Santa Clara County education trustee accused of gender bias sues board and colleagues

A Santa Clara County education trustee who was censured by his colleagues last month for alleged gender bias has sued the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

Trustee Joseph DiSalvo filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California this week claiming that the board violated his rights to free speech and due process when the trustees decided in a split 4-3 vote to censure him during a July 15 meeting.

His complaint was filed against the board, the County Office of Education and the four trustees who voted in support of the censure — Claudia Rossi, Kathleen King, Rosemary Kamei and Peter Ortiz. He did not name trustees Grace Mah and Anna Song, who voted against the censure.

Di Salvo, who has served on the board for 12 years, was the subject of an outside investigation earlier this year after two County Office of Education employees and two fellow board trustees submitted complaints to County Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan on alleged gender and racial harassment by Di Salvo.

The investigator hired by the county office of education to review the complaints did not determine racial bias played a role in his conduct on the dais but did find that his behavior “goes beyond professional discourse, and instead represents a subtle bias against women who disagree with or challenge him,” according to a board memo.

The memo described Di Salvo’s behavior at board meetings as “making negative, critical, disrespectful, dismissive, demeaning and heated comments and behavior when challenging women whom he perceived were not doing what he wanted.”

But in his complaint, Di Salvo called the investigation “a sham intended for no other purpose than to embarrass (him) and to destroy his reputation and his political future.”

Di Salvo, who is up for reelection in November, disputes all the findings of the investigation and argues that he was not given adequate notice of a full and fair opportunity to be heard before the board’s vote to censure him.

According to the suit, Di Salvo was in Southern California dealing with a family emergency in early July when Rossi and Dewan demanded a meeting about the findings of the investigation. He states he was then given less than one week to review the claims made against him and request to reschedule the date of the censure vote, which was denied by his colleagues.

The complaint also claims that trustees were not provided with a copy of the full investigation and details of alleged gender-based harassment. Instead, they were merely given a short summary of the findings and “President Rossi’s description of the conclusion of the investigation.”

“The alleged complaints of gender-based harassment were simply a ruse by which Defendant Rossi and the superintendent could cause an investigation which would be influenced in large part by Defendant Rossi’s own bias against (Di Salvo),” the suit states.

In the suit, Di Salvo argues that bias revolves around the two colleagues’ opposing views on charters schools. The suit says Rossi has engaged in an “obnoxious and provocative manner” during discussions about charter schools, which Di Salvo has long been a vocal proponent for. It also alleges that Dewan is “closely aligned” with Rossi and other board members in an effort to damage his reputation and “silence his voice on the board.”

Santa Clara County Board of Education Trustee Joseph Di Salvo. 

Di Salvo, who is requesting a jury trial, said in a statement that he has “never seen the board engage in efforts so politically-motivated without regard to due process or a fair review of the facts.”

“Recent efforts to undermine my re-election campaign are deeply troubling and in part, motivated by efforts to eliminate high-quality schools that are serving students in our county,” he continued.

Board President Rossi, however, staunchly disagrees with his interpretation of the investigation and its findings.

“It disappoints me that instead of engaging in introspection and focusing on the employees affected by his behavior, he would add insult to injury by claiming that those concerns and those injuries were motivated by political considerations,” Rossi said. “I am very comfortable and very proud of the fact that we as a board weighed in on this very important issue.”

The county office of education did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

This story will be updated. 

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Author: Maggie Angst