School district takes steps toward finding a new superintendent

<i>This post has been corrected, as noted below</i>

Discussion of possible successors to Laguna Beach Unified Supt. Sherine Smith gravitated toward a former Laguna Beach principal as the school board on Tuesday talked about the search process for the district’s next top administrator.

Smith announced in June that she will leave the district at the end of the coming school year after six years in Laguna.

Resident Howard Hills suggested the district contact Joanne Culverhouse to see if she is interested in the position. Culverhouse left her post at the high school a year ago to become assistant superintendent of education services in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.

“You can save everybody a lot of time and some money,” Hills said. “Before hiring a search firm, as a board, go to Dr. Culverhouse and find out if she is available to come back.”


Culverhouse was principal at Laguna Beach High for three of her 15 years with Laguna Beach Unified before moving to Palos Verdes Peninsula, led by former Laguna Beach High Principal Don Austin.

Culverhouse did not return an email seeking comment.

Despite the talk among guests at the board meeting in support of Culverhouse, Laguna Beach Unified staff intends to hire a search firm to solicit candidates.

Hills suggested getting input from the broader community, not just parents, before the district contracts with any firm.

“Look at the model for recruitment of chief of police for the city,” Hills said. “They held a town hall meeting and asked the public, ‘What do you want from the new chief of police?’ A search firm markets themselves to you based on what they think they can do. Before even talking to a search firm, you should hear what everybody in the community has to say.”

District resident Sheri Morgan said some parents don’t have time to attend a town hall meeting and suggested an online forum for giving feedback. Morgan also said Culverhouse would be a qualified candidate.

“Dr. Culverhouse was a phenomenal leader in our district who encouraged people to participate,” Morgan said. "[She] spread energy that made you want more of it. If there was something she lacked info on, she was willing to go get it.”

Even if Culverhouse is qualified, Laguna resident and educator Michael O’Neill said, the district would be doing itself a disservice if it limited its search.


“Your obligation is to go as far and wide as you can,” said O’Neill, a former teacher at El Morro Elementary. “To truncate one of the most important things you can possibly do [hiring a superintendent] would be a travesty.”

The board hopes to start interviewing search firms in October and select a new superintendent by next spring.

Hills questioned whether Smith was legally obligated to disclose communication with potential employers while still working for the Laguna Beach district to guard against a conflict of interest.

Attorney Mark Bresee, who represents the school district, said in an email that Smith is not legally required to provide that information unless the board is voting on a contract or transaction that would have a “reasonably foreseeable material financial effect” on Smith.


[For the record, Aug. 31, 11:41 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misidentified Don Austin as a former Laguna Beach Unified School District superintendent. Austin was former principal at Laguna Beach High School.]