The field of candidates for the next superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District has significantly narrowed less than a month after Superintendent Patrick Gemma announced plans to retire at the end of June.
The district governing board, in a Feb. 24 closed session, voted 4-1 to "limit the search for a superintendent to internal candidates," board President Olivia Martinez told The Almanac.
The board's action, said Atherton resident Peter Carpenter in a March 5 post at The Almanac's online forum, is in violation of the state's open-meeting law, the Brown Act. Mr. Carpenter, who is not a lawyer, is threatening a lawsuit if the board does not rescind its decision.
The law, Mr. Carpenter said, allows closed-session discussions about particular individuals, but not process-oriented matters.
"If the School District truly wants to err on the side of more public access then they should reverse this closed-session decision immediately," Mr. Carpenter said. "If they do not, they are 1) wrong, 2) insulting the public whom they serve and 3) going to be sued."
In an interview, Mr. Carpenter said he has asked the San Mateo County District Attorney to look into the matter, and that he, Peter Carpenter, plans to initiate a lawsuit if the board does not reverse its decision.
"They are neither complying with the spirit nor the letter of the law," he said. If he wins, he added, any decisions that flow from the closed session in question would be nullified.
Asked about the board's decision, Jim Ewert, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said that the most recent court case on the books permits such conversations in closed session, but that a recent change in the law makes that case vulnerable.
The Court of Appeals in the 2001 case Duval v. Board of Trustees of the Coalinga-Huron Unified School District, ruled that closed sessions can include discussion of criteria for conducting a candidate search, Mr. Ewert said.
Not so, said Terry Francke, general counsel for the nonprofit open-government advocacy group California Aware.
In an e-mail, Mr. Francke said that Duval "concerned an incumbent superintendent and the board's process of setting new performance goals for him. The case was not about a search, and I agree (with Mr. Carpenter) that a discussion of whether or how to conduct a search is not a matter for closed session."
Mr. Carpenter posted an e-mail exchange between him and John Beiers, the Sequoia district's attorney and the chief deputy in the County Counsel's Office. Mr. Beiers called Mr. Carpenter's analysis "flawed," and added that if he was requesting that the board's Feb. 24 closed-session decision be rescinded, his request was denied.
Sequoia board member Chris Thomsen voted against the search limits. Given the importance of the post, "I think it's good for a district to do a national search in every case," he told The Almanac.
As a new board member, he said he would also benefit from a larger candidate pool.
Asked if the leading candidate is Assistant Superintendent James Lianides, Mr. Gemma's apparent right-hand man, Ms. Martinez replied: "We've got a lot of talented people in the district, and he's one of them."
District spokeswoman Bettylu Smith said in a Feb. 22 statement -- two days before the board decided to limit the search -- that the board had agreed at an earlier meeting to "start initially with consideration of internal candidates."
Three of the last four superintendents have come from outside the district, former board member Sally Stewart said.