Tim Whyte | A Final Whack at the Dead Horse in the Hart District

By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

Hold my drink while I take one more swing at this dead horse. 

You might remember a month or so ago, after the William S. Hart Union High School District named Mike Kuhlman as its next superintendent, we roughed up the district a bit over the process.  

The Hart District board’s first public discussion of appointing Kuhlman to replace the retiring Vicki Engbrecht was a brief Aug. 21 decision when the board voted 5-0 to appoint Kuhlman, despite never publicly discussing the superintendent search or even acknowledging a search was under way. 

At the time, we said it didn’t appear as if the district broke any laws, but that we expect greater transparency. 

Turns out, we kind of soft-pedaled it. 

In the weeks since, I have become convinced the Hart District did indeed violate the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meeting law. 

Soon after our original round of columns and editorials, local resident Steve Petzold did some homework, and sent the Hart District a “cure and correct” letter, alleging the board violated the Brown Act by failing to properly agendize and publicly discuss the search for a new superintendent. 

Petzold demanded that the district vacate the appointment and start over, this time following the law. 

You may remember Petzold for a rather notorious video he posted in 2016, when he was objecting to the Measure E bond initiative for College of the Canyons. He was in his back yard, and after making a statement in which he described taxpayers as “targets” of the community college district, he took aim with a pellet rifle at a “target” depicting a map of the college.  

It was unsettling, let’s just say that. COC Chancellor Dianne Van Hook obtained a restraining order requiring Petzold to stay at least 100 yards away from her, her home and her workplace. 

Fast forward to 2019 and Petzold has succeeded in getting some major Measure E campaign donors slapped on the wrist by the state Fair Political Practices Commission because they didn’t fill out proper donor paperwork. It was a technicality, and technically they were wrong, but no fines were issued. They got warning letters.

And now, Petzold has shifted his attention to the Hart District.

I’ve met Steve. He’s a “gotcha” kind of guy who’s generally regarded among movers and shakers as something of a gadfly. He gets riled up about things that don’t get most people riled up.

But gadflies aren’t always wrong. And Petzold wasn’t wrong about the Hart District. I’m just glad he didn’t make his point with videotaped gunplay this time. 

Here’s where he was right, bearing in mind I’m not an attorney, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night:

The Hart District board considered the following agenda item, in closed session July 17: “Discussion of criteria to be utilized for future selection of superintendent candidates.” No action was reported after that closed session, as the Brown Act requires when actions are taken in closed session. 

It was in all likelihood an illegal closed session in the first place. The Brown Act specifies exemptions allowing bodies like school boards and city councils to discuss some things in private. These include pending litigation, real estate negotiations and personnel matters. 

Here’s the thing: A closed session to discuss hiring policy or criteria is not an allowable exemption.  

According to the League of California Cities’ guide to the Brown Act, public bodies can meet in closed session “to consider the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline, or dismissal of a public employee or to hear complaints or charges brought against the employee.”

The guide adds: “The purpose of this exception — commonly referred to as the ‘personnel exception’ — is to avoid undue publicity or embarrassment for an employee or applicant for employment and to allow full and candid discussion by the legislative body; thus, it is restricted to discussing individuals, not general personnel policies.”

If the Hart District board was discussing criteria for a future superintendent search, they clearly should have done so publicly. Further, if they decided in that meeting — or any other time — to conduct an internal search, that was a reportable action under the Brown Act, and it was never reported.

Another funny thing: Even though the district insists Engbrecht has not informed the board of her intention to “retire,” here’s the wording from the Aug. 21 agenda: “Board to consider appointment of new superintendent, assignment effective upon Mrs. Engbrecht’s retirement (on or before June 30, 2020).” 

At some point, the board became aware Engbrecht was retiring. The district put it in writing, on the agenda. And now they claim it hasn’t happened. 

When their clearly predetermined 5-0 vote for Kuhlman was taken with little discussion on Aug. 21, district officials wouldn’t even confirm how many candidates were considered. They still haven’t.

This was the slam-iest of slam dunks. 

It’s worth reiterating that this isn’t about Kuhlman or his suitability for the job. He’s been the heir apparent since he was named deputy superintendent in 2018, and really that’s fine. It’s good to have a deep talent pool to draw from and, when an opening occurs, to have an obvious candidate who already knows the ropes, ready in the bullpen.  

But the Brown Act exists for good reasons. One is to ensure transparency, and to prevent decisions like this from being made without public review and input. The Hart District flouted the spirit and, I believe, the letter of the law. 

That brings us to what happened this past Wednesday. 

Responding to Petzold’s “cure and correct” letter, the board  — obviously on the advice of counsel — approved a letter to be sent to Petzold in which the board denies all wrongdoing, but promises not to do it again. 

Huh?

Suppose you rob a bank. And you get caught. Then you go before the judge and deny it. 

“I didn’t rob that bank, your honor. But I promise never to do it again.”

Not to equate what happened here with a bank robbery, but you get the idea. Deny, deny, deny. The board got caught making public decisions behind closed doors, and the district has been in CYA mode ever since. (If you don’t know what CYA means, check the Urban Dictionary.)

Here’s what board President Bob Jensen said during Wednesday’s meeting:

“It is essential that our community feels confident in the board’s actions. 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 board was wrong here, even if they won’t admit it, and I hope the district is sincere in its pledge to not do it again. You know. That thing they said they didn’t do.

Sadly, the community doesn’t seem fazed by it all. There’s been no uproar to speak of. Test scores are good, the district’s schools are great — and they are — so the community as a whole didn’t get very riled up about this particular violation of the public trust. 

Beating a dead horse?

I’d say the horse isn’t really dead. But no one other than Steve Petzold — and certainly no one at the Hart District — seems to care all that much.

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

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