Tim Whyte | In Response to Criticism, Crickets from Hart District

By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

I was editing a satirical column by John Boston this past week, and it occurred to me that his topic — the selection of a new superintendent for the William S. Hart Union High School District — has caused barely a ripple in the community, even after several other news stories and opinion pieces about the rather secretive way the matter was handled by the Hart District and its board of trustees.

Evidently, the district’s lack of transparency on the matter hasn’t fired up a whole lot of people. Up front, I’ll say that’s not necessarily surprising because the public seems generally happy with the Hart District. Our local public schools, including the Hart District’s high schools and junior high schools, are among the best out there, and that’s no accident. Leadership at the Hart District is clearly doing many things right, and by no means do I intend to take away any credit they rightly deserve for that.

However, we all should expect a much more open process than what was employed in the Hart District’s selection of a new superintendent. This was not, by any means, a shining example of open and transparent community governance. 

Further, since the minor dust-up over the issue, the Hart District hasn’t uttered a peep about the process, apparently choosing to let the whole thing blow over so they can resume business as usual. 

To recap:

A few weeks ago, an agenda item appeared on the Hart District board of trustees agenda. It was for the selection of a new superintendent, arguably one of the three (maybe four) most important appointed governmental positions in the Santa Clarita Valley. 

It was the first public mention of the fact that Superintendent Vicki Engbrecht was retiring when her contract expires at the end of this school year. And it was the first public mention of the fact that the board was choosing a new superintendent.

In fact, they had already chosen one. They just didn’t tell you about it until the final, formal vote.

When the agenda came out, our journalists made a few phone calls and,  behind the scenes, learned that the new superintendent was going to be the existing deputy superintendent, Mike Kuhlman. It was clear — before the meeting — that the decision was a done deal.

Lo and behold, on the very first meeting in which the matter was publicly discussed, the board voted 5-0 in favor of appointing Kuhlman to the job, with virtually no discussion about the process or the alternatives that were considered. 

Like I said in my first column about the issue, Kuhlman may be a great choice. That’s not the point. 

The point is, we all know (now) what happened here: Engbrecht told the board she was retiring rather than seeking a contract renewal, and the board then conducted an “internal search”  that was discussed only in closed sessions (and who knows, perhaps outside of official meetings), and the decision was already made before the public “show” of a 5-0 vote whose outcome was already determined before it hit the agenda.

There was no public discussion of the search process, or the ways in which a field of candidates would be recruited, chosen and scrutinized before the selection was made. 

In fact, when all was said and done, district officials actually refused to even disclose exactly how many candidates were considered, or how exactly they were recruited or invited to apply. We were just told that an “internal recruitment” had occurred.

When we first wrote about it, we speculated that no laws had been broken. The state’s open-meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, allows publicly elected bodies to meet in closed session to discuss very specific subjects, including pending litigation, real estate negotiations and personnel matters.

So, this would appear to qualify as a “personnel matter.” But one wrinkle about the Brown Act: When a body makes an actual decision in a legal closed session, they are typically required to emerge in open session and report that decision. 

As far as we know, that never happened. The very first public mention — that we’re aware of, anyway — that Engbrecht was retiring and Kuhlman was selected as her successor occurred on that one public meeting where it appeared on the agenda for the first time and a slam-dunk 5-0 vote was taken.

Did the Hart District break any laws? Is there a Brown Act violation in there that we don’t know about? What else is being discussed in closed session — or elsewhere — that should be discussed publicly, if not by law, then out of a sense of transparency?

Not one Hart District executive, nor any of the five board members — Bob Jensen, Steve Sturgeon, Joe Messina, Cherise Moore or Linda Storli — has offered a public explanation for the secrecy, nor the details of the process, nor a pledge to strive for greater transparency in the district’s governance.

The process by which the Hart District chose its next top executive is not the kind of process we expect from our local school district. 

And their public silence in the aftermath speaks volumes.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter:  @TimWhyte.  

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