By Howard Hills
At its June 11 meeting the school board approved Superintendent Smith’s staffing plan for her handpicked senior administrative team. Director of Fiscal Services, Shannon Soto, was to receive a large salary increase for supervising other more experienced administrators. New staff hiring was approved to reduce workload for Director of Human Resources and Communication Gerald Vlasic, without any reduction of his blatantly inflated salary (which Smith justified by the workload he proved unable to handle).
After public school supporters pointed out perceived problems with the Vlasic and Soto personnel actions, Smith vehemently defended Vlasic and Soto, while combatively seeking to justify enhanced terms of employment for her two senior appointees. That same week, questions that had been raised about the non-competitive selection of a teacher to assist Smith’s handpicked assistant superintendent for curriculum led to the latter’s resignation.
Alerted to discrepancies in Smith’s staffing practices, on June 25 the school board reversed the Soto promotion and salary increase and cancelled hiring authority for a Vlasic assistant. Instead of accepting the School Board’s judgment, a stunned Smith publicly lashed out at her critics and castigated those who dared to question the superintendent’s actions. The school board at a minimum should have thanked those public school activists who brought problems with Smith’s management to light, and reprimanded Smith for false and vindictive statements, aimed at critics, but which inadvertently also betrayed her disdain for the School Board’s decisions rejecting her staffing plans.
Then, as anticipated by school board watchdogs due to reports of intervening misconduct charges, at its July 9 meeting the school board announced it had accepted Vlasic’s resignation. It is reported that the school district office was vacated before Vlasic was escorted to his workspace to remove his personal effects. For those who believed Vlasic should have been dismissed for performance deficiencies, allowing him to resign instead of firing him for cause just confirms that this school board is too unsure of itself to protect the public interest competently.
Now we may never know if justice for all was done in connection with any misconduct by Vlasic, or if Smith had a duty to report the case to other authorities. Unless the board comes clean on Vlasic and corrects other flawed personnel actions instigated by Smith, the damage done to our community by its lack of transparency will be the legacy of this school board.
Superintendent Smith staked her success on the top management team she assembled. Now, two of the three personal friends and professional colleagues from former jobs who she hired are gone. The school board approved appointment of her pals without proper vetting and disclosures. The Board also first approved and now has rejected her staffing plan for Soto. How can the board reject the strategic pillars of her management and continue to rely on Smith’s judgment?
In addition to the damage done, Smith was caught intentionally and knowingly misleading the school board, City Council and public on controversial issues she has inflamed. Without diminishing any good she was able to accomplish, as our paramount public school official Smith has failed. The school oard too failed by hiring but not supervising a minimally qualified superintendent.
Smith insisted hiring professional pals would enable her to enhance “organizational capacity,” but in an unguarded moment she admitted her plan for friends was to “build their capacity” to serve at the “highest levels.” This fiscally irresponsible on the job training program for her friends put them in a horribly awkward position, and clearly did not serve the best interest of our schools. It is plain to see she brought them in not for capacity building but for self-serving bureaucratic empire building.
Smith does not enjoy the confidence needed to remain effective, and she now must go. No one is out to get her, she is not a victim. We have a great school system because we as a community sustain its excellence. We define success by the character tested and proven in our schools, not the symbolic awards our schools routinely earn. When someone we entrust with our small town public school legacy is not able to serve as a faithful steward of that trust, we have to do the unhappy work of correcting the problem.
Smith needs to go get her PhD and become a successful educational leader somewhere else, hopefully improving her leadership skills based on painful lessons learned at our expense. We can wish her well, but she must go. If the school board does not allow her to resign, it should fire her for cause. There should be no golden handshake. If it does not happen, it will be the school board that must go, either next year when a majority of seats open up, or maybe even earlier if there is a groundswell for a recall based on this new fiasco.
Howard Hills has been active in LBUSD policy issues since 1967.