Assistant School Chief Resigns

Deni Christensen
Deni Christensen

Deni Christensen, the assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum for Laguna Beach public schools, resigned Friday within hours after a regularly scheduled performance review of her boss, the district’s superintendent.  Christensen’s resignation is effective July 19.

Christensen was hired a year ago as recommended by Supt. Sherine Smith; the two worked together previously in the Capistrano Unified School District.

Days before, Smith and Christensen faced the ire of parents at a school board meeting who questioned hiring practices, particularly filling high-paying administrative positions with other Capistrano colleagues.

In an email message to district employees on Friday, Christensen said she resigned to take another job, though she did not identify her future employer. In that email, Christensen wrote:  “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve in LBUSD over the past year where I met many wonderful people and observed first-hand the exemplary education that LBUSD students are provided.  Laguna Beach is truly a unique community with four schools that are each a shining example of all that public education should be.”

When asked to elaborate on reasons for her resignation, Christensen wrote in another email, “…I believe it is best for me, my family and the greater good of LBUSD,” adding that she felt she was misrepresented in a recent article by the Indy. She received $155,513 annually with 25 vacation days a year.  According to her employment letter, there are no specified severance terms.

“No, she was not asked to resign,” Smith stated in response to a query. “She is a very talented and capable leader who is highly esteemed by her colleagues.  This was something she had been considering and was in discussions with a neighboring district.”  As superintendent, Smith has the exclusive right to recommend employees for all district positions, according to her employment contract.

Besides Christensen, other hired administrators recommended by Smith whom she worked with previously include human resources/public communications director Gerald Vlasic and fiscal services director Shannon Soto.

Other complaints by parents included Smith’s advocacy for passage of a new city law, the social host ordinance, which permits fining party hosts up to $1,000 who allow underage drinking on private property.  However, Smith’s contract clearly states that part of her duties is to “serve as the district’s representative to the public.”

Complaints also cited the failed proposal to start the school year in August rather than the traditional start after the Labor Day holiday. Smith reported that a poll showed that a majority of teachers in the district supported the earlier start date.  But irate parents claimed they were not adequately consulted and that teachers contended they were not fairly represented.

Smith’s performance came under review by board members in closed-door sessions twice last month.  She also underwent a review in February.  Her contract calls for one meeting before Aug. 31 of each year to discuss the coming year’s objectives with an annual evaluation before June 30 of each year.

The contract recommends four evaluation sessions each year “to enhance communication.” Smith started working at the district on July 1, 2010, and was hired under a four-year contract at $225,000 a year with a $500 monthly car allowance and mileage reimbursement for district-related events outside Orange County as well as paid cellphone and internet costs.

If Smith’s performance is found unsatisfactory, the contract states that the reasons will be put in writing and attached to her personnel file.  If all objectives are completed satisfactorily during her first three years, the contract calls for a pay raise.

If Smith leaves the district before her term expires by being fired “without cause,” the district is obligated to pay a settlement based on her monthly salary and the number of months remaining under the contract, up to 18 months.

“With only four campuses, do we really need all these people and large salaries,” asked parent Wendy Proudlock Meyer, a former trustee of Schoolpower, a volunteer group that provides funding for various school enrichment programs.

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  1. I am shocked and saddened to hear of Ms. Christiansen’s resignation under such veiled circumstances. She was poised to help our district transition to the new common core standards, and based on her presentation at our first Coffee Break last September, she had a solid grasp of all that was entailed. I can’t see any “cause” for this beyond an earlier association with Sherine Smith. I am hoping our hometown paper(s) can help our community better understand this abrupt change in course. To suggest this is a result of social host ordinance support or a hiccup in the school-year calendar is just not credible.


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