SAN LORENZO -- Hostile and discriminatory -- not words you would want used to describe anyone in a leadership position, much less a school principal.
For some teachers and counselors at Arroyo High School in the unincorporated San Lorenzo community, those words describe Principal Larry Smith, who has amassed more than two dozen staff complaints of various sorts since his arrival in 2006. That is more than any administrator in the San Lorenzo Unified School District in the last decade, according to the San Lorenzo Education Association union. Yet there is little indication in district files that administrators have taken action regarding Smith; indeed, even records of most of the complaints are absent.
"He has very little respect for women and women of color," said Aparna Gandhari, an Indian-American woman and counselor at Arroyo who filed a complaint with the district after Smith called her "a racist" Sept. 26. "He won't speak that way to any of my white colleagues."
Two other staff members, one an African-American teacher-turned counselor and the other a Latina teacher, filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging mistreatment based on their gender and ethnicity.
"Larry Smith has a very bad history of treating female teachers respectfully and equitably. ... Smith also has a negative history with Latino teachers," Mona Lisa Valadez, a Spanish teacher, wrote in an October 2012 complaint. The complaint did not result in federal action, but a reprimand that Smith later said in an email was "not warranted" was removed from her personnel file.
Smith -- who oversees nearly 1,800 students, 70 faculty members and 30 classified staff at the district's largest high school -- declined repeated requests for an interview about the litany of staff complaints, but wrote in an Oct. 8 email, "Any concerns shared directly with me are handled in a manner that aligns with the board approved district protocols." He said he can't comment on personnel matters and that discussing any details in a public forum "is not appropriate based on my ethics and integrity since it violates the confidential nature of the situation."
Smith took the Arroyo High job, his first as a head principal, after working as an assistant principal in Bell Gardens from 1999 to 2006. Earlier this year, he garnered attention when he wrongly accused a student of being a cyberbully at a May 3 anti-bullying assembly, a mistake he later apologized for but one that staff members say is emblematic of his persistent pattern of missteps.
The union counts 13 grievances alleging contract violations, 10 district complaints, four unfair labor practice charges with the state Public Employment Relations Board and two discrimination complaints lodged with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Smith to date. The complaints have been substantiated by district officials, the school board or state public employment officials in¿ 22 of the 28 cases that have been closed, ¿union leaders said. Because such complaints are confidential, the union's numbers could not be independently confirmed in every case.
District officials, however, initially told this newspaper no written complaints existed and that the only disciplinary write-up in Smith's personnel file was related to the anti-bullying assembly snafu. That turned out not to be true.
In an interview shortly before his late-September retirement, then-Superintendent Dennis Byas said he was not aware of any written complaints against Smith. He later backtracked when reminded of counselor Regina Ellis' 2008 EEOC complaint and confronted with a copy of a separate June district discrimination complaint stamped "received," accompanied by a district response letter and June 26 letter from Smith apologizing for reprimanding a teacher without meeting with her first, and failing to take her side into account regarding the early release of students for cap and gown distribution last school year.
Still, no evidence of the recent or past staff complaints are in Smith's personnel file, suggesting the complaints have not been properly tracked.
"It seems you have heard from one or more individuals that they have filed written complaints with the certain District officers against Mr. Smith. If that ¿has actually occurred, then I do not know what has happened with those documents," said assistant superintendent of business services Lowell Shira in an Oct. 3 email while serving as interim superintendent. In an earlier email, Shira said employee complaints and grievances are "not necessarily" placed in personnel files, but there would be a document, "citing any disciplinary action that occurs."
Union leaders say that lack of candor, and a lack of action by the district, is one reason their members have gone beyond the district, to state and federal agencies, with their complaints.
"The union has been aware of these concerns for years. The district can't say they didn't know," said union President Donna Pinkney, a counselor at Arroyo for more than 30 years. Pinkney, who is white¿, said she has never been on the receiving end of Smith's poor treatment but has witnessed it.
"It's a lack of professional treatment. It's a raised voice. It's a rude tone. It's a way of communicating that lets the employee know that they are not respected as a professional," she said.
There are some indications administrators were aware of the effects of Smith's behavior, despite their claims.
According to meeting minutes and staff members who were present, administrators called a special school site meeting Dec. 7, 2009, to allow staff to air their distress about Smith. That same year, Smith's supervisor, Director of Secondary Education Melanie Spears, placed him on an action plan "to improve campus climate and school culture," according to a copy of the plan provided by the union. One of the 10 areas of concern listed on the action plan was "communication with women." Smith was told to provide a female intermediary who could field staff concerns and relay them "to the administration who would be receptive and attentive, withholding comment and judgment."
That action plan is also absent from his file.
Racial tensions rose recently between Gandhari and Smith after he directed counselors in a Sept. 23 email to call African-American students to the office to give them a flier for a Sept. 28 district event titled, "Empowering our African American Children and Families." The morning event offered parent workshops on African-American health issues, "Trauma and its Effect on Learning" and a father's group, among other things.
Instead of summoning students to the office, she and other counselors sent the fliers to the classrooms for teachers to pass out. When Smith confronted Gandhari, she said she told him he may not understand how offensive it was to single out students by race since he is a white male. Smith responded that he is Panamanian, since he was born there, and he called her a racist, she said.
Gandhari filed a complaint with the district and Smith apologized for the interaction in an Oct. 29 interoffice memo, writing, "It is my wish that this apology will restore you and serve to help us professionally collaborate in the future as we interact."
Ellis said she was compelled to file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC in November 2008 after numerous run-ins with Smith, writing he "has an established pattern of making demeaning and belittling comments to female employees." The complaint did not result in any action, she said.
When a fellow employee in May 2009 recounted an old story about school administrators mistakenly eating a Christmas cake that Ellis had stored for a party, Smith sarcastically asked Ellis if she filed a grievance about it. "He was trying to goad me, embarrass me in front of my peers," Ellis said.
The reports of bad behavior have continued. In August, Ellis recalls Smith remarking at a staff development gathering, "Most men would like to take out a screwdriver to fix their wives."
Some hope things will change with new district leadership in the superintendent and human resources offices. Superintendent Fred Brill, who joined the district Oct. 7, declined to comment, saying it is a personnel matter.
"With a new superintendent coming in and with a new administration, hopefully they will look at these things more seriously," Gandhari said.
Ashly McGlone covers San Lorenzo. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/ashlyreports.