With residents accusing school district administrators of filling high-salaried jobs and even creating them for friends and former co-workers, it was a tense face-off at Tuesday’s Laguna Beach Unified School District board meeting.
Superintendent Sherine Smith and Assistant Superintendent Deni Christensen, a former colleague of Smith’s from the Capistrano Unified School District, both faced the ire of a half dozen residents questioning favoritism, shirking administrative responsibilities to others and unfair hiring and appointment practices over the last year.
Residents told board members they represented teachers and other parents who were afraid to voice their opinions due to fear of retaliation.
“It’s like the Berlin Wall has been built in the administrative building now,” said parent Tammy Keces, who has three children in Laguna’s public schools and ran unsuccessfully for the school board last November. “We feel like we’re trying to break them down. I don’t want to live in a community like that. I want to be able to dialogue with our board….”
The board did not publicly address parents’ criticisms of Christensen and Smith, who was hired three years ago and earns a salary of $225,000. Her contract was recently renewed for three years. With unanimous approval, board member Ketta Brown called to delay a proposed broadening of the job title and raise for fiscal services director Shannon Soto, employed by the district for a year and another colleague of Smith’s.
Brown questioned Soto’s proposed new job title, saying it overlapped descriptions for two other positions, assistant superintendent of business services Dean West and newly promoted staff accountant Raymond Lee, formerly the district’s budget analyst. As outlined in the budget, if Soto is promoted to director of administrative services, her salary will increase from $132,792 a year to $144,089. Lee, hired in 2009 and recently named classified staff employee of the year, will see an increase in his annual income from $69,039 to $78,708.
“I have real reservations about this. We’ve got to figure it out,” Brown commented to an outburst of applause from the sparse audience. Board member Jan Vickers also stated she wanted the board to re-examine the administrative positions to decipher who’s managing whom. District staff was directed to clarify the positions and bring the information back to the board for further discussion.
Residents also questioned the recent appointment of second-grade teacher Linda Barker as the teachers’ point-person to implement new state-mandated Common Core curriculum standards starting this year. The task, they contended, is Christensen’s responsibility.
“There’s an administrator hired to do the job that should be doing the job,” said parent Cheryl Kinsman, a CPA and former city council member. Kinsman said she could hire “two CPAs real easily” with the salary Soto, not a registered CPA, was earning.
Christensen responded that she was not looking for an assistant when Barker was appointed to implement the Common Core State Standards. She said research shows that the position is better filled by a teacher rather than administrators who are perceived as evaluators. “I don’t want people to believe that I’m getting Linda Barker to do something that I should be doing,” she said.
Residents also argued that Barker’s new “teacher on special assignment” appointment should have been opened to other qualified applicants. Barker’s position as president of the district’s teachers’ union was also pointed out as creating a potential conflict of interest.
“There should be a vetting process, even internally,” said Keces.
Delegating special assignment positions is a decision typically made by school administrators by selecting from the district’s existing teaching staff and that Barker received commendation from all four of the district’s school principals, Smith said.
Barker, a 29-year district teacher, defended her qualifications with a prepared statement.
“As much as it is an honor for me to step into this role, in light of the recent backlash, I think it’s important to make clear that this was never presented as a promotion and I did not view it that way,” said Barker, who delineated her credentials. “Instead, it’s akin to a grade-level change….My title is the same, my pay is the same and my role is the same, teaching.”
Resident Howard Hills said Barker’s statement exemplifies the problem. “It’s not a personal attack,” he asserted. “There’s a perception that this wasn’t done in a way that reflected integrity.
“Recruiting an assistant superintendent for curriculum, it shouldn’t be an old friend from Capistrano,” Hills continued, referring to Christensen’s employment 11 months ago. “That doesn’t mean she’s not a great educator. That doesn’t mean she’s not a wonderful person. But it means that there’s a need to see we’re really getting for our taxpayer’s dollar the best persons in the right positions. The public perception is that the stewardship here has not been efficient, economical and competent.”
With 86% of the district’s $43.7 million school budget funded by local property taxes, Laguna Beach is one of only two other school districts in Orange County that receives most of its funding from local sources rather than state aid based on average daily attendance. Board members also unanimously approved the district’s 2013-14 budget.
The overall budget, also approved Tuesday, will see a 1 percent increase this coming fiscal year due to a like increase in local property taxes allocated to the district. Board members approved setting aside $1 million to augment the $600,000 total provided by the state for the three-year implementation of the Common Core program, which is designed to bring students up to par in the digital age of online college and career requirements.
West said the money will cover electronics, including laptops and notebooks, for students as well as online texts and tests. “Our textbooks will be more digital content material,” said West. Instead of an actual textbook, he said students will be reading online.
The budget also includes one-time expenditures of $440,000 and $490,000 to renovate the high school’s tennis courts and swimming pool. The city is adding $310,000 and $343,000 to each project respectively.