Cupertino Union fined for violating California ethics laws

Mass mailers that went out to local residents in 2016 and 2017 will have the Cupertino Union School District shelling out $2,500 for violating the state’s Political Reform Act.

On July 18, the Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces California’s political ethics laws, approved the fine for CUSD’s role in designing, printing and distributing, “over 200 copies of mass mailing at the public expense.” Two of the newsletters featured members of CUSD’s Board of Education and included a “message” from then-board president Josephine Lucey, according to a complaint written by the FPPC’s Chief of Enforcement Galena West.

West added that the June 2016 mailer also touted the board’s accomplishments alongside a picture of board members. State regulations ban mailings that are sent out at the public’s expense if they feature an elected official.

In May 2017, CUSD sent out a third mailer that violated state law, this time regarding the Citizens’ Parcel Tax Oversight Committee. The mailer contained photos of then-board members Anjali Kausar, Kristen Lyn, Phyllis Vogel and Soma McCandless. Vogel is the only member who still sits on the board today.

“The CUSD used public moneys to pay for the cost of distribution and also used public moneys in excess of $50 to pay for the cost of design, production and printing for these three mass mailings,” West wrote. “Furthermore, the CUSD produced more than 200 copies of each mass mailing.”

Leslie Mains, chief engagement officer for CUSD, said it wasn’t the district’s intent to violate the law.

“The communications in question were part of the district’s attempt to better communicate with the public,” Mains said. “The articles by, and photos of, board members that were the focus of the complaint were included by staff, not at the request of board members.”

In addition to board turnover, the district has changed over its top administrator since the violations took place. The May 2017 mailer was sent out when the district was searching for a new superintendent. The CUSD board had forced out then-superintendent Mary Gudalewicz a month earlier amid increasing ferment that began in June 2015 when she transferred the entire staff of an elementary school. Craig Baker was named as Gudalewicz’s successor and continues to serve as superintendent.

When asked if the $2,500 fine was fair, Mains said that the district preferred to resolve the issue now, rather than spending additional funds to dispute the violation.

“We have a new superintendent, and 80 percent of our school board trustees are new to the district,” Mains said. “We are eager to move forward to address critical issues facing the district rather than addressing matters from three years ago under a completely different administration.”

While the maximum penalty for this type of violation is $5,000, the FPPC takes into consideration things like intent and severity. In the complaint, West wrote that while there was a “pattern of violations,” there was no evidence that the district was trying to deceive the public. CUSD also doesn’t have any prior record of violating the Political Reform Act.