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.
Today, people who describe themselves as friends of MiraCosta wonder if the board of trustees knew enough of Richart's philosophy of education when they made her the unanimous choice for the presidency. She had been the subject of an item in the February 2006 issue of the academic journal Leadership Abstract titled "Victoria Muñoz Richart and Embracing Chaos." In it, Richart said that teachers must "relish chaos as a creative force" and "trust, as the new sciences prove, that order will emerge from the chaos...."
She defined a leader as one who ensures that all team members are "well informed and possess the necessary skills for meaningful participation." She believed that "the power of multiple minds" of diverse and "cross-functional" backgrounds working together promotes "learning and collaboration," as opposed to "protect and attack."
But some would wonder if President Richart had not adopted the attack mode herself.
Aside from Kraskouskas, the fallout from the Palm Scheme also snared a popular vice president for instructional services, Julie Hatoff. Hatoff was placed on administrative leave in August. She had been at MiraCosta 23 years at the time and was earning nearly $201,000 a year. She sent a memo about it to the faculty governing body, the Academic Senate, saying she'd been given a week, until September 1, to decide whether to take a financial settlement from the college. Hatoff hired the San Diego law firm Seltzer, Caplan, McMahon and Vitek to represent her. In the third week of September, one of her attorneys met with Academic Senate members and reported that, as recently as September 6, the district attorney's office had told him that Hatoff was not the target of an investigation.
By then, in response to a Public Records Act request from the North County Times, attorneys for the college had provided the name of the businessman involved in the Palm Scheme, Jack Wackerman, a former fertilizer company official. Horticultural faculty member Alleen Texeira was on paid leave. And in December a gender-discrimination lawsuit would name another horticultural employee, Terry Riggs, as the person who had blown the whistle on the Palm Scheme to administrators.
Meanwhile, longtime MiraCosta supporters were beginning to speak out. Among the most vocal was Jean Moreno, an alumna who had retired from the board in 2003 after 27 years. Her viewpoint was that the Palm Scheme was largely a concocted mini-scandal that Richart was using to dispatch people she no longer wanted around.
On October 3, the board of trustees passed a resolution of support for President Richart.
But faculty leaders called for a vote of no confidence in the president. And with the election coming up, they also sought to replace an incumbent, Henry Holloway, whom they viewed as an apologist for Richart. He'd been on the board 30 years. Judy Strattan, who spent 9 years at MiraCosta as dean of students and left in 1987 to go on to two community college presidencies, the last in Barstow, decided to challenge Holloway. The biggest fund-raiser in the campaign, she became known as the faculty candidate. She won by a 60-40 margin.
As the momentum for a no-confidence vote built, Richart responded with a November 28 two-and-a-half-page letter to "concerned full-time faculty." She said that allegations being circulated about her stemmed from a "distortion of actual events" and were based on "hearsay, rumor and misinterpretation of the facts," rendering them "untrue, and/or exaggerated to contribute to unrest."
The president said she was unable to refute many of the falsehoods because it would compromise the privacy rights of college employees. "Furthermore," she added, "the district attorney's office is now conducting the investigation of these matters and we cannot disclose any information that may affect the criminal investigation."
Two days later, the faculty revealed the results of balloting on a no-confidence resolution. Seventy-eight percent of the eligible voters had turned out. The vote was 106 to 8 for a declaration of no confidence.
Then, on January 16, 2007, at a meeting of the board of trustees, the board acknowledged that the college district had owned the palm trees all along. Item 1.3 in the board's agenda packet described the source of the trees. In 1997, a legal dispute had arisen between an Oceanside property owner and a tenant that involved, the agenda item said, quoting court documents, " 'over 700 large Palm Trees, worth in excess of one million dollars' and approximately '2,400 containerized plants.' " The agenda item continued, "During the course of this litigation...an oral agreement was made in February 1998 with the Horticulture Department at MiraCosta College to 'clean up the property and remove the trees and other debris.' "
The board's resolution said that a "search of the agendas and minutes" from years past had revealed that trustees had never been asked to accept the donation of any trees. The recommendation was that the board do so now. It was also noted that the college had inventoried the trees in March 2006; MiraCosta had 2328 palms.
The agenda item did not address the "fraudulent payments" to the private businessman or whether any palm trees had ever been sold.
"If they didn't know how many they had," asks Jean Moreno, the former longtime boardmember, "how did they know how many were sold?"
Paul Levikow, the communications director in the district attorney's office, said he could not confirm whether any individuals are the subject of an investigation in the Palm Scheme. "I can tell you the case has not been rejected, if I was able to acknowledge the existence of such an investigation," he said.
In other developments in the Horticulture Department, two employees, both female, have filed separate lawsuits alleging that their supervisor practiced gender discrimination in making their work assignments. One, Emma Almendarez, named the college and several John Does as defendants in an action she filed October 6 in U.S. District Court in San Diego. She complained that her work assignments differed from those of the men and that when she pointed this out, she was retaliated against.
The second employee, Karen Austin, who filed suit in superior court in Vista three days after Christmas, said campus officials ignored her complaints. She charged that officials wanted to protect her boss, Terry Riggs, because he blew the whistle on the Palm Scheme.