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School Board Tables Vote on Principal Transitions

Jun 15, 2016 11:07PM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Clockwise from top left: John Jackson, Rhonda Steinberg, Nancy Doyle, Kim Linz

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District's school board has agreed to postpone a vote on a proposed shake-up of leadership in Manhattan Beach schools, following a contentious school board meeting on Tuesday night.

The hours-long meeting was packed with parents, teachers, staff, and community members, the vast majority of whom had come to speak out against the four-way shift in principals that had been announced last week.

At the end of the discussion on the item, MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews said that it was the questions about timing that ultimately led him to recommend that the board table the resolution and continue the discussion for later. Also, given that two board members - Christine Cronin-Hurst and Bill Fournell - had raised the possibility of postponing the transition, Matthews said he did not want to see a split vote. "Based on what you're hearing, and with the board being split, I would recommend that we table it at this point."

Tuesday night's school board meeting was packed to capacity, with the room capped at 211 and more overflow outside, and 33 people signed up for public comments. Many came from Grand View Elementary School, the school that has led the charge in protest of the principal changes.

Carrie Fairbrother, who has been a teacher at Grand View for 10 years, expressed what she called "professional disappointment" over the proposal. "Student success and stability is our number-one priority," she said. "Our staff was blindsided. We were told by our principal with eight days left and had to read the email that was sent to the parents."

Teachers are facing "monumental changes" in their responsibilities, added Fairbrother, including Common Core and CGI math instruction, the Mind Up program, Writers Workshop, and a new report card. To make a smooth transition through these changes "We need a leader who knows the strength of her staff and can bring out the best of their skills," she said.

Christine Norvell, who had served as principal at Pacific Elementary for 21 years, also spoke out against changing for the sake of change. "Principals, teachers, parents, and children work together as productive partners. Knowledge is gained cumulatively," she said. "From a management perspective, change is disruptive unless it is addressing a problem. Change resets the dial back to zero."

Parents opposed to the transition also lined up in numbers to add their comments. "Change is not fundamentally the best option. It’s bad if it happens too often," said Scott Holcomb, a Grand View parent. "We all want our kids to feel a solid foundation beneath their feet. When you take away our exceptional leader, that foundation cracks. Such a foundation should only be altered when well-supported reasoning compels us to do so."

Community leaders also picked up the mantle, including local business leader Mike Zislis, owner of Shade Hotel, The Strand House, Rock'n Fish, and other businesses; as well as a parent of children who have gone through the Manhattan Beach schools. "I have a lot of employees. Every once in a while you have to move someone laterally. But I have never in my career moved five of my seven managers at the same time. It just doesn’t make sense at any level," he said. "Every once in a while my staff pulls me aside and says, 'Mike, this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,' and I listen. Well, this [proposed principal transition] is the worst idea I’ve ever heard," he said.

Zislis added, "I ask you to dial this back out of respect for community. They're all here tonight because it just feels wrong. Please make it right."

Yet a few parents stood up to show support for the board. "As a parent I’m not trained in education. But I came to this district because it is a district of educational excellence," said Kate Bergin, a former Robinson parent who now has children at MBMS and Mira Costa. "I am supporting the board and our district and I see bigger and better. I think it’s time to come together and not be divisive. We need to keep together for our kids."

When the agenda item came up, board members were prepared to move forward but Cronin-Hurst said that she believed there was a Brown Act conflict in having a personnel issue discussed in closed session that did not get reported out. "The proper venue would be to table this and clear up the Brown Act before voting on it," she said.

The Brown Act is a California statute that regulates the ability of California city and county government agencies, boards, and councils to hold secret or undisclosed meetings.

Other board members disagreed that there had been a Brown Act conflict because there had been no action taken or consensus reached, and that changing principals' assignments was within the purview of Matthews' leadership.

Yet board member Fournell acknowledged public concern about the timing of the announcement, and suggested that he would be open to the idea of holding the item for a year to give the community a chance to understand it better. "I don’t know if I would change anything. I would give people a chance to understand the change," he said.

Board President Ellen Rosenberg countered that it was hard to see how the board could hold off on all four changes for an entire year. "Three schools have been very accepting [of the proposed changes]," she added.

After further discussion, Matthews said that if the item was going to possibly face a divided vote, that he would choose to table it.

The board then agreed to postpone action, and Matthews said he would communicate the information to the schools and figure out a plan for bringing the agenda item back to the board. The board's next meeting is on July 13.

In other action at the board meeting, the board voted 4-1 to censure member Christine Cronin-Hurst for breaching confidentiality of closed session subject matter, in violation of the Brown Act.

"Our colleague shared information that was revealed in June 1 closed session. Although she did not attend the session, she received information and subsequently shared it with a colleague. We cannot work if confidentiality is not respected," said Rosenberg.

Cronin-Hurst responded, "The only thing I may have disclosed to an outside party is something I felt was a Brown Act violation, and bewilderment as to why a personnel decision of this magnitude was not agendized separately on the closed session agenda, as I would have attended and voiced my dissent."

The censureship serves as a formal admonition but does not remove Cronin-Hurst from the board.

Cronin-Hurst has separately filed complaints with the Los Angeles District Attorney and the L.A. County Civil Grand Jury accusing the board of violating the Brown Act by failing to properly disclose the nature of the June 1 closed session meeting in which the transitions were discussed, and "improper agendizing" of of an action item on which she claims that consensus and a conclusion had already been reached by a majority of the board.

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