Questions Arise Over Superintendent Search

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Dr. Joanne Culverhouse
A groundswell of support for hiring former district principal Joanne Culverhouse surfaced at this week’s meeting of the school board, which has begun a search to replace the superintendent.

Calling for former high school principal Joanne Culverhouse to return as the new superintendent next year, residents raised questions about Laguna Beach Unified School District’s hiring practices at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“Go to Dr. Culverhouse and ask her to come back,” said resident and school-board watchdog Howard Hills. “You let her slip away. If she’s available, bring her back.”

Hills comment came in response to board president Ketta Brown’s report that the district will hire a firm to help board members conduct a “comprehensive” search for a replacement. “The details of the search plan will be shared with the public,” Brown reported over a crackling sound system.

Calling it a “deficient process,” Hills said it would benefit the board to hold a town-hall meeting, as the city did, to consult residents first, not a search firm, about what they want in a superintendent. The city held an open meeting last September to get input from residents on what qualities they wanted to see in a new police chief. “If nobody shows up, then Howard is stupid,” Hills said.

Since the school district is wholly financed by property tax revenue, taxpayers and voters need to be included in the selection process, not just parents, teachers and district administrators, he said.

Sherine Smith
Retiring Superintendent Sherine Smith

A new superintendent is expected to be hired by next spring, according to Brown’s report. Current Supt. Sherine Smith announced her retirement in June, effective next June.

Intricately involving the public as soon as possible was also urged by resident Wenjie Li. “We want to know the when, what, who,” Li said.

Who is hired, where they’re from and why they’re hired is up to the Laguna Beach school board, said Orange County Dept. of Education spokesperson Ian Hanigan. “That would be an independent school board decision,” Hanigan said Wednesday. “That is probably the biggest charge of a school board. They get to determine how that process looks and who they would hire.” The board is not required to conduct a nationwide search, he said, and can hire from within their staff of employees without one.

Board members intend to obtain community input about hiring a new leader, promised board member Jan Vickers. “We will do our best to get as broad a base as we can,” she said. Public meetings regarding the hiring process will be announced through emails, local newspapers and on the school’s website, Brown said.

Concerned that the district was slipping in its level of excellence, academic vigor and competitiveness, Amy Hunthausen agreed with the suggestion to hold a town-hall meeting. “I’m seeing a very good school district going in a negative direction,” she said.

Resident and parent Cheri Morgan supports the board’s hiring process, saying that open school board meetings already provide an outlet for public discussion. “We do have the opportunity to participate,” she said.

Hills also questioned the acumen of the district’s legal counsel and a possible conflict with Smith seeking future employment or accepting an outside part-time position while still working for the district. “I have no post-employment lined up that will conflict,” replied Smith. “If I had a position, I would tell you about it.”

Smith did announce accepting a part-time position teaching a short online course on school finances and resources for Brandman University in Irvine, which is part of the Chapman University System. The experience will “give the district insight on online classes,” said Smith, which the district plans to offer.

“Teaching a part-time job is not a conflict of interest,” said board member Bill Landsiedel.

Smith received her doctorate in education during her tenure at LBUSD. She earns $258,000 annually with benefits and will receive $144,000 a year as a pension.

The board is obligated to go as far and as wide as possible to find the most qualified candidate for the superintendent’s position, said Michael O’Neill, who helped hiring searches during his career in education. “To truncate that would be a travesty,” he said.

In responding to the speakers requests to rehire Culverhouse, board members and administrators said the popular principal who worked in the district for 15 years was not promoted because the position was not open when she left the district and took an assistant superintendent’s positon at Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District last year. Culverhouse could not be reached fo

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