Report details how a Santa Clara County trustee discriminated against women
The Santa Clara County Board of Education is pictured in this file photo. Photo by David Alexander.

A new report obtained by San José Spotlight through a records request revealed Santa Clara County Board of Education trustee Joseph Di Salvo was “dismissive and disrespectful” toward women and attempted “to undermine or to intimidate a woman into changing her opinion.”

Earlier this month, Di Salvo was censured by the board in a split vote for accusations of discriminating against women.

The Santa Clara County Office of Education on Friday released a six-page summary, but not the full report by Carrie McFadden, an investigative attorney for Van Dermyden Maddux. The office of education cited attorney-client privilege as a reason for not releasing McFadden’s full investigative  report.

“Since the SCCOE retained an attorney as an outside investigator to investigate the employee complaints against Board Member Di Salvo, the investigator’s executive report containing her factual findings is protected by the attorney-client privilege and the attorney work product doctrine,” said Ronald Wenkart, an attorney with Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, in response to a public records request by this news organization.

The county hired McFadden to look into complaints from two staffers and two board members to the County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan alleging that Di Salvo had harassed them based on their gender.

Attorney-client privilege aside — Wenkart said the employees who filed complaints with the superintendent and gave witness testimony to the investigator have asked that McFadden’s full report remain confidential.

“In this instance, the employees involved in the investigation as complainants and witnesses fear that they will be retaliated against even if their names are redacted from the investigation report because their identities can be ascertained from facts contained in the report,” Wenkart said. “For that reason, they have asked that the investigation report not be disclosed.”

McFadden noted that “evidence of overt bias is rare,” according to the summary of her investigation.

But the investigator “found sufficient evidence demonstrating that Di Salvo’s behavior was motivated in part by gender.”

“Most witnesses corroborated Di Salvo’s communication style was more elevated or aggressive when he disagreed with someone, felt he was losing power or control, or when he was not getting his way,” according to the summary obtained by San José Spotlight.

The investigation also concluded that while Di Salvo was more aggressive when he disagreed with colleagues and others who spoke at school board meetings, he treated men with more respect and deference than women. “Four witnesses felt Di Salvo was ‘dismissive’ and ‘disrespectful’ towards women who disagreed with him but did not engage in similar behavior towards men,” the report said.

For example, witnesses described Di Salvo’s tone of voice as “argumentative” and “hostile” when he criticized Counsel Meredith Brown during a closed session meeting in November or December 2019. Several people told McFadden that Di Salvo implied that Brown’s legal opinion was not credible because one of the witnesses signs Brown’s paychecks.

“You are just telling her what she wants to hear because she signs your paychecks,” Di Salvo said, according to the summary. “Di Salvo also asked Brown whether a male attorney… would agree with her legal opinion.”

McFadden’s investigation also sustained the allegation that during a Sept. 6, 2017 board meeting Di Salvo “demeaned” female trustees with his behavior which included rudely interrupting one, and then when another trustee “was attempting to calm Di Salvo when she reached out to touch his arm, yet he suddenly physically and verbally overreacted to her gesture.”

“Di Salvo acknowledged he later wrote an apology letter to the Board for his behavior, which suggested that he recognized his behavior was inappropriate,” McFadden noted.

The report said Di Salvo’s communication style became more heated when the person who disagreed with him was a woman. The conduct appeared to be an attempt “to undermine or to intimidate a woman into changing her opinion,” the report said.

Di Salvo, whose term is up this year, said the investigation lacked evidence and he was denied due process. He called the effort “a case against my re-election campaign in the months leading up to the election.”

“I care about our students and families deeply and that often comes across in my work on the board when I am making my case on certain policies,” he said before the vote. “I’m proud of my work on the board and I will set the record straight.”

More than two dozen parents, principals and his fellow trustees defended Di Salvo ahead of the vote to censure him on July 16, praising his long record of advocacy for local charter schools and students.

“For over 12 years, I have watched Joseph Di Salvo serve alongside me on the board with integrity and respect for all staff and board members, including women,” Trustee Grace Mah said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “The accusations lack clear evidence and appear to be politically driven as this is arising four months before a major election.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

 

Summary of Findings

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