummond's departure, Neon Tommy sought the guidance of Terry Francke, the general counsel for Californians Aware, a nonprofit that advocates for public information.

Francke reviewed the three-page severance agreement, and analyzed the clause banning either side from commenting on the reasons from the chancellor's calling it quits. 

Francke also examined Drummond's original, four-page job contract and the paragraphs setting out in general terms how much it would cost the district if he did not serve his full, four-year term. 

The unexpected departure of a high-level official, such as Drummond, is in the "highest public interest," Francke said. "If people are indifferent to why top government officials appear and disappear then we can't hold out much hope for self-government." 

Drummond himself appears to have moved on with his life. He took a $1,200-day consulting job at the Peralta Community Colleges, and issued a report that ironically chided the Northern California system for lack of transparency in addressing questions about board members' lavish travel budget and the chancellor's salary details. Drummond recently accepted a post in the United Arab Emirates, where he is chief operating officer and provost at the Higher Colleges of Technology. In an e-mail exchange, he refused to discuss details of his leaving. 

Francke said the board members can withhold the reasons for Drummond's exit if they can be deemed to be medical or personal. However, the board's refusal to comment makes it impossible for the public to judge if those reasons existed. 

The district's lawyer, Camille Goulet, rejected Neon Tommy's written requests for any documents pertaining to Drummond's leaving, citing confidentiality issues. 

Read Marshall Drummond's contract and separation agreement with the Los Angeles Community College District.   Although he refused to state why he stepped down, Drummond said in an e-mail that his severance came out of negotiations that "were necessary on how exactly to break the terms of the contract and bring it to a mutually agreeable termination." Because both parties mutually agreed to part ways, they had to enter into negotiations to break the contract, Francke said.   "[The board] was 'required to' [pay out] not by law but by the realities of negotiation," Francke said in an email. "If they wanted him to leave and say nothing about the reasons for his leaving or institute any legal proceedings against them, they had to meet his terms, with the government code as a ceiling."    The code limits how much an agency can give a departing employee. If more than 18 months remain on an employee's contract at the time of departure, the settlement cannot surpass 18 times the monthly salary. Drummond had two years remaining on a four-year contract.     However, other options may have existed. For example, if the board had cause to fire Drummond, it could have done so without paying him, Francke said. If no cause existed, board members could have faced legal action if they let him go without compensation, Francke said.   During a time of significant budget cuts, the board members' silence forces the public to trust that they responsibly spent taxpayer money on Drummond.   Tight budgets prompted the board to cancel the district's second 2009 summer session.   Student fees have also risen statewide at community colleges from $20 per unit to $26 per unit.   Overall, California Community Colleges received 10.4 percent less from the state general fund in 2009-10, compared to the 2007-08 budget, according to a report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.   Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility called the board's handling of the matter "outrageous" and said Drummond's severance shows the need to reform how public employee contracts, especially those of top officials, are negotiated and voted upon.   "[Labor contracts] are negotiated away from public view without any independent oversight function," she said, "setting the public up for huge debt if conditions deteriorate."  Drummond champions transparency   Drummond first served as chancellor of the L.A. community colleges from 1999 to 2004, when he left to run the California Community College system. He returned as chancellor in Los Angeles in 2007 and stayed until he unexpectedly took a leave of absence in June.   Two months ago, in his stint as a consultant in Peralta, Drummond expressed the importance of public agencies conducting their business in the open.    Stories published in July by the Bay Area News Group raised questions about travel spending by Peralta board members and the chancellor's $300,000 salary. On July 29, California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott recommended Drummond to the Peralta district for the job of conducting a third-party review of these issues.   In presenting his findings to Peralta board members on Sept. 15, Drummond admonished them for failing to be more transparent when it came to providing details about the chancellor's compensation.    Said Drummond at the meeting: "There's just a lot of unclarity. So, that leads to people being skeptical and, if they don't understand it, they think there's something wrong with it."

Half-Million Dollar L.A. Community College Payout Wasn't So Friendly

by John Guenther and Andrew Khouri
Staff Reporters

Marshall Drummond gained a $428,000 severance after threatening to sue L.A.
Community College District. (L.A. City College)

Former chancellor Marshall Drummond threatened to sue the Los Angeles Community College District before board members handed him nearly a half-million dollars to leave his job this summer, the district's lawyer revealed Thursday.

The threatened legal action by Drummond occurred before the Board of Trustees approved a mutual separation agreement, Camille Goulet, general counsel for the district said. The agreement went into effect on July 31 and pays Drummond $428,750.

Goulet refused to comment further on any details behind Drummond's threat of legal action against the district.

In an e-mail exchange this week with Neon Tommy, Drummond also declined to comment.

These revelations raise new questions about the career educator's surprise exit.

Until now, both sides have maintained Drummond's departure was mutual and revealed no ill will between the two camps. However, the threatened litigation suggests more was behind the former chancellor's sudden exit than simply a mutual desire to part ways.

Board President Mona Field could not be reached for comment.

Drummond served as chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District from 1999 to 2004, before leaving to run the 110-campus California community college system.  He returned as chancellor in Los Angeles in 2007 until he unexpectedly left this summer. Drummond now serves as chief operating officer and provost at the Higher Colleges of Technology in the United Arab Emirates. 

Since Drummond's large payout was announced in July, the board has consistently refused to say why the former chancellor suddenly left.

The original Nov. 24 Neon Tommy story that documented the board's penchant for secrecy on the matter appears below.

The board refused to answer any questions related to Drummond's exit, citing employee privacy and a confidentiality clause inserted into the agreement. The board members declined Neon Tommy's numerous attempts to get them to explain to taxpayers why the district paid Drummond such a large severance in the face of steep budget cuts

In total, California community colleges received 10.4 percent less from the state general fund in 2009-10, compared to the 2007-08 budget, a report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says.


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