School board OKs new administrator position despite outcry | March 20, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

Schools - March 20, 2019

School board OKs new administrator position despite outcry

by Angela Swartz

After a bristly back-and-forth between the Las Lomitas Elementary School District school board and a group of parents and teachers, board members voted on March 13 to create the new position of assistant superintendent, and give a current district administrator the new title and a pay hike.

But questions remain about when the board discussed the new position before unanimously approving it, and why the two-school district needs an assistant superintendent.

The board voted to reclassify the position of director of curriculum and instruction as an assistant superintendent position, with an annual pay increase for the person now in the position, Shannon Potts, of $25,748, or 14.5 percent, according to the school district. Board President John Earnhardt said at the meeting that there is no plan to fill the curriculum and instruction role at this time.

The vote happened despite public comments at the meeting from parents and some teachers urging the board to delay the vote until getting broader public input on the proposed change. Some parents who spoke, such as Laurie Sobel and Julie Chandik, explained that they came to the meeting to speak for teachers who feared retaliation for opposing the reclassification and pay increase for Potts.

"It was apparent to me that in closed session the board had already confirmed their commitment to approving the reclassification," said Mimi Sabo, co-president of the teachers' union, the Las Lomitas Education Association, in a March 14 email to The Almanac. "They were determined not to take into consideration any of the public comment. Despite the passion and eloquence of those who spoke, the public comment fell on deaf ears."

Was discussion of reclassification of a position appropriate for a closed session? According to Whitney Prout, a staff attorney for the nonprofit California Newspaper Publishers Association, school board members can hatch the idea for a new position during a closed session meeting, even if the discussion comes up when evaluating another employee. For instance, during an evaluation of an employee's contract, the topic of how various departments are doing might come up, and it's legal to discuss creating a new role to help ease some of the burden on the position being discussed on the agenda, she said.

The California Brown Act, however, prohibits a board from creating a detailed job description during a closed session, Prout said. That law was enacted to protect the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

In this case, she said, creating and getting feedback on the new assistant superintendent job description could have happened in a more open manner.

"Why not put it on hold and take it back into open session to discuss?" she said.

In a March 14 email to The Almanac, Earnhardt said the idea to reclassify Potts' position came about after Superintendent Lisa Cesario announced she would retire at the end of the school year in January.

The proposed change apparently was never discussed in public before last week's meeting. When asked whether the board discussed the reclassification of the job behind closed doors, Earnhardt responded that he can't talk about what was discussed in closed session.

During the March 13 meeting, Earnhardt said that the board followed protocol in making the decision.

"I hate to say this, but we post the agenda four days before meetings," he said. "Many of you haven't attended board meetings before, but that's the process."

Earnhardt argued that the decision would help retain key talent when Superintendent Lisa Cesario retires at the end of the school year. "My job as a trustee is to make sure the district can be run well with a new superintendent," he said.

During the public comment period, when Sobel, a parent of sixth- and eighth-graders at La Entrada Middle School, began reading a comment from The Almanac's online Town Square forum addressing the reclassification and criticizing Potts and Cesario, board members told her to stop reading the statement and to "not make it personal." The author of the comment claimed to be a teacher who feared retaliation from the administration if he or she spoke publicly at the meeting.

After the meeting, Sobel said that stopping her from reading the comment exemplifies why teachers don't feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with the administration.

"I understand not wanting to have a review of the person (Potts)," Sobel said after the meeting. "But in this situation, the position was created for a person, so it's hard to separate the person from the position. I still don't understand why the decision had to be made last night."

Earnhardt noted that the board "of course listened" to teachers, but there are "way more inputs than just the teachers"

Sabo told The Almanac before the meeting that the scale of the pay increase is unprecedented in the district, because pay raises for administrators are usually tied to those of teachers (teachers and administrators already received a raise of 6 percent spread over the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years).

But school board members said Potts was doing work outside of her job description as director of curriculum and instruction, and the reclassification and pay change are a recognition of those added duties. The board said added duties include more data analysis; managing the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) to create goals, actions, services and expenditures to support positive student outcomes that address state and local priorities; and managing certified personnel.

If Potts is doing work outside of her job description, the board is legally required to reclassify her role, board member Dana Nunn said at the meeting.

Sabo said earlier that she has three main concerns about the change: the questionable need for an assistant superintendent in a school district as small as Las Lomitas, which has only 1,259 students in two schools: Las Lomitas (K-3) in Atherton and La Entrada (4-8) in Menlo Park; the fiscal impact on the district; and the timing of the reclassification and the raise.

Nunn noted that there aren't school districts comparable in size to Las Lomitas, so it's not fair to say Las Lomitas shouldn't have an assistant superintendent because nearby small districts don't employ assistant superintendents. There are 410 students enrolled in nearby Woodside Elementary School District and 574 students in the Portola Valley School District. Neither employ assistant superintendents.

Moving forward, the teachers union will hold its monthly directors' council meeting on March 21, where teachers will provide input on the reclassification and brainstorm next steps, Sabo said.

Potts' new salary is as assistant superintendent is $203,145 annually, effective March 13, according to the district. She had been making $177,397 annually, the district said.

Before becoming the director of curriculum and instruction, Potts was principal of La Entrada Middle School, where she began her career in the district in 2012.

Potts did not respond to a request for comment.

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