Speaker’s Corner: School Board must clean house NOW

By Howard Hills


Howard Hills

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.   

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  1. Don

    I could not disagree more. I do not have the time nor the inclination to address all of your inaccuracies here but suffice it to say that Ms. Smith is a highly motivated individual who has the best interest of our great school district as her primary focus. It was CLEARLY CUSDs loss and our gain when she came here. I would expect that she would hire the BEST administrators and teachers that she can, some she will know (her “pals” as you say) from CUSD and some she will not. She has done that. I know for certain that CUSD would welcome back every single teacher and administrator that has come to LB over the past few years. Your very long and wordy diatribe is indicatory of a few “axe grinders” in LB that consistently stick their noses where they do not belong. If you and others persist with this BS, we may lose her. She clearly will advance if she ever decides to leave LB and it will be OUR loss, not hers. There wil be no “groundswell” because the “axe grinders” are a tiny minority. Most of us have better things to do. Let her do her job!

  2. Howard Hills

    You obviously know a lot more about Smith’s past in Capistrano than I know, or care to know. Too bad you clearly know little about her record here in Laguna Beach. Funny how citizens who question government actions are always axe grinders, our discourse is always a diatribe, and we are always a tiny minority. You forgot to say we are being negative. Militant and angry are also typical of name calling by those who have limited tolerance for open debate. And, of course, those who are “positive” are always speaking for the vast “silent majority” that wants to be part of the positive people who support the official whose actions are opposed, in this case, by citizens who care about and support our schools. I hope you are right that all the people whose careers have been adversely impacted go back to from where they came from or go on to new opportunities and find success and happiness. But it was a disservice for the Board to recruit Smith whose credentials are not comparable to her predecessors, and it was a disservice for Smith to induce her former colleagues to follow her here, without ensuring that there was open and transparent disclosure and public discussion. The Board blew it and Smith blew it. I thought there was enough information on the record by now that repeating the facts again and again was not needed. However, instead of responding to you further, your comments provide the motivation for me to publish a more thorough account of Smith’s misconduct in connection with the social host ordinance debate, the school calendar controversy, and other issues. I have much better ways to use my time, and I have no axe to grind, but since I clearly have not made the factual context for my comments sufficiently clear, as evidenced by your comments, I will be doing that tonight. Thanks.

  3. Darrin Witt

    Don sounds like a Corporate Interlocker. Howard, thanks for sticking it to him nicely. Sounds like Smith is building her world up by hiring her pals. Typical of Corporate Squatters who have to use cronyism tactics.

  4. Don

    The fundamental problem is that that there are too many people that consider themselves experts because they sat in a classroom once upon a time. We elect the school board to do a job. After that its our job to let them do theirs. If we don’t like the job our elected officials do, we can, as a group, elect others. The problem is, under a democratice system, majority rules and a few people don’t get their way and become disgruntled, bitter and outspoken, often having hours and hours to research, write, think about, talk and generally “pick on” our elected officials and, in this case, our administration. Often times, these folks let this type of thing consume their identity, and for right OR FOR WRONG, it becomes a mission of sorts for them. All of the knit picking and axe grinding takes our school board’s (and administration’s) focus off the job we elected them to do. I know for a fact that CUSD teachers and administration are filled with jubilance today at the return of Deni Christensen. Clearly Laguna’s loss. I gather from the line “Howard Hills has been active in LBUSD policy issues since 1967” that you have been around a while as have I. I am sure you have seen it all, as I have and one thing I know is that as soon as there is a little blood in the water, the sharks circle. I voted in the election of our school board members, if I have a concern, I will go directly to them. They hire administration. If I do not like the job they are doing I will vote for someone else.

  5. Steve

    Don, meet Howard, Laguna’s equivalent of Chinese water torture. Hope you have plenty of time, he’ll wear you down with his miles of skews opinions, long-winded dribblings and neverending negativity. He enjoys seeing his name in print and hearing his voice in the microphone. People who rally around him are similarly afflicted.

    Imagine what might happen if they applied their energies to a real problem of substance!

    Oh, and it might not be all that smart of him to promise a laundry list of Sherine Smith’s supposed misdeeds when he has a few whoppers in his own closet: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/hills-136561-guam-abramoff.html

  6. Kaye

    Howard, your article is spot on! Rumors have been flying for the past year at LBUSD regarding Sherine Smith and her “cronies”. Rumors of high salaries, and lack of experience in the positions she created for them. Rumors of them sloughing off the work onto others, and some displaying unprofessional behaviors and attitudes. It is as if they feel they are above it all and can’t be touched. Thank you for saying what so many are afraid to say for fear of retaliation. I truly feel that there is more yet to be discovered and exposed. Keep digging and reporting, the community deserves to know and hear the truth. These are our tax dollars that they are flagrantly spending on the Superintendent’s “close friends”, so that they can live the good life, at the expense of the taxpayers, and while the rest of the staff does their work for them. This has been an obvious display of abuse of power and it’s time the School Board finally addresses it.
    I can’t wait for your next article!

