More questions than answers in case of high school superintendent
July 13, 2013
Nevada County Superior Court Judge Sean Dowling this week ruled against The Union in a complaint seeking the disclosure of documents pertaining to the termination of former Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Marianne Cartan.
During a June 28 hearing, Dowling said the bottom line was the balancing of the right to individual privacy versus the Public Records Act. He wrote in his ruling that public curiosity is not a substitute for public interest, which he said must be substantial for disclosure. And, he continued, because there are no allegation of misconduct or complaints sufficient to heighten the public’s interest, Cartan’s privacy interests “clearly outweigh” the public interest in disclosure.
We respectfully disagree.
To be clear, the public records request was made to not only gain insight on the former superintendent’s performance, but also that of the board members themselves in how they dealt with a situation significant enough to terminate the leader of the district — one responsible for the education nearly 3,300 students and stewardship of millions in taxpayer dollars. Yet when those taxpayers step into the voting booth to elect the school district’s next board of directors, they’ll do so without the rationale behind the board’s decision to change its leadership of this very large sector of our community.
Following Cartan’s termination “without cause” March 13, the district’s trustees declined to provide rationale for the board’s 3-2 decision. Board members voting both for and against declined comment and directed questions to Board President Katy Schwarz, expressing a desire of the board to “speak with one voice.” While perhaps more appropriate when there is unanimous agreement, board members should recognize the rights of their constituents to know the rationale for their own representative’s decision, especially when there is disagreement.
For the record, according to the minutes of its meetings, the district board voted unanimously in favor of the former superintendent with each opportunity to evaluate her performance prior to her March termination. And the board publicly expressed support for her during two of the most controversial events in her 28-month tenure.
In December 2010, the board voted 5-0 to hire Cartan as interim superintendent, after a candidate whom the district had identified through a contracted search firm to replace former Superintendent Ralf Swenson was offered the position but withdrew. Cartan had previously worked as a counselor and assistant principal at Nevada Union High School, and worked for 15 years as an administrator with the 49er Regional Occupational Program, a career-skills education program.
Just more than two months after her hiring, Cartan drew criticism over the district’s decision to transfer three of its administrators to new positions. Cathy Peterson, a longtime assistant principal at Nevada Union, was moved to Bear River High School. Park Avenue Alternative Principal Mike Blake was reassigned to Nevada Union to replace Marty Mathiesen, who, in turn, took over at Park Avenue. Much of the angst expressed at that meeting centered on Mathiesen having served as principal for seven years, easily the longest stint at Nevada Union since 1999, when Kurt Stenderup’s 10 years as principal came to an end.
When Blake took over for Mathiesen, he became the sixth principal hired at Nevada Union over the course of a 13-year span.
Several who spoke at that meeting against the transfer suggested Cartan was behind the move and opposed her being hired on a permanent basis, saying the district had should have conducted another search for a superintendent.
Mark Heauser, then board president, said “We are looking for more stability,” as a key reason he joined a 5-0 vote to hire Cartan, a local resident, as permanent superintendent with a two-year contract. Other board members showed support for her despite criticism over the reassignment of administrators, which board members said was not a unilateral decision made by Cartan.
Two months after Cartan was named permanent superintendent, the district learned that Nevada Union High School did not receive full accreditation from the Western Association of Schools & Colleges for the first time in its history. Preparations for accreditation typically begin up to 18 months prior to the WASC visiting committee making a trip to campus, Cartan said at the time. The committee visited NU on Feb. 28, 2011, less than two full months after Cartan was hired as interim superintendent. Board members suggested the change in administration would help remedy the school’s standing, with some members voicing frustration that WASC had outlined 14 recommendations during its midterm progress report in the 2007-08 school year, but just four had been addressed by the school.
Six months later, in December 2011, Cartan received an automatic one-year extension, a condition of her contract following a positive review of her performance by the board which voiced unanimous support. In December 2012, according to board minutes, the board again voted 5-0 to extend Cartan’s contract through June 30, 2015.
Less than three months later, the board voted 3-2 to terminate her contract.
Cartan made $135,000 annually, but according to the contract, the district must pay the remainder of her unexpired term or up to 12 months following the date of termination, which would be March 2014.
Last week, the district hired its sixth superintendent in 15 years, dating back to Michael Barkhurst, who ended his 18 years at the helm in 1998. Louise Bennicoff Johnson, who served as superintendent for the Ripon Unified School District from 2008 to 2013, will be paid $142,000 annually as the district’s new superintendent.
We believe the public has a right to know why the district’s trustees deemed this a necessary decision, which is why The Union filed its complaint to gain access to public documents — among those sought, being Cartan’s evaluations, along with surveys produced by the district’s administrators and its teachers union on the superintendent’s performance.
In the absence of any alleged wrongdoing, the judge in this case ruled the contents of those documents were not of enough public interest to warrant disclosure.
But in the absence of rationale for the board’s decision, and with only a positive track record of performance made public, in this case we are left with more questions than answers.
We realize taking action against a school district, one of many across the state that has been cash-strapped due to budget cuts, is a difficult decision. But it is one we must consider in our role as the newspaper of record in our community.
Whether reporting on a school district board of trustees, a fire district, a fair board or a even homeowners association, when a governing entity makes decisions that impact our community, we have responsibility to ask “Why?”
And we firmly believe the members of those governing boards have a responsibility to respond and share their rationale with those they respresent.