Superintendents ousted by two school boards in O.C.
Parents in Orange Unified and Capistrano Unified questioned the timing and reason for firings
The new year is bringing big changes in leadership for at least two Orange County public school districts and that is upsetting some parents.
The superintendents in the Capistrano Unified School District and in the Orange Unified School District were both recently fired by their school boards in 4-3 votes during special meetings. During the meetings, board members did not explain why they voted to terminate the contracts of their district’s top leaders.
Both superintendents were let go “without cause,” meaning they were not accused of any official misconduct and will therefore likely receive severance pay for their six-figure salaries and other compensation based on the terms of their contracts. It also means the boards must recruit and hire new superintendents months into the 2022-23 school year.
DESPITE PUBLIC OUTCRY, OUSD SUPERINTENDENT FIRED
With a new board majority in place following the Nov. 2022 election, the Orange Unified School District Board of Education voted 4-3 to terminate the contract of Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen, Ph.D., and put her on a 30 day paid administrative leave. They also voted to put Cathleen Corella, Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services, on paid administrative leave pending the district conducting a “curriculum and education audit.”
The board majority also hired a new interim superintendent, Edward Velazquez, and appointed Canyon High School Principal J. Craig Abercrombie to Corella’s position on an interim basis.
The decisions were all made during a January 5 special meeting called with 24 hours’ notice by recently reelected Board President Rick Ledesma. It was held during the district’s winter break when school was not in session. Dr. Hansen, who was hired as superintendent in 2017, and Corella were out of the country, according to board member Kris Erickson.
At the meeting, Erickson asked President Ledesma if he had contacted either Dr. Hansen or Corella prior to the meeting. He replied, “No. I did not.” The response elicited boos from the estimated 200 people in the audience with one person shouting “coward.”
Prior to the closed-session votes, dozens of parents, teachers and community members of Orange Unified, which has roughly 26,000 students, pleaded with the board to reconsider or delay the decisions. Many praised Dr. Hansen and Corella for their work navigating OUSD through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speakers, and some board members, expressed shock, anger and disappointment at how the administrators were being considered for dismissal during a meeting over the holiday break.
“Tonight my heart is breaking along with so many others for a last-minute meeting that's clearly strategic and orchestrated during our winter break,” former OUSD and California Teacher of the Year Linda Horist said at the meeting.
“These leaders that you want to replace because they don't align with your agenda, they are the very same leaders that peers statewide seek out for their knowledge,” Horist added.
“I feel sorry for you that you felt the need to betray and to lie to and to disappoint, not just the people in this room, but the thousands and thousands of families that we represent,” OUSD parent Lee Tousignant told board members.
“I am so mad,” a woman who said she was a mother of two young kids told board members as she fought back tears. “I did not know I was coming here today when I went to work this morning. But I'm so mad at what is happening and I'm so mad at the waste that is happening for our school.”
One speaker out of the roughly 60 did express support for the change in leadership saying she was concerned about test scores and resources at her child’s OUSD school. “Why? Because the last four years the funding was going to other things, whether it was solar, [social-emotional learning] that was just approved, a lot of other things were being approved, instead of actually tutoring for kids, more, you know, resources for our teachers … like, our kids were suffering. So all we're asking for is a little bit of change,” she said.
Despite the majority of speakers opposing it, Ledesma and fellow board members Angie Rumsey, John Ortega and Madison Miner, who recently defeated longtime incumbent Kathy Moffat in a close election, voted for the firing and interim replacements. They offered no explanation of their votes to the public afterwards at the meeting. Board members Erickson, Andrea Yamasaki and Ana Page opposed the actions against Dr. Hansen and Corella.
Speaking to The Orange County Register last week, Ledesma defended the votes. “This was a business decision for the future of the district and the students,” he said and rejected claims it was a political move.
“We think we have drifted away from academics and educating students. We have been focusing too much on the social politics of education,” Ledesma was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
Some are questioning if the vote to replace the administrators at the Jan. 5 meeting violated any government transparency laws, Voice of OC reported. At least one state lawmaker is getting involved in the situation. On Jan. 11, State Senator Dave Min, a Democrat representing the 37th District which includes parts of Orange and Villa Park, announced that he had sent a letter to Board President Ledesma asking for more information about the “unusual circumstances” surrounding the Jan. 5 meeting.
“The suddenness of this decision, the lack of transparency, and the failure to even attempt to provide an explanation to the public, have raised serious questions about the Board majority’s motivations and whether they have breached their duties as Trustees,” Min said in a press release.
On her Facebook page, Erickson recently wrote, “Velasquez and Abercrombie were chosen and offered the jobs BEFORE (capitalization in original) I ever even learned their names as possible choices and before the meeting in which this decision was to be made.” In a previous post, she estimated the resulting financial impact on the district would be “well over $1 million.”
Talk of a recall peppered the public comments during the Jan. 5 meeting. According to one parent in the district, a group is in the beginning stages of planning a recall effort but it’s not yet clear which board members would be targeted.
CAPISTRANO UNIFIED FIRES SUPERINTENDENT
During a special meeting held Dec. 21, the new board majority on the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Education agreed in a 4-3 vote to terminate the contract of Superintendent Kirsten Vital Brulte effective Dec. 31. Brulte had held the position since 2014.
Capistrano Unified is the largest school district in Orange County with roughly 47,000 students. Three people spoke at the Dec. 21 meeting before the closed-session vote with all asking for more information about why the board was deciding to terminate Brulte’s contract.
“Is there a legitimate reason, good reason to fire superintendent Vital Brulte? Has she done anything wrong?,” asked one speaker who said she was a CUSD graduate who closely followed the school board. She added, “I don't see anything wrong that she's done. Is the district aware of wrongful termination lawsuits or other legal litigation that this could invite? Is this fair doing this in the dark of night, the week before Christmas, when you hope nobody's watching? Like, we're not that stupid.”
Board President Krista Castellanos, Vice President Michael Parham, Clerk Amy Hanacek and board member Gary Pritchard all voted to oust Brulte. Board members Judy Bullockus, Lisa Davis and Gila Jones opposed her firing.
According to The Capistrano Dispatch, in an email sent to district families after the meeting, President Castellanos wrote, “It is important to emphasize that the action taken was not for cause, and we wish the Superintendent the best in her future endeavors.”
The email also mentioned that Deputy Superintendent Clark Hampton would take on the role of interim superintendent while the district recruits and hires Brulte’s replacement.
A CUSD spokesperson told The O.C. Register that Brulte’s contract included a severance provision and the terms were still being worked out but should amount to about $550,000.
Westminster School District parted ways with its superintendent, Cyndi Paik, Ed.D., earlier in the school year. The district is currently asking for community input from now until Jan. 27 to help in its search for a permanent replacement. You can find the survey in English, Spanish and Vietnamese here.
The Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Education also held a special closed session meeting this week concerning the performance of its superintendent. The agenda for the Jan. 10 meeting had one item: a performance review of Superintendent Jerry Almendarez. In a phone interview, district spokesperson Fermin Leal confirmed the meeting had been scheduled for a while and was the customary annual review for the superintendent and that no action beyond goal setting was taken.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Jan. 12 to include information about State Senator Dave Min sending a letter to the OUSD Board of Education President.
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