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Hart District Superintendent Selection Controversy

| News | September 26, 2019

Despite concerns from community and media members over how the William S. Hart Union High School District picked its superintendent-elect, the current superintendent said the process was correct, proper and within the law – even though a Brown Act expert says differently.

“I think the board behaved in an appropriate and very wise manner,” Vicki Engbrecht said Tuesday during a 44-minute interview, “and took a lot of time to make the selection of Mr. (Mike) Kuhlman as superintendent-elect. … I take it as a suggestion that the community may have found value in having opportunities for more participation in the selection, but I disagree that the board did anything wrong.”

Terry Francke, chief counsel of the Sacramento-area nonprofit Californians Aware, said it is a violation to discuss policy in closed session, and it appears the district did that when figuring out the criteria for choosing its next superintendent.

According to the July 17 agenda, the board, in closed session, discussed such criteria. Engbrecht said on Tuesday that this included: somebody inside the district with a distinguished district record who is committed to the community.

While other agenda items include notes of what was said in open session, this one does not, although Engbrecht said it wasn’t required. Throughout the process, every item that needed to be reported during open session was, she said.

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Francke said, “Policy discussions are strictly for open session” and doing it in closed session violates the Brown Act, which governs meetings conducted by local legislative bodies and presumes public access unless specifically exempted.

Since the Brown Act was passed in 1953, it is incredibly rare to be successfully prosecuted for violating it, but earlier this month, a judge ruled the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors violated the Act by conducting a secret serial meeting in December to narrow a field of 48 applicants to 10 finalists for the vacant Third District seat. Community activist Steve Petzold said he sees similarities to Hart.

Individuals may bring one of three lawsuits to enforce it, one of which is to void a past action. The first step is to send a “cure and correct” letter, which is what Petzold has done. His letter alleges a Brown Act violation because part of an agenda item for the closed-session portion said, “Discussion of criteria to be utilized for selection of superintendent candidates” without anyone reporting in open session what was decided. Although he said he isn’t against Kuhlman becoming superintendent, he wants this appointment vacated and a more visible process implemented with public comment.

Kuhlman, the deputy superintendent, was unanimously approved during the Aug. 21 board meeting. His name was not mentioned on the agenda, which read, “Board to consider appointment of new superintendent, assignment effective upon Mrs. Engbrecht’s retirement (on or before June 30, 2020).” That also was the first public reporting of Engbrecht’s stepping down, although she said she told a group of administrators in May, and the board knew in October.

Francke said not reporting on personnel matters is not a violation. It might be a violation, however, if any action taken in closed session is not reported during open session.

In an email from Debbie Dunn, executive assistant at the Superintendent’s office, from legal counsel, it was stated, “The ‘personnel’ exception was enacted to allow a majority of personnel matters to be discussed freely and candidly in closed session. (Duval v. Board of Trustees (2001) 93 Cal.App.4th 902.) This includes discussion of criteria for appointment/employment and the process for conducting the appointment/employment. (Ibid.)”

The Board can meet to discuss the criteria/process for appointing/employing a Superintendent-elect. Board need only report actions to appoint or employ a person; not criteria or process.

But these actions, which Engbrecht defended, perhaps contributed to many believing there was some sort of backroom deal in place. A Signal editorial criticized a lack of transparency and a lack of explanation from any district official.

Engbrecht, who has been in the district since 1976 in various teaching and administrative capacities, detailed the process that ended with Kuhlman’s appointment. She initially wanted to step down after serving only two years as superintendent, which would have been in 2016. But her love of the district and community caused her to extend her contract two times.

During the Oct. 24 closed-session meeting, she suggested the board promote Kuhlman from assistant superintendent to deputy superintendent. “By doing it, it makes it apparent he’s in command,” she said Tuesday. The meeting’s minutes indicate Kuhlman’s promotion was announced during open session, including his name.

There also was a closed-session agenda item, “Conference with Labor Negotiator (per Government Code Section 54957.6). Agency Designated Representative: Board President. Unrepresented Employee: Superintendent.” It is believed this is where Engbrecht told the board she would not be continuing after June 30, but there is nothing in the minutes to indicate what was decided.

“But when that was done in closed session, there was no comment made in open session about what happened, and it should have been ‘Vicki extended her contract to 2020, we thank her very much and she advises us that she will not be asking for a renewal this term,’ ” Petzold said. “That would have notified everybody that there was going to be a replacement coming up.”

After telling the administrators in May she “was not going to ask for another extension,” Engbrecht told them that if they wanted to apply for the job, they should send a letter of interest to board President Bob Jensen by June.

She also said she suggested not using an outside search firm.

Engbrecht said she feels bad for Kuhlman, who wasn’t made available, because he’s not getting a chance to enjoy this time.

But she said she’s thrilled to be able to work closely with her successor, that hundreds of people have told her they approve of Kuhlman’s selection, and that everybody behaved with the district’s best interests in mind.

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About Lee Barnathan

Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

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