Amid controversy about missing school board meetings for more than three months, Carol Normandin took her seat again on the Laguna Beach Unified School District’s board at the last two sessions.
In a letter read to the board by Supt. Sherine Smith July 28, Normandin said her absence was due to a family member’s illness and has asked for privacy on the matter.
While state education code considers an elected office vacated after a three-month absence, the local school board excused Normandin’s absence. Board president Ketta Brown said Normandin was kept current with board matters and contributed, though she did not cast a vote. Normandin was elected last November.
Some members of the public questioned the legitimacy of allowing Normandin’s absence since a family member was ill and not the board member herself.
“The state law does not state family illness; it states illness,” said resident and parent David Flores, a retired director for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Flores cited a government code that describes a three-month absence as creating a vacancy, which can be excused when an illness prevents attendance. “I’m looking at the legality of it, the state policy of it,” Flores said.
The school board is aware of the code, which purposely allows for discretion, said Brown. State and county policy cedes discretion to local school boards to make decisions on board absences, she said.
“We’re trying to give people the respect they’re due and still keep things moving,” Brown said Tuesday. “Business didn’t get bogged down. We made strides and now Carol’s back and we’re back at full strength.” Normandin returned for the Aug. 25 board meeting after being absent since April.
The Orange County Department of Education allows the local school board to make decisions regarding absences on individual circumstances, according to spokesperson Ian Hanigan.
“I’m very happy to hear she’s back and hopefully that means everything is well,” said Flores. “It still begs the question: what is the board policy? State law does not allow for family illness.”
Individual school districts are purposely given the broadest range by the state and the county education offices, Brown said. “You can’t stipulate everything,” she said. “I don’t think our board policy needs to be more restrictive than the state or county education codes so we can make those calls on our own.”
When Flores initially pressed the matter in July, board member Dee Perry asked to refer the issue to the board’s policy committee for clearer parameters around illness. The board did not act on the request, according to district minutes. Flores said he has asked the school board to clarify its position on absences to include family illness.
Another school district watchdog, Howard Hills, asserts that the board’s actions regarding Normandin’s absence sets a precarious precedent. “Once you pass the three-month tripwire and do nothing,” Hills wrote in an email, “that means nonparticipation in board proceedings does not constitute nonperformance of duties.”
Hills said the decision leaves the future precarious if a board member decides to challenge a vacancy. “This precedent actually restricts board discretion by giving a future absentee member a legal basis for invoking equal protection of law,” he said.
Board member Jan Vickers disagreed. “I really think you take things individually,” she said, “and you make decisions based on the best interests of everyone involved in any situation.”
Phone and email messages to Normandin and Perry were not returned. Normandin owns an executive recruitment company, The Normandin Group.
In last week’s article about Carol Normandin’s past vacancy on the Laguna Beach Unified School District board, Absent School Board Member Returns, staff writer Rita Robinson wrote that the Orange County Department of Education “allows” local school boards to make decision regarding absences. The statement was attributed to Ian Hanigan, OCDE spokesperson. Hanigan later sent an email reiterating that OCDE has no jurisdiction over local school boards in this matter. He also reiterated his answer to an earlier question by the reporter: OCDE has no plans to lobby to change state law in an attempt to clarify the definition of illness.