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California schools chief churns through top aides in allegedly toxic workplace

SACRAMENTO — Nearly two dozen senior officials have fled California’s top education agency since Tony Thurmond became state schools superintendent in 2019, with several of them accusing him of creating a toxic workplace that burned through staff with decades of experience.

Much of the exodus occurred as California’s K-12 system faced its most tumultuous crisis in generations. The state had some of the nation’s longest pandemic school closures, and districts have been desperate for more guidance from the California Department of Education on how best to reopen and keep campuses safe.

Nine former state education officials said that morale is so low and turnover so high that CDE cannot efficiently operate as Thurmond allegedly humiliated and intimidated staff. The former officials once in Thurmond’s inner circle spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity because they are still working in education and worried about retribution.

Two of the former aides said that the department executive team was asked to proclaim aloud that they were “all in on Team Thurmond” at a meeting last year. Seven of the former top officials said that anyone who disagreed with Thurmond on policy matters or did anything he felt could hurt his public image was accused of being insubordinate or disrespectful.

Some said working under him impacted their mental health. Three former employees compared it to being in an abusive relationship or having an abusive parent — where aides walked on eggshells and cried on the job. Former officials described hostile exchanges and three of them provided texts and video to POLITICO to corroborate incidents, but they did not want specifics published out of concern the details could identify them.

“It’s not the California Department of Education. It’s Tony Thurmond’s campaign headquarters. It’s not about the students of California,” one former employee said.

Asked about the allegations, Thurmond said in a statement that he is “immensely proud” of the California Department of Education’s “work that has taken on even greater urgency as California fought through a global pandemic and a society-wide reckoning on civil rights.” He declined an interview request and retained an outside consultant to help respond to the allegations.

POLITICO spoke to 24 sources familiar with Thurmond’s office for this story, including former Department of Education employees, education consultants and lobbyists.

Thurmond, 53, is a former Democratic assemblymember from the East Bay. He was elected superintendent in 2018 with support from the California Teachers Association against another Democrat backed by charter school advocates in an unusually expensive battle. Thurmond faces reelection next year for the nonpartisan office.

California is one of only 13 states where the state superintendent is elected by voters rather than appointed. Thurmond’s supporters have pointed to his focus on equity in a state where public school students of color comprise the overwhelming majority.

As the pandemic unfolded, Thurmond was noticeably absent from major education announcements as Gov. Gavin Newsom, a fellow Democrat, built up his own school response team and leaned on state school board officials and his own cabinet for policy expertise. That has reduced the role of Thurmond’s Department of Education in guiding schools through Covid-19 closures and reopening.

The CDE organizational chart, updated just last month, is already out of date. Five of the 34 officials listed as overseeing the 2,174-employee agency are no longer there, in addition to two vacancies for general counsel and an audits director on the chart.

Catalina Cifuentes, chair of the California Student Aid Commission, was appointed by Thurmond in January 2019 as deputy superintendent of performance, planning and technology. Three months later, she resigned to return to her previous job at the Riverside County Office of Education.

Since Thurmond took over the Department of Education in 2019, nine officials have been assigned to help oversee State Special Schools, which is in charge of education for California’s deaf and blind students.

“The long-term end result of this might be that more and more of the operations of the department come under the control of the governor,” said a former CDE official who worked closely with Thurmond. “People are coming and going, trying to survive working under him, and it’s getting to the point where who is going to be left to get things done? The last thing you want to do is work for him.”

When asked about the hostile workplace allegations, Thurmond’s role in the state’s school pandemic response and the superintendent’s relationship with the governor, Newsom’s office said, “We have no comment on your inquiry. Thanks for reaching out.”

California Department of Education spokesperson Maria Clayton, Thurmond’s third director of communications in less than three years, denied “the characterization” of the superintendent and said in an email that he is passionate about education in part because of his experience as “an orphan and foster youth.”

“This is demanding work, and the superintendent has high expectations of staff — because he knows that kids don’t get a second chance at childhood. That reality defines his approach to the job and how he believes the Department should fulfill its important mission — especially in this time of great need,” Clayton said.

The California Teachers Association was instrumental in Thurmond’s 2018 election win after spending more than $8 million on his behalf against charter advocate Marshall Tuck. But the union said it is too early to commit to supporting the state schools chief’s reelection.

“We have a really extensive and deliberative endorsement process. It’s premature to talk about endorsements for next year’s election,” CTA spokesperson Lisa Gardiner said.

Two other powerful labor organizations, the California Federation of Teachers and Service Employees International Union, have already donated this year to a committee to reelect Thurmond.

