South County school trustee scrutinized for past behavior

    Morgan Hill educators are questioning whether a school board member is fit for reelection after an independent probe found she abused her power by attempting to overturn her daughter’s student government election loss.

    Wendy Sullivan, an incumbent in the November race for the Morgan Hill Unified School District Board of Education, became the subject of an investigation by her own board in 2020 after repeatedly demanding Ann Sobrato High School faculty recall the student body presidential election results.

    James Levis, president of Morgan Hill’s teachers union, told San José Spotlight he has “lost faith” in Sullivan’s ability to lead the district. The union has endorsed Sullivan’s opponent, retired Britton Middle School Assistant Principal Nancy Altman, Levis said, in part because of Sullivan’s behavior.

    “An abuse of power like that is concerning,” Altman told San José Spotlight. “I think that someone in a position of power has to make sure they don’t do things like that.”

    The board never reprimanded Sullivan for her behavior, even after the district hired a local law firm to conduct the investigation, which determined she had abused her power, later published in a board meeting agenda. Two years later, some district leaders say the controversial candidate escaped accountability and they’re concerned she doesn’t have the district’s best interests at heart.

    Sullivan did not address the investigation’s findings and did not respond to questions about her role in the controversy. She provided a statement to San José Spotlight.

    “Like our students, I learn every day to be better at these jobs,” Sullivan said, referring to her role as a mother and trustee. “I will continue to passionately advocate for the children of our community.”

    Election results challenged

    The investigation report chronicles months of meetings and emails between Sullivan and faculty over the summer of 2020.

    Shortly after the results of the remotely-conducted student election were announced in May, Sullivan approached Regan Stuart, the Ann Sobrato High School teacher who oversaw the election, to voice her concerns. She told Stuart she believed her daughter’s opponent had plagiarized several of his election-related social media posts and bribed students with cookies to vote for him. The names of both student candidates were redacted from the investigation.

    An independent investigation of Morgan Hill Unified School District Trustee Wendy Sullivan found she had abused her power trying to influence the outcome of her daughter’s high school election. Image courtesy of Morgan Hill Unified School District.

    Sullivan believed the opponent had also violated election rules by “engaging in negative campaigning and comments,” according to the report, and that his behavior continued even after she reported the violations to a school official. She believed “the election was rigged” and her daughter was “the victim of the quid pro quo and bribery scandal.”

    But Stuart didn’t agree with Sullivan, and refused to recall the results.

    “It’s a high school—it’s not like this is a life-or-death presidential election,” Stuart told San José Spotlight. “If I’d felt there was some type of nefarious actions by either of them, I would’ve done the reelection on my own.”

    Matthew and Jeanne Lee, the parents of the student who won the election, were outraged when they learned Sullivan had accused their son of dishonestly, according to the report, and they contacted school administrators to express their “extreme confusion and frustration.”

    Sullivan took her complaints to Stuart’s superiors. In emails sent throughout summer 2020, she asked administrators to address the matter. Theresa Sage, the school’s new principal, reviewed the election results again, and found no evidence of foul play. Sullivan then accused Sage, who began her tenure at Sobrato shortly after the student election, of being unethical and unfair.

    “As our country heads into a critical election season, it’s really sad to know that the politics in a high school environment can be just as tainted and corrupt,” Sullivan said in a July 21, 2020 email to Sage and other school administrators. “I have kept quiet up to this point out of respect for the school, but that too has limitations.”

    Sage felt threatened by Sullivan’s attempts to pressure her into changing the election results, the report said, and feared Sullivan would voice her discontent at a public board meeting—or even influence the board to overturn her hiring. Sage did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

    A disputed investigation

    By August, the Lee family was fed up. They filed their complaint, sparking the investigation. The firm hired by the district presented its findings to the board at a Nov. 17, 2020 meeting: the report determined Sullivan had used her influence as a trustee to attempt to overturn the election. During public comment, Matthew Lee pleaded with the board not to accept Sullivan’s behavior.

    But the board disagreed. Several trustees disputed the investigation’s findings that she purposefully used her sway as a trustee to influence the election. They declined to take further action on the matter. Amy Oppenheimer, who’s firm conducted the investigation, did not respond to requests for comment.

    Looking back, Lee is still shocked by the board’s decision.

    “She should not be a trustee,” he told San José Spotlight. “She does not serve in the best interests of the students and parents of Morgan Hill. She should have been removed two years ago.”

    The trustees either declined to comment or did not respond to emails and phone calls from San José Spotlight.

    Levis, head of the teachers union, was dismayed by what he considered a lack of accountability by the trustees.

    “I expected an apology from her to my member, to the teacher, and nothing,” he said. “She certainly lost my confidence when she refused to take responsibility for her actions.”

    Local teachers, including Stuart, joined Levis in expressing doubts about the trustee’s ability to lead her district.

    “She didn’t get the answers she wanted, so she just kept at it,” Stuart said. “I don’t know what her goal is, but I don’t think it’s to support me and my fellow teachers.”

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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