By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For nearly 30 minutes, embattled schools safety director Hamid Arabzadeh voiced the most explosive allegations heard in school-district headquarters for some time. He talked of district employees being on the take, of widespread mismanagement by district officials and of safety lapses that could well cost lives. School-board members listened intently, sometimes restively.
And when Arabzadeh was finished, they fired him.
The board's action, by a slim majority, is the latest chapter in a saga over safety and management issues at L.A. Unified that will take months, if not longer, to shake out. In short, Arabzadeh claims he's been terminated for being a whistle blower. School-district officials insist they fired him because of unacceptable performance on the job - but also authorized an internal investigation into Arabzadeh's allegations.
Arabzadeh's supporters characterized the entire proceeding as a triumph of status quo office politics over public safety, and of expedience over health. But a majority of school-board members ultimately concluded that Arabzadeh was tactically diverting a negative personnel evaluation into a debate over safety practices.
At the extraordinary personnel hearing Tuesday, school-board members had assembled to deliberate Arabzadeh's fate as director of the district's Environmental Health and Safety branch, a position he's held since August 1997. A substantial portion of the four-hour proceeding was conducted in public, at Arabzadeh's request.
Although the outcome surprised no one, the details, particularly the allegations made by Arabzadeh, were a series of actual and potential bombshells.
The 39-year-old Arabzadeh, in tones that varied from discomfort to outright distress, castigated senior administrators for refusing to implement basic safety programs. "We are endangering the public," he told the school board. "We are endangering students. Look at this as my year-end report."
He also accused senior staff of "environmental injustice," asserting that they had saddled poor and minority neighborhoods with schools located on industrial, often contaminated, land. Such practices, he said, would never be allowed in more prosperous areas, such as the Westside.
In his wide-ranging remarks, Arabzadeh even touched on the controversial Belmont Learning Complex, the state's most expensive high-school-construction project, saying that environmental remediation on the site, a former oil field, had been mishandled, contributing to unnecessarily increased costs.
In sum, he told the school board, "We are going to have serious accidents. Fatalities. Ladies and gentlemen, this is no joke."
Responses from board members ranged, for the most part, from frustration to dismissiveness. Following his warning about the imminent risk of injuries, board president Victoria M. Castro implied that Arabzadeh was taking too long, noting, "You've gone over 20 minutes."
Board members David Tokofsky and Valerie Fields, on the other hand, expressed frustration with the vagueness of Arabzadeh's allegations. "You talk about corruption," said Tokofsky. "I want to know who said what and when." Tokofsky also insisted that Arabzadeh turn over the names of corroborating witnesses to whom he had alluded.
But Arabzadeh refused. He said he was willing to answer all questions fully, but only in closed session. Nor, he added, would he expose conscientious employees who could corroborate his allegations unless he felt certain they would be protected from retribution.
Board members promised protection, but Arabzadeh was not persuaded - at least not at Tuesday's session.
Nor were Arabzadeh's alleged transgressions aired in public. The school board agreed to an unusual format, half public, half private: Arabzadeh and his supporters testified in public; allegations by his critics were aired only behind closed doors. While this effectively skewed the testimony available to the public in Arabzadeh's favor, it also shielded Arabzadeh's accusers, along with any allegations against him, from scrutiny. Some of these allegations leaked out, however, through board member George Kiriyama, who asked Arabzadeh if he was "anti-women" and if he had failed to be available or punctual. Kiriyama also alluded to complaints that Arabzadeh had imposed group prayer on his staff.
Arabzadeh's attorney wouldn't discuss the allegations, but characterized them as "fabricated."
Neither Arabzadeh nor his attorney were allowed to attend the closed session at which these allegations were reviewed. Also absent from the witness list were colleagues supportive of Arabzadeh. His attorney, Pamela Mozer, accused district administrators of intimidating witnesses by threatening their jobs and denying them the use of vacation time to appear on Arabzadeh's behalf. She singled out Dianne Doi, the interim head of Arabzadeh's department.
Doi, who was at the hearing, denied having threatened anyone. She asserted that no one had asked her for permission to attend. "I did indicate that if there were last-minute vacation requests, they would not be approved," she said, unless an attorney requested a staff member to appear.
Despite the self-imposed limits of Arabzadeh's testimony, his impassioned remarks did hit some reasonably specific targets. He accused staff members of "sanitizing" and destroying public information. "Files have been missing when board members and investigators asked for them," he said, adding that he'd been instructed by unnamed staffers to "spin" the school board and the press. The idea of shredding documents "was joked about in staff meetings," he said.
He also denounced cronyism, and supervisors who told him, "Such and such is my friend. Make him happy."
Overall, Arabzadeh painted a portrait of a district health and safety department that was going through the motions, rather than fulfilling its mission to protect the health and safety of students and staff.