By Tim Whyte
I’ll never forget that Zonta roast in 1997. The Signal was the roast-ee for the big annual fundraiser, and Zonta’s roasters took full aim at the paper in general — and in particular at then-Publisher Will Fleet, columnist John Boston, and, me.
Clyde Smyth, the 16-year superintendent of the William S. Hart Union High School District who later served a term on the Santa Clarita City Council, was one of the roasters.
Clyde was an icon of the Santa Clarita Valley. If the name seems familiar, his son Cameron has carried the family torch as our former assemblyman and current City Council member.
The elder Smyth (1931-2012) had been the Hart District superintendent all the way back to my high school days, and was one of the most universally revered leaders in the community.
He retired from the Hart District in 1992 and, at the time of the 1997 Zonta roast, he was mayor of Santa Clarita.
And there he was, roasting me and The Signal. I was a little starstruck. But he didn’t go easy on me. During his speech, he reminded me and a ballroom full of 400 people at the Hyatt that he had been superintendent when I graduated from Saugus High School in 1984.
As I wrote in my 1997 column about it, Clyde then displayed, for all to see:
“Copies of actual pictures from my high school yearbook, complete with bad hair and my senior memory of ‘Greg and I watching Ms. D write on the blackboard.’ (Ms. D was our math teacher. She was fabulous. And a pretty good teacher, too.)”
Yeah. Like the whole community needed to see my 1984 mullet and evidence that I found a teacher to be, how shall we say, “attractive.”
Then, Clyde pulled out an oversized replica of my high school diploma. It was about 3 feet by 5 feet. And something was missing: In the spot where his signature should have been, as the superintendent in 1984, was just a big blank space.
No signature from Clyde.
He admonished me that, as Signal editor, I better behave myself, or I’d never get that signature. Good luck getting another job!
It was such great fun and I took that oversized diploma home as a cherished souvenir.
I bring this up now because it reminds me of what an important position the Hart District superintendent was then, and is now. And how things have changed.
We tend to talk about elected officials a lot in our news coverage, and they of course have a major impact on life in the SCV. But there are a few key appointed positions that have a profound impact on our community:
Santa Clarita city manager, which has only changed hands twice since 1988.
The superintendent (now chancellor) of College of the Canyons, a position held by Dianne Van Hook since I was a student there in 1988. Van Hook, too, will go down as an icon of this community’s history.
And, the Hart district superintendent.
Comparing any of the successors to Clyde Smyth really isn’t fair. He was the district’s chief executive in a different era, when the valley was smaller and had just three high schools, and he was as much beloved for his excellent leadership as he was for his personal down-home kindness, values and good humor.
In the early-’90s, when I was a news reporter, he called me back every time I called, and talked to me straight-up rather than having a public information officer run interference. No hiding. Honest answers. No ducking the tough questions. No B.S.
We really don’t have many public executives in town who do that anymore. Maybe not any.
Clyde was a special dude.
And, through all the changes we’ve seen, the Hart District superintendent position remains a vital one, in a community that prides itself on its excellent public education.
This week, the Hart District named a new superintendent to replace the retiring Vicki Engbrecht, who has served as superintendent since 2015 and recently saw the realization of what may be the crowning achievement of her tenure, the debut of the long-awaited new high school in Castaic.
Taking over for Engbrecht when she retires at the end of the school year will be Mike Kuhlman, who has served as assistant superintendent and then deputy superintendent over the past five years.
Will Kuhlman be the next Clyde Smyth?
I don’t know enough about him to say. We haven’t had a Clyde Smyth in that position since… well, Clyde Smyth.
And really, my gripe here isn’t about Kuhlman. I also have no objection to the district promoting from within, when all is said and done. In fact, I see an inherent advantage in that, because there’s an instant dose of institutional knowledge in the position when he takes over.
My gripe is more with the process.
As far as we know, the Hart District board followed all applicable laws in the recruitment and selection of a new superintendent. That, too, is not the point.
The point is transparency. They never made a point of telling the community this was all happening until it was already a done deal. They conducted an “internal search” and there were 15 to 20 candidates — district officials refuse to pinpoint the number, reinforcing my point that no one seems to provide a straight answer to a fair question anymore.
It all happened behind the scenes and, apparently, in closed sessions of the board.
At no time did the board, Engbrecht or the district tell the community, “Hey y’all, the superintendent is retiring and we’re interviewing potential replacements. We’ll keep you posted on how it goes.”
Of course the ultimate decision is the board’s, as it should be. But there was no chance for public review or input, until the deed was done to the point of just a formality of a board vote that everyone already knew was going to be 5-0 before the meeting started.
No public disclosure of the finalists and their backgrounds, for the top position at arguably the most important school district in the valley, and one of the three most important appointed public jobs in our community.
Then, at the end of it, we get vague answers about the process that was entirely conducted in the back room, out of public view.
I don’t believe Clyde Smyth would have stood for it.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.