Our View | The Back-Room Dealings at the Hart School District

By The Signal Editorial Board

Mike Kuhlman will take over as superintendent of the William S. Hart Union High School District at the end of this school year, replacing the retiring Superintendent Vicki Engbrecht. We wish him all success in the position.

But his appointment on a 5-0 vote this past Tuesday still leaves a bad taste. Not because Kuhlman isn’t the right choice for the job — he may be — but because of the Hart District’s utter lack of transparency in arriving at the decision.

Once the choice of a new superintendent was finally placed on a public agenda, the decision was already made — and it was the first time the Hart District informed the public that Engbrecht was retiring and a replacement had been sought.

It appears no laws were broken. After all, the state’s open meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, allows public agencies to discuss personnel matters in closed session.

That’s SO not the point.

The superintendent of this valley’s only high school district is one of the most important leadership positions in our community. The superintendent serves at the pleasure of the board, so the public has no formal role in the selection. It’s not a matter for a public vote. It’s a matter for a vote of our five elected trustees. But we expect more than this from those five elected officials. Much more.

Things the board never told you until the decision was already in the bag for Kuhlman:

1) That Engbrecht was retiring at the end of this school year. It’s not a surprise — she’s worked for the district since 1976, when she started out as an English teacher at Sierra Vista Junior High School. She’s served the district well, in multiple capacities. But there was no announcement until her replacement had been chosen, behind the scenes.

2) That the board decided not to conduct a national search for her replacement. We might not have quibbled with this decision — national searches are expensive, and to be fair there’s a pretty solid talent base right here in the Hart District. Regardless, the community should have been told, and should have had an opportunity to weigh in.

3) That a pool of candidates was “eligible to apply.” We don’t know exactly how many were “eligible,” what determined their “eligibility” or how many of those were actually interviewed, and by whom, because, even now that it’s over, district officials refuse to pinpoint the number of “eligible” candidates or the number who were interviewed. The closest they’ll get is “15 to 20” eligible candidates. Engbrecht, when asked directly for a more specific answer, replied, “I’m not going further on that.”

3) That Kuhlman had been chosen, and it was a done deal before the item was publicly agendized for Tuesday’s meeting, when a 5-0 board vote — a formality, really, because the real decision-making was already done out of public view — confirmed Kuhlman as the choice.

We mean none of this to say Kuhlman isn’t a good choice for the job. He may well be. On paper, he seems like a well-qualified candidate. We hope to get to know him better in the months and years ahead. 

That doesn’t excuse the process. The Hart District, like some other local public agencies that come to mind, has become a rather insulated body that holds a vise grip on information and only releases that which it must, and then, grudgingly — unless the information is a warm, fuzzy, unicorns-and-rainbows message delivered in a carefully crafted and vetted press release.

The community deserves open, transparent local high school governance, and it should start with the selection of the Hart District’s top executive. While Kuhlman may prove to be an entirely capable leader for one of the best high school districts in California, the process that brought him to the district’s top job was an abject failure in open governance.

We hope the Kuhlman era ushers in a change in the level of openness and transparency at the William S. Hart Union High School District. We expect better than this. 

The community deserves better than this. 

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