District responds to questions about hiring practices

Several parents, occasionally raising their voices during a contentious school board meeting last week, asked why certain Laguna Beach Unified School District administrators got their jobs.

District officials said any hiring or transferring was done based on the person's many years of experience.

Howard Hills and Tammy Keces were two of the half-dozen Laguna Beach residents who questioned a proposed appointment for the position of fiscal services director and a teacher's job transfer within the district.

"There are other competent professionals in our district who aren't given an opportunity to apply," Keces said.

Residents wondered how Linda Barker, a second-grade teacher at Top of the World Elementary School and president of the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Assn., was transferred to a new role training teachers on new Common Core state educational standards.

Barker, who has taught for 29 years, defended herself before the board members and public.

"I have served in many roles: the science coordinator for 14-plus years, a science-technology-engineering-arts-mathematics specialist," she said. "I have a master's in science in education curriculum and served as teacher in charge when Principal Ron LaMotte is not on campus.

"I have not promoted this move as a promotion," Barker said. "My title is the same, pay is the same, role is the same. The only difference is the audience will change. Whether someone agrees with it or not, this has turned into a personal attack on me."

"This is not personal," Hills said. "When stewardship does not protect the integrity of the system, who suffers? We need to make sure we are getting the best person for the right job to maintain morale of all school employees."

Supt. Sherine Smith said she met with all four principals and they recommended Barker for the job.

"We would like to see how you're voting," Keces said.

"We talked all year about whether we wanted to use a consultant or a TOSA [Teacher on Special Assignment, from within the district]," Smith said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Staff decided on the latter.

"She is still a teacher," Smith said of Barker. "She will not teach children, but will teach and coach adults. Her assignment is changing and that's not something the board had to approve. This is comparable to a teacher moving from second to fifth grade. Principals assign teachers to grade levels. The board's role is to approve policy and provide oversight."

Some parents said more people should have been given a chance to apply for the TOSA appointment.

Board member Ketta Brown acknowledged parents' concerns about the openness of the TOSA appointment process but stands by school administrators in this case.

"I understand about procedure. We heard it loud and clear," Brown said at the meeting. "When four site principals come to you saying this is the best person for the job, I felt like principals know better than I.But we need to be more systematic and have a standard from this point forward."

Residents also questioned why Shannon Soto, the district's fiscal services director, was set to receive a pay raise to $144,089 from her current $132,792 salary and a job title change to administrative services director.

Brown wondered aloud whether Soto's position would overlap with other administrators' duties.

"Are Dean [West], Shannon and Ray [Lee] doing the same thing?" Brown said. "We've got to figure it out."

The audience applauded after Brown's comment.

West is the assistant superintendent of business services while Lee is the district's budget analyst and accountant.

The school board held off on appointing Soto until it had more information, but district staff decided not to award her the promotion, Smith said Tuesday. "It was a concern about overlap among positions."

Residents accused Smith, who spent 23 years in the Capistrano Unified School District as teacher, activities director, principal and deputy superintendent, of hiring friends and colleagues for district positions without casting job openings to a larger audience.

Last summer Smith hired three people who had worked in Capistrano Unified: Soto, Deni Christensen, who resigned as Laguna Beach Unified's assistant superintendent of instructional services Friday, and human resources and communications director Jerry Vlasic.

Soto was principal at Las Flores Middle School and Christensen was executive director of secondary schools for Capistrano Unified. Vlasic was an elementary school principal in Capistrano Unified, Smith said.

"Shannon applied for the [assistant superintendent of business services] position, but I chose Dean for that," Smith said by phone. "Deni and Jerry went through an interview panel and all those openings were posted.

"The [district] complies with all rules and regulations regarding hiring practices," Smith wrote in an email.

Last year's openings were created because of the retirements of several administrators from Laguna Beach Unified.

"I lost a lot of institutional knowledge in business, curriculum and human resources all at once," Smith said. "I had to bring in a team who could gel and move the district forward. We've had outstanding results this year."

Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School were both declared California Distinguished Schools while Thurston added a Schools to Watch honor.

Success can foster a culture of shortcuts, Hills said.

"We have great schools with so much that is positive stuff," said Hills, who attended Thurston Middle School and graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 1970. "It's a success story in most respects. But that breeds this attitude that we can do no wrong, and anyone who criticizes is branded with the scarlet letter 'N' for 'negative.'

He added: "The appearance of a conflict of interest doesn't mean you [Smith] cannot hire these people [Soto, Vlasic and Christensen]. But it means the process must be open, transparent, and there needs to be a disclosure of a perceived conflict of interest."

Hills continued: "What concerns me is these problems are at the foot of the school board members. They are asleep at the wheel."

Board member Jan Vickers disagreed.

"I ask the most questions," Vickers said. "I understand what he [Hills] is saying, but I want to know how many people apply for a job. We see resumes before we approve hires."

The school board only has the authority to hire or fire the superintendent and approve other district hires, according to Vickers.

The board sees resumes and letters of recommendations and "operates with a level of trust" with the district, Vickers said.

Whether Soto is qualified for her job, particularly whether she was a current certified public accountant, was called into question at last week's board meeting.

But being a CPA isn't necessarily a job requirement for most school districts, said Wendy Benkert, assistant superintendent for business services for the Orange County Department of Education.

"School finance is different than being in the public sector," Benkert said. "It's not so common [for school business officials to be CPAs]. School finance requires a vast understanding of the education code. Most districts' requirements are a bachelor's degree, having business management certificates and supervisorial experience."

Smith defended Soto's qualifications. "She has a degree in business, she was a math teacher, assistant principal, principal, she has a lot of management and leadership skills to support staff and operations," Smith said.

Smith also recognized parents' concerns and vowed to ensure residents know the hiring process is open and complies with the law.

"I'll make it clear that others had the opportunity to interview," Smith said.

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