Hart Board approves letter addressing alleged issues with superintendent search, transparency

The William S. Hart Union High School District denied any wrongdoing in the selection process for a new superintendent after being accused of an open-meeting law violation.

However, the district has promised to avoid conducting procedures like it had during the recent superintendent-selection process in the future, according to the unconditional commitment letter it agreed to with a 5-0 vote during the Hart District’s Wednesday night board meeting.

“It is essential that our community feels confident in the board’s actions,” said board President Bob Jensen. “While we respectfully do not agree with the allegation of a procedural violation, we nevertheless are here tonight to consider an additional step going forward that we hope will provide further assurance that the board recognizes and agrees with the need for transparent and open communication, especially in regard to the selection of our superintendent.”

The events leading up to the response began days after the governing board selected Deputy Superintendent Mike Kuhlman, as the successor to Superintendent Vicki Engbrecht, on Aug. 21.

Santa Clarita resident Steven Petzold sent a letter to the governing board on Sept. 25 alleging that the district had violated the Brown Act, a California state law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

Petzold alleged that the board had gone through the process behind closed doors, and that the board agenda — a public document distributed to the public before their legislative body meets, outlining the night’s topics and items — was “vague and misleading.”

Petzold then sent a “cure and correct” letter to the board, or a letter that is sent to a legislative body when an individual believes that body, in this case the Hart District’s governing board, has violated the Brown Act. The legislative body can respond to a cure and correct letter by either: informing the concerned individual the body is making a correction; informing the individual the board is not taking action; or ignoring the letter, according to the First Amendment Coalition.

For the correction aspect, Petzold had asked the board to change its processes and said “the decision to appoint Mike Kuhlman as superintendent-select should be rescinded by the board.”

In response to Petzold, the district sent a letter that said the board would not admit to any violation of the Brown Act and that it “unconditionally commits that it will cease, desist from, and not repeat the challenged past action” that Petzold referenced in his letter.

In the letter, the board says any decision to conduct a future internal search for a superintendent candidate will be made in open session and, if the decision is made in closed session, the board will report such an action out of closed session to the public. The board can also overturn these rules with a majority vote.

“To say something is an unconditional commitment, but to say it can be overruled by a majority vote of the board, seems counterproductive to me,” Petzold said in response to the board’s letter. “It’s non-responsive.”

The board also said it would be moving forward with their support of Kuhlman as the next superintendent. Following the board meeting, Jensen deferred further comment back to his statement during the meeting.

The board has not released publicly the number of candidates who were interviewed for the position of superintendent as of the publication of this article. And, although the board has made the decision to choose her successor, Engbrecht has not yet officially announced her retirement.

Petzold said the matter may not be closed: “I’m in conversation with an attorney.”

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