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Simi Trustees Review Options in Ousting Chief

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A week after placing Supt. Tate Parker on administrative leave, school trustees Tuesday night began wrestling with thorny issues of whether they have “just cause” to fire him or will need to shell out $162,000 in severance pay.

“We’re looking at the contract and following what it requires,” Eric Bathen, the trustees’ attorney, said Tuesday.

One contract issue to be resolved, he said, is whether the school district must pay Parker $162,000--or 18 months salary--if the superintendent and the board “mutually agree” to break the 30-month contract.

But the board could fire Parker for “good and just cause,” if it can be shown, Bathen said. If that is the case, Bathen said the district might not have to make the lump-sum payment.

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The five members of the Simi Valley Unified School District board announced that they had made no decisions Tuesday night after meeting for one hour and 20 minutes behind closed doors.

The trustees continued to decline public comment on Parker’s status or their unanimous decision to place him on administrative leave after only five months on the job.

“We’re going to proceed very cautiously and judiciously with this whole thing,” board President Norm Walker said before the meeting. “We want to make sure we do what we need to do in the right way.”

But Walker said the board made progress in winnowing down a list of five or six candidates for interim superintendent. There is no timeline for picking Parker’s permanent replacement, he said, but an interim superintendent could be in place within weeks. The board will meet on the issue Monday.

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While trustees will not publicly discuss Parker’s ouster, they privately say the decision appears to be permanent and cite a list of complaints that prompted their action.

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Parker missed work, they said, and was inaccessible to trustees, who didn’t have the schools chief’s unlisted home phone number. He tried to run the district without consulting the five-member policy-making board, some said. And morale was so low that key employees thought of abandoning the district.

Parker could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

But Bathen said Parker has hired a lawyer, although he said he could not disclose his name. “I have been contacted by Parker’s legal counsel and have talked extensively with him,” Bathen said.

In his discussions with trustees, Bathen also advised the board about whether to release Ruth Lander--whom Parker recruited to head personnel services--from her $88,500-a-year post. An assistant superintendent in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District--Parker’s previous employer--Lander was scheduled to start work in Simi Valley in July.

After her mentor’s ouster, Lander asked acting Simi Valley Supt. Susan Parks to be released from her contract.

“I was called by Susan Parks on behalf of the board, and she told me that I was certainly welcome, wanted and needed in Simi, but if I felt uncomfortable then everyone would understand,” Lander said Tuesday.

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The board unanimously agreed Tuesday night, allowing Lander to get out of her contract.

“We want happy employees,” Walker said.

In her stead, trustees picked Cary Dritz to head the district’s personnel office beginning next month. Dritz is now employed by the Ventura County superintendent of schools office as human resources director.

With one administrative vacancy filled, Simi Valley Unified--known in recent years for its quarrelsome board and administrative turnover--must still search for a schools chief.

Exactly who will lead the district through this staffing bog remains unclear. The heir-apparent to the superintendency, veteran administrator Parks, is scheduled to leave Simi Valley on July 1 to become Baldwin Park’s schools chief.

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Parks restated Tuesday that she will not remain in Simi Valley.

“In no uncertain terms, I am absolutely, positively going to Baldwin Park on July 1,” she said. “June 19 is my last day of work in Simi.”

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Recent weeks have brought little but trouble for the county’s largest school district, which educates 18,627 students.

A jury recently ruled that the district must pay $1.9 million to a young Simi Valley woman injured while crossing a street to get to school in 1989.

Also, two teachers were recently put on administrative leave for improper conduct toward students, according to a May 29 district memo.

In addition, the district has endured a year of personnel changes. A year ago, Supt. Mary Beth Wolford abruptly abandoned the district after several clashes with trustees. Robert Purvis, who preceded Wolford as the district’s chief, then returned on a temporary basis while the district hunted for Wolford’s permanent replacement.

That search ended in November when Parker, then chief of schools in Murrieta, accepted an offer to lead Simi Valley’s schools. He started in January.

When the single father of two grown children was hired, trustees touted him as a fiscal conservative and consensus builder who would bring stability to the tumultuous district.


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