Newsom has drawn the most attention among California leaders for public school operations during the pandemic. Conservatives and some parents blamed him for lengthy shutdowns last academic year, while teachers feuded with the governor when he called on schools to reopen before education staff was fully vaccinated.

Thurmond does not have the executive powers that Newsom does, nor does he oversee the state public health department, which has established protocols for schools during the pandemic.

But Thurmond has rarely used his pulpit to voice strong opinions on school policies the way Newsom and several state lawmakers have. And school districts are struggling to figure out how to navigate state Covid-19 requirements.

When Newsom announced that California would be among the first states to mandate teacher vaccines in August, the superintendent was not at the news conference in Oakland, a city he represented as a legislator. The governor was flanked by local education leaders and State School Board President Linda Darling-Hammond, whose education policy research he has routinely acclaimed.

While Thurmond has joined Newsom at some education events and hosted “virtual town halls” to promote vaccines and made appearances on national TV to talk about California schools during the pandemic, sources in the Capitol say he has not been in the room for Newsom’s biggest decisions.

It’s a stark contrast from other state setups. In Washington, a comparatively more vocal Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal has shared the spotlight with Gov. Jay Inslee, overseeing school compliance on issues like masking.

“I think various superintendents have been much more visible than Tony. I was,” said Delaine Eastin, a former Democratic state legislator who served as state superintendent of public instruction under governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis. “It’s a tough world these kids are in right now, and to have a Department of Education that really doesn’t have some of the power and the staffing that it needs … there needs to be more of a sense of a mission.”

In the latest instance, Newsom on Friday held a “major” press conference in San Francisco to announce California would become the nation’s first state to mandate student Covid-19 vaccines once federal officials approve them. Thurmond was not present, though other local and state officials were on hand. Newsom gave no reason for Thurmond’s absence, and he said he was not “privy to the details of those concerns” expressed by former state education officials about the superintendent in this story, a version of which published three days before the event.

The governor, however, said he’s had a “very good and constructive working relationship” with Thurmond that he looks forward to continuing for “years to come.”

In California, local control reigns when it comes to education. But the superintendent of public instruction, one of eight elected statewide constitutional officers, is responsible for overseeing curriculum and ensuring that California’s 10,000 schools comply with laws and the state’s need-based funding formula. The department also oversees programs like the California School for the Blind.

Separately, the governor appoints state school board members, and Newsom reinforced his own team last year by appointing Brooks Allen, a civil rights attorney, as his education policy adviser and executive director of the California Board of Education.

Thurmond backers say that the state superintendent has led on equity and addressing student poverty in a state where nearly 60 percent of public school students qualify for free and reduced price lunch.

Last week, Thurmond announced “a new effort to improve African American student achievement in the state,” as well as “a new plan to improve literacy rates of California students,” setting a goal of getting all third graders “able to read” by 2026.

“When we think about who the children are who rely on public education in the state, they are largely poor and largely children of color,” said Holly Mitchell, a former state legislator who now serves on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and has worked with Thurmond on issues such as police in schools. “I don’t know that there’s been a superintendent that in recent history has really stepped into that space.”

After POLITICO contacted Thurmond’s office for this story, he retained crisis communications consultant Nathan Click, a longtime Newsom spokesperson who helped locate outside supporters to vouch for the superintendent’s work.

But the turnover at Thurmond’s Department of Education is an “open secret” in Sacramento, lobbyists and sources close to the governor said, and his staffing policies have caused a concern before.

The California State Auditor’s Office flagged the Department of Education’s hiring practices in an audit last year of “improper activities” by state agencies. Unnamed senior‑level managers worked to “quickly hire” a pre-selected contractor for a management position and improperly approved “an inflated salary,” the audit found.

In response to the audit, the department agreed that it should not have used the hiring process but disputed other findings, disagreeing with the state auditor that the specific case was indicative of other staffing issues.

Thurmond has had three chief deputies of public instruction — the role of number two at CDE, and often the policy brains of the operation — since 2019. He’s been unable to retain employees in that key role despite the job having one of the highest salaries in state government, between $220,548 and $227,160.

Earlier this month, Thurmond promoted Mary Nicely, who previously led the department’s information and technology branch, to the position. She replaced Stephanie Gregson, who was sworn in in March 2020 and left to become a director at the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a liaison between state and local education agencies.

Lupita Cortez Alcala, who was sworn in as the department’s first Latina chief deputy in January 2019, held the role for one year before leaving to become the director of education policy at WestEd, a San Francisco-based education nonprofit.

An employee of another state agency, who worked closely with Thurmond on education issues, said he made it difficult to conduct business.

“Operations are at a standstill,” the official said. “You can’t get stuff done with him.”

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