  7. Howard Hills

    Apologize for typos and spelling but I am doing this in a rush before going to the beach: That is the most utterly incompetent and inane description of representative democracy I have ever heard or seen. If I was teaching a high school freshman class in government I would give you a compassionate D- grade. The idea that we vote for representatives and then wait until the next election to let them know how we feel about their performance of duties is the model of democracy we see in nations not able culturally to sustain a democratic tradition. Contradicting yourself, you then say that if you have a problem you go have a private conversation with an elected leader to whom you have personal access. Gee, why didn’t the rest of us ever think of that? Oh, wait, maybe some elected leaders take information they get privately and use it to position themselves publicly to avoid accountability. Maybe open public dialogue that reveals what is right as well as what is wrong better serves the public good. Do you really not get it that the public dialogue you fear and want to stop is what makes America strong? Anyone who understands the American idea knows that active public discourse, a robust debate in the public commons, is imperative to our democracy, and it is more important at the local level than at the state or national level. Local government laws and measures define our quality of life where we live and breathe more than any other level of government. The School Board can affect the freedom and pursuit of happiness in a more real and powerful way than anything that happens in Sacramento or Washington. The School Board is the government, it is the state, and what happens every day shapes our private lives. Mr. Landsiedel went on and on the other night about how positive everything is at LBHS, and touted the ornamental awards the schools get as evidence of success. Is he totally unhinged from reality? There are wonderful and positive things going on at LBHS, especially under Dr. Culverhouse’s leadership. But there also is a lot of the real life struggle of kids and families to cope and succeed, and what goes on in the School District central office has a huge impact on the daily ability of the professionals in our schools to meet the needs of students and families. It may all seem to be coming up roses to Landsiedel, but it takes an active and vigilant, informed and mobilized citizenry to ensure that the taxpayers get value for each dollar and the community gets the best service from our educational system possible. That requires constant political dialogue, not just parties and golf tournaments to raise funds that are welcome and used to augment the school programs that serve the whole community, and that exist only because of the taxpayers. The idea that people who attended our schools, whose kids attended our schools, whose grandkids attended our schools, and who still support our schools, even though we also have a few other things that we manage somehow to do in life, have an axe to grind and should go away is nothing less than sanitized intolerance. The assertion that we should have something better to do and that there is something odd afoot because we still love and care about our schools is simple stupidity. The fact that busy working moms and dads with kids still in the schools who have to worry about retaliation against their kids that is real and present still have the courage to go to meetings and patiently try to pry enough information out of defensive and officious educational autocrats to force reform and change is amazing, I am in awe of them, and I will stand by them and help them any time I can. It is an honor. So for you to denigrate that and what they do for our town out of some weird, distorted idea that good citizenship means being a passive aggressive twit who hides in the shadows and takes cheap shots from a distance is laughable and pathetic. “It is in the clash of opinion that freedom rings.” Does that even ring any bells for you? Our democracy does not work without the people you accuse of intermeddling in the prerogatives of the ruling elites. Well, it was the officials you defend and would immunize from the consequences of their own actions who drove Deni Christensen to leave, which she may figure out after she gets some distance from what happened to her here. And when we know what happened to Gerald Vlasic we may discover that the School Board’s failure to listen contributed to the circumstances that led to his resignation. That may include harm to people that could have been prevented. Was it crazy people with an axe to grind who drove Vlasic away too? Are you paying any attention to what is going on while you make yourself an insipid apologist for abuses that are no longer just being questioned by critics but are now in the headlines? Do you think School Board observers and critics give up time they would like to spend earning a living or being with family, but who have been around long enough to see signs of trouble, and who take the time to alert our elected leaders, do it because they are starved for attention or think it is fun to deal with the personal toll taken on all concerned when we have to reign in out of control bureaucrats? You say you have been around for a long time, but then you predict there will be no groundswell of opposition to the School Board before the next election. Well, I was careful not to predict there would be, just pointed to the possibility. That is because I have been around long enough to know that making predictions about what will happen next in local politics is unwise. Finally, you seem to think snide little soundbites are OK but anyone who takes the time to elucidate issue in literate prose is somehow out of step in the age of social media. Well, perhaps you are right. Then again, I am a 19th century sort of guy. I am going to go James Fenimore Cooper on you if you try to impose the silence of political correctness. I surf, garden, have a day job, and a large family, but I don’t watch TV or play video games, and that gives me the time to write for pleasure and with purpose. The fact that you find something in that to disparage is perhaps the best evidence that it is open discourse and a robust debate that you and people of your ilk fear most and hence seek to suppress. As I told you yesterday, your attempt to stigmatize civil civic dialogue, and thereby discourage a sense of political self-efficacy among those who are on the sidelines wondering if they should join in the discussion, has inspired me to prepare in my spare time an exegesis on the School Board follies of the last few years. My goal is to finish it this weekend and publish it in the Laguna Patch. I have you to thank, because I decided to do it when you said I was “wordy.” Imagine anyone saying that about me! Well, what I have learned is that it takes a few words to lie, but many words to tell the truth. And it’s just my personal opinion, no one has to read it unless they choose to do so. Now where’s the harm in that?

