The Sequoia Union High School District has appointed Associate Superintendent Crystal Leach once again to step in as acting superintendent until the district finds a permanent replacement.
The Board of Trustees made the announcement Monday night, less than a week after the departure of its Superintendent Darnise Williams. Though the board will take no official action until its next regular meeting on Jan. 18, Leach has assumed superintendent duties. The school semester ends Thursday, with the spring term beginning Jan. 8.
The board voted unanimously to offer Leach the position of district interim superintendent, “dependent upon successful negotiations of an interim superintendent employment agreement and approval by the board in open session at the next regular board meeting,” Board President Rich Ginn said during the meeting.
Leach told The Almanac's sister publication, the Redwood City Pulse, she was “honored to again be of service to our students, community, and staff.”
“During this transition, the continuation of the district’s equity work and a focus on student achievement will be a priority,” she added.
Leach previously served as interim superintendent after former superintendent Mary Streshly left amid calls for her resignation in fall 2020.
The decision to select an interim superintendent while searching for a full-time replacement was one of several options the board considered, including appointing a new superintendent directly or taking no action until the new year, according to Ginn.
The board will begin an official search in the new year, according to Ginn, who said he hoped to fill the superintendent’s seat by the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year, if not sooner. The process will include hiring a search firm and setting a timeline for finding Williams’ permanent replacement.
Edith Salvatore, president of the Sequoia District Teachers Association, said the union hadn’t taken a position on the decision. However, she said that she personally supported the appointment.
“Based on her impressive performance as interim before and the confidence I have that she has every intent to continue to support the anti-racist and student-centered efforts started by our members that were championed by Dr. Williams, I think it’s a good selection,” she said.
A big payout
Williams, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, received a severance of $299,000 upon her departure, according to a settlement agreement between Williams and the district, which was signed by Williams, Du Bois and the district's new attorney, Eugene Whitlock. Du Bois would not comment on the nature of the payment. Ginn declined to answer questions about the payment, saying, “Anything relating to the superintendent and her job, I don’t want to comment on.”
According to Williams’ contract, the board had the right to terminate her employment at any time “without cause or a hearing,” on the condition that the district would pay her a severance of one year’s salary and “the amount which the Superintendent earns from any other employment-related source.”
It also precludes Williams from taking any legal action against the district and states explicitly that the resignation is “a voluntary act, and that there was no coercion by the district.” Per the contract, Williams’ employment ends on Dec. 31.
Stevenson declined to speak to the Pulse. Williams could not be reached for comment.
The announcement of Williams’ apparent resignation came during the Dec. 14 meeting, after a chaotic week of closed session meetings and rumors about a possible ousting of the superintendent. The board did not give any specific reasons for Williams’ departure.
Board Trustee Carrie Du Bois, who until last week was the board president, addressed members of the audience at the beginning of the meeting by reading a news release that said Williams had resigned her position at the district after “leading the high school district through the pandemic recovery.” Per the settlement agreement, at Williams’ request, the district would issue a “mutually agreed upon press release” that would require both the district and Williams to agree on the language of the release. The settlement also included a non-disparagement clause for both sides, which would prohibit either party from making or writing any derogatory or unfavorable remarks against the other.
“The Sequoia Union High School District and superintendent have mutually agreed to part ways,” Du Bois read. “We thank Superintendent Williams for her grace, devotion and leadership during this unprecedented time. … Dr. Williams’ leadership has been recognized at the local, regional and state levels for her focus on disrupting educational inequities.”
During the meeting, speakers accused the trustees of anti-Blackness, a lack of transparency and upholding white supremacy in a public condemnation that lasted nearly an hour. Many questioned the board’s assertion that the decision was a “mutual agreement,” alleging that the trustees had forced out the district’s first Black female superintendent. Williams was not present at the meeting.
Trustee Shawneece Stevenson could be seen wiping away tears, while the other board members mostly remained stoic throughout the public comment.
“I’m hurt, I’m sad, I’m grieving,” Stevenson said at the end of the meeting in a call for racial healing within the board. “I’m sitting here crying because I’m hurt. It’s grief.”
‘In the dark’
District employees and community members expressed feeling blindsided by the decision to remove Williams from her position.
Former trustee Chris Thomsen said that Williams’ departure was “absolutely” news to him.
“Until the Friday before we departed, I was not aware of any problems,” he said. “I would expect that if the president and vice president were aware of problems, they would bring it to the attention of the rest of the board who would work with the superintendent throughout the rest of her tenure, rather than bringing it to two new board members who had no experience.”
Hearing about the special closed session meeting, which was scheduled for two days after his retirement and to which Williams was not invited, triggered alarm bells for Thomsen. He said he specifically requested that then-President Du Bois bring any issues with Williams to a discussion with the current board.
“I asked the board president what this was all about. She refused to answer,” he said.
Salvatore shared similar frustrations.
“I have been in the dark as has the rest of the community about all of it,” she said . “If there were concerns (about Williams), they were not shared publicly. If there was an investigation, it was never acknowledged publicly.”
Salvatore said she, too, was unaware of any wrongdoing on the part of the superintendent.
“If the board members didn’t think she was being successful…then I feel they had an obligation to tell her what she needed to do to improve,” she added.
Salvatore said she reached out to the three continuing members of the previous board to understand why Williams was leaving, but they declined to comment.
“The last time we went through this—and it pains me that we are now a district where I can say, ‘unlike the last time we removed a superintendent in the middle of a term’—there was an investigation, and the board was open about what it was doing,” Salvatore said, before the announcement of Monday’s meeting. She noted that in 2020, the board paired the news of Streshly’s resignation with an announcement of who would temporarily take her place. “Notably this board has not done this yet. And we, as employees, have no idea who’s at the helm.”
Salvatore echoed concerns shared by other district teachers, students and staff, who described a loss of trust in the board due to its decision to let Williams go.
“My fear is that whoever follows is not going to be able to make the decisions best for students because they’ll always have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if the board’s okay with it,” she said.
Though the SDTA previously backed all three of the returning trustees, Salvatore said that, without taking concrete steps to repair the relationship, the board members would likely lose the teachers’ endorsement, especially with union negotiations beginning this spring.
“I know we have members calling for recalls,” she said. “I can’t imagine that SDTA would continue to support the trustees that we supported.”
New district leadership
With the retirement of former trustees Alan Sarver and Thomsen earlier this month, the board welcomed two new faces, including the district’s youngest-ever trustee, and approved a new president and vice president.
Sathvik Nori, 19, and Amy Koo joined the board in a rushed swearing-in before the Dec. 9 closed session meeting, after which trustees announced that they had hired new counsel, Eugene Whitlock, for an amount not to exceed $30,000. The board was criticized for taking this action behind closed doors, a move that Thomsen called “reckless,” “damaging to the district” and “possibly illegal.”
The board also elected Ginn and Stevenson to serve one-year terms as president and vice president, respectively, in a unanimous vote Wednesday.
Though their election followed the regular rotation of officers, not everyone agreed with the decision.
Thomsen recommended that the board consider breaking from its scheduled rotation and opt not to install Ginn as president.
“I would suggest to you that this is not ordinary time for the district and that you may want to consider who best can restore trust in the district when you choose that president,” he said.