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MiraCosta College dean Eileen Kraskouskas was in San Francisco for a three-day conference last March when she got e-mails and calls from the office of the MiraCosta president telling her that 2006 would be her last opportunity to "take a Golden Handshake for an enhanced retirement," according to court documents Kraskouskas filed when she brought suit against the college on January 18 in superior court in Vista.

Kraskouskas was to e-mail her answer by midnight that day, March 15, the first day of the conference being held by the California Community College Association for Occupational Education. She balked. At MiraCosta since 1996, she had one year to go on a two-year contract as dean of career and technical education.

About three weeks later, on April 10, Kraskouskas, back on campus, was called to a meeting with the college president, Victoria Muñoz Richart. Kraskouskas's lawsuit describes their meeting this way: Richart said to her that a so-called "Palm Scheme" had been uncovered on campus and that Kraskouskas "probably knew" that MiraCosta employees were reaping personal gain from planting and tending palm trees on college property, using college labor and materials, and then selling the trees for profit.

Richart said there was a second problem, Kraskouskas's court papers state. In the administration's view, Kraskouskas had failed to gain enough university credit hours while on sabbatical in the fall of 2005 to meet MiraCosta's requirements. Thus, according to the court documents, the board would be asking her to reimburse the college the amount it had paid her during her semester off campus. The sum was $56,256.

Richart, the complaint notes, put an offer on the table. The $56,256 tab would be forgiven in exchange for Kraskouskas's giving up $14,500 in earned vacation time. She could either take the proposal or be suspended immediately and placed on administrative leave. She could also become the subject of an investigation by an unnamed "external agency" for suspicion of fraud.

On April 13, three days after the meeting, believing she was about to be fired, Kraskouskas indicated she would accept the offer and retire early. Six days later, Kraskouskas signed a letter of resignation.

At a retirement party at a faculty member's home on May 19, Kraskouskas told her story to colleagues. Back on campus three days later, Kraskouskas again was summoned to the president's office and told, according to her complaint, that her "false accusations" were "ruining" MiraCosta. She was then ordered to leave the campus immediately.

Kraskouskas had joined MiraCosta in 1996 as instructional dean in vocational education and applied science. Her salary, on a campus where faculty and administrators are paid some of the highest wages of any community college district in California, was then around $73,000. In July 2005, less than a year before her resignation, she signed a two-year contract to become dean of career and technical education with a boost in salary to $160,000. Kraskouskas would have served ten years and become eligible for retirement benefits at the end of the school year this past June.

Eight days went by, and on May 30, the college issued a press release entitled "MiraCosta takes action on alleged improper activities."

It began, "MiraCosta College is close to concluding an investigation into alleged fraudulent activities in the Horticulture Department.... The main focus of the investigation is an alleged shared enterprise between a college employee and a private businessperson to sell several thousand palm trees."

The college employee, who was unnamed, had since 1998 "allowed the businessperson to store the trees on campus and used college resources to care for the trees," the press release stated. "The alleged agreement was verbal," it added, "and was never approved by the governing board, nor has there been proper accounting for the sale of trees."

The press release also noted that "documented evidence exists of a fraudulent payment to the private businessperson."

The college had discovered the problem when "a college employee came forward with allegations of these activities and subsequently filed a written complaint in February 2006."

MiraCosta had addressed the situation by "taking possession" of the more than 2000 palm trees on college property and forwarding the findings of an on-campus probe to the office of the San Diego County district attorney for investigation, the news release stated.

"While personnel issues are confidential," it went on, "the college can confirm it is taking appropriate action with those employees directly involved in fraudulent activities and those found to have been negligent by allowing such activities to occur."

Founded in 1934 as Oceanside-Carlsbad Junior College, MiraCosta enrolls about 14,000 students at three campuses: the Barnard Drive campus in southeast Oceanside, the largest of the three with 121 hilltop acres commanding a view of the Pacific; the Community Learning Center on Mission Avenue in downtown Oceanside, a center known for helping non-native speakers become fluent in English; and the San Elijo campus, 42 acres just off Interstate 5 on Manchester Avenue in the Cardiff-by-the-Sea section of Encinitas, adjacent to the San Elijo Lagoon.

MiraCosta levies taxes based on property values in exclusive enclaves such as Fairbanks Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe, and the yield makes it one of the richest half dozen community college districts in California. The college is set this spring to officially open a new $7.6 million horticultural education building on the Barnard Drive campus. A National Education Association survey of salaries for full-time community college professors puts MiraCosta professors at the top of the salary scale not only in California but in the entire United States as well. The average was reported to be $98,611 a year.

Victoria Muñoz Richart had become MiraCosta's president in August 2004, four years after she'd opened the doors as president of Cascadia Community College in Bothell, Washington, 20 miles northeast of Seattle.

As a teacher in K-12 and college, her subjects had ranged from classical ballet to bilingual education to techniques for working with the disabled. Her charm was legendary. MiraCosta was looking for a smooth extrovert to succeed Tim Dong, who had retired in June 2004 after ten years as MiraCosta president. He'd been dean of students at the California State University at Los Angeles.

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