  8. Don

    Like I said, there are a few that have the time to make this a mission of sorts, spending hours and hours. That’s REALLY not me. I don’t have the time to read what you wrote (all though I will) let along take the time to write such a thing. Ahh, let me guess:

    You are opposed to the proposed new entrance to Laguna on the Canyon Road, you wish Laguna could go back to the way it was in 1975 and you think Howard Jarvis did something great for the state of California? How close am I?

  9. Howard Hills

    P.S. It is really laughable. You say “there are too many people who consider themselves experts.” Then you say the people who are criticizing the School Board are just a small collection of obsessed weirdos. Which is it? Are there may of us or jsut a few of us? And what is it that the School Board does that requires expertise? Landsiedel kept saying that the other night, telling women who are professionals in their own fields that the issues they were were too “complex” for public discussion. A few of them finally told him he was being offensive, since none of the women on the School Board seemed willing to admonish the Board President they elected to speak for them that he was being truly if obliviously obnoxious. No, you are wrong, the real problem is that the School Board members think being spoon-fed by self-serving bureaucrats so the Board supports what the bureaucrats want makes the Board members experts. That is not what we elect Board members to do. We elect them make sure the bureaucrats are fair to all citizens, that their policies and practices reflect community values, and that there is no corruption or abuse. That means that what goes on between elections actually is more important than what we talk about at election time, and that citizens must stay involved between elections even more than at election time, which is both true and the exact opposite of your lame argument in favor of passive citizenship. See you at the beach!

  10. Howard Hills

    Don: I would not take yourself so seriously. I doubt anyone will read anything either of us write! Who actually reads the comment stream on a local paper op-ed in yesterday’s papers?

    As I say, I do not watch TV or play video games, but I can write 2,000 words of serviceable prose in the time it takes you you watch the evening news. Like right now I am on my way to the beach and it is better than listening to NPR certainly to tap out a little response to your trademark snideness (which brings me down to your level all too readily).

    As to taking Laguna Beach back in time, try 1955 rather than 1975. But even better yet try this: People like you can’t change what Laguna Beach was and still is for people like me. We know what it was like, for us it has not changed. What we love about what it was is till here, we just have to look past what does not add value.

    I don’t think too much about the village entrance project. That is not a moral issue. But I am sure you actually think a $40 million parking garage is actually going to change traffic congestion and parking access? I know for sure it will not, but we may end up with a nice park. Hope we can afford it and that we don’t end up wishing we had spent the money on fixing the storm drains instead.

    I don’t know what Proposition 13 has to do with me, except in your mind, as you try to figure how to classify and dehumanize me. So try this: I was a civil rights lawyer in Appalachia and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Micronesia.

    How often have you spent three years living on the local economy and sharing your destiny with the poorest of the poor, eating what they eat, living with primitive hunting and gathering culture standards of sanitation, learning to speak the language and know the culture of another people with a different way of knowing reality, working to teach them to use the tools of self-determination to empower themselves?

    If you have ever gotten out of your comfort and safety zone, put your self and your health and your life beyond the reach of any support system connecting you to your own society and its protective umbrella, then perhaps you could approach with me a discussion of “how close” you are to knowing the first thing about who I am.

    I am not sure why or how a debate over School Board policies makes you think or presume that it is within your purview to try to categorize me politically or otherwise. But certainly, your pedestrian attempt to try to classify me based on cliches about my alignment in the universe of petty local, state and even national political agendas suggests that you are the one with an axe to grind.

    Well, here we are at the beach!

  11. Kaye

    Bravo Howard, Bravo! Mr.Don sounds like he is one of Ms. Smith’s Cronies. I have read his comments regarding this recent outcry for justice and fairness at LBUSD, and all he is trying to do is stiffel the community. Your words ring true and hopefully it will inspire others to come forth.

  12. David Vanderveen

    Bravo Howard!

    Anyone who has actually worked in government, especially for a publicly elected representative knows full well that every day is built around public interactions with the electors–our government is designed and built that way. Look at the number of legislative assistants who spend most of their days interacting with the public in any state or federal legislative body.

    We don’t elect kings and queens, we elect representatives who must hold meetings in public, who must interact with the public as a part of the required process and who are finally starting to make changes only because of public watchdogs that demand basic answers to obvious and repeated failures.

    My only criticism is that you wasted far too much of your beach time responding to someone who is either ridiculously ignorant or assumes an absurd argument requires debate.

    It is too bad that we have to be so vigilant right now. I hope the school board can demonstrate competence so that the rest of us can get back to more productive pursuits.


  13. M.D. Moore

    I agree completely, Howard.

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