School Hiring Sets a Record, Yields Complaints

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Alexia Karol
Alexia Karol steps in this fall as the new high school drama teacher.

Hiring a record 10 new teachers was approved by the Laguna Beach Unified School District board in a special meeting and has prompted a flood of disgruntled calls, said board members.

Considered one of the largest one-time hires in district history, all of the new teachers come from other districts, some from out of state, according to Cheri David, elementary teacher and union representative for the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association. Out of 650 applicants, 60 were selected for the screening process, David said. Teachers were hired at all four of the district’s schools where 3,000 students are enrolled.

Complaints were triggered by a selection process that did not choose district-employed applicants and that involved school principals at the beginning rather than only in the final interviews, said board members during the special meeting Thursday, July 16. The complaints prompted district Supt. Sherine Smith to pledge to conduct a survey of teachers’ morale.

Principals were put in the difficult position of reviewing every application, said board member Dee Perry, who said she received more complaints about the district’s hiring procedure than on any other issue since she was elected last November. “Only one district employee got to the second interview. Now people have hard feelings about going back to work in September. The morale is horrible.”

Smith said the qualifications of the teachers who were hired were “far, far superior.”

“We should be making decisions in the best interest of the students,” said Smith. “It would be really poor personnel practice to make decisions based on people’s hurt feelings because they didn’t get the job.”

To determine teacher morale, Smith told board members that the district will survey teachers as well as contact other districts to see if their hiring practices differ. “I know it feels personal when you’re not chosen, but it’s not personal,” she said. “It’s looking for the best person for the job, the best teacher for our kids.”

Survey results will be presented to the board in the fall, she said. “Sometimes there are manufactured crises,” Smith said after the meeting.

The complaint among employees, Perry said, is that district hiring practices “are definitely not professional.” Low teacher morale, she added, will also affect students.

The district’s system, countered Smith, is not illogical. Principals conduct the initial screenings “because they know their schools the best,” she said. “You don’t want to disenfranchise the principals because they have all the responsibility and the accountability.” The personnel screening panel included the district’s human resources director, Leisa Winston, as well as school-specific teacher-representatives and principals.

Resident David Flores, the only member of the public at the meeting, said his professional experience differs markedly from how Laguna screens candidates. “I’ve never heard of a process when, for example, you’re hiring at district level, that the superintendent would sit on the initial panel instead of being the final decision-maker,” said Flores, a retired director of alternative education and interim assistant superintendent for the Los Angeles County Office of Education who said he’s interviewed tens of thousands of applicants.

“The principal should be given one or two choices,” he said. “This is very backwards. I’ve never heard of a district doing it this way.”

At Irvine Unified School District and Newport-Mesa Unified School District, the human resources office initially screens the usually hundreds of online applicants, said district spokespersons, and then principals get involved. The principals and teachers make the final selection and HR conducts the final background checks, they said.

Calls from a disgruntled employee who applied for a new position were also received by board member Jan Vickers and board president Ketta Brown, they said. Board members Bill Landsiedel and Carol Normandin were absent. The calls primarily concerned not hiring LBUSD employees, said Vickers.

“We’ve been criticized on the other side for that in recent years where it was that outside people didn’t stand a chance…and that wasn’t fair,” Vickers said. Smith has also been publicly criticized in recent years by hiring administrators who were former CUSD colleagues.

Though principals are key in making hiring decisions for their schools at LBUSD, the system may still fall short by not providing career-development advice to district employees who want to advance, said Vickers. “An instructional aide may not qualify as a teacher and no one sits them down and tells them where they need to strengthen their skills,” she said.

Eight of the new teachers replace teachers who resigned or retired, said Winston. Two of the four new teachers at Top of the World Elementary School will fill new positions, said David. More teachers are being hired to keep classroom size low so that teachers have more time with individual students to convey new state-mandated standards known as Common Core, said Winston. Common Core focuses on technology, text writing and testing, according to reports.

Two teachers each were also hired at El Morro Elementary School, Thurston Middle School and Laguna Beach High School. An athletic trainer at the high school and a clerk-typist at TOW were also officially confirmed.

“This is a huge, honkin’ number of people we’re hiring this year, more than any other time,” said Brown. The number of new employees hired may have exacerbated the number of complaints by building up expectations, she said.

Over the last three months, the district has hired approximately 21 teachers and more positions will be filled later, said Winston.  The district currently employs 300 people, half of whom are teachers.

Since last July, 19 teachers, 25 staff and three administrators have left the district, said Winston. Early-retirement incentives for both classified and certificated employees resulted in a larger than usual number of retirements, she said.

At the high school, retirements by drama teacher Mark Dressler and advanced math teacher Gary Shapiro were filled by Alexia Karol and David Yang, respectively.

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