As public schools become battlegrounds over social curriculums and vaccines, parents in the Orange Unified School District are asking how four of their elected school board members agreed to oust two top district bosses without any prior discussion with their other colleagues.
In just 24 hours.
It’s leading questions about whether or not the move violated transparency laws.
It came just weeks after school board members elsewhere, overseeing the massive Capistrano Unified School District, similarly and abruptly ousted their superintendent around Christmas.
And in Orange, some parents and teachers were still traveling over the holiday break when their school board sent out the notice for a Jan. 5 special meeting with few details.
That included former Orange Unified School District Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen and Assistant Superintendent Cathleen Corella, who were both out of the country when their elected bosses voted to fire and suspend them, respectively, at the meeting.
School board members Rick Ledesma, John Ortega, Angie Rumsey, and Madison Miner gave no public explanation for their decision – despite constant questions from residents.
There are also questions about how the four board members had their interim replacements lined up that same night, and why school board president Rick Ledesma tapped one of the incoming replacements about the position the night before Corella’s paid leave was decided.
“I know this news is probably the last thing you expected to see when you opened your email preparing to return to school,” reads a Jan. 8 email to the staff of Canyon High School from Principal Craig Abercrombie.
In the email, which Voice of OC obtained through the local teacher union, Abercrombie announced his interim promotion to Corella’s position. He explains that “I was contacted late Wednesday evening by the board president regarding this.”
Phone and text messages seeking comment from Ledesma went unreturned as of Monday.
Typically, local governing agencies, like city councils, won’t have replacements lined up on the same night they fire top executives – instead, someone like the deputy city manager will fill in if the city manager was fired.
At the special meeting, the board also voted to hire Hansen’s replacement, interim superintendent Edward Velazquez, who is listed as an education consultant for a firm called McPherson & Jacobson, previously serving as an appointed superintendent for the Montebello and Lynwood school districts.
“My head is still spinning trying to process everything that has transpired the last few days,” Abercrombie writes in the memo, which circulated on social media after the board vote.
The same could be said for the scores of parents and teachers who showed up to speak in opposition to Hansen’s and Corella’s ousters at the Jan. 5 meeting, where people expressed concerns about the eventual severance pay – and about the overarching politics.
Since 2020, debates about public education’s pandemic response and ethnic studies classes have turned the once low-key school board into one of the most contentious functions of local government across the U.S.
Locally, throughout OC, numerous school boards fought against school closures that happened to curb the spread of COVID-19 and couched ethnic studies as a way for critical race theory to seep into local classrooms, though the course is typically offered at the college graduate level.
The abrupt move also caught flak from State Sen. Dave Min, who lambasted the school board for becoming “ground zero” for debates that he said “threaten our basic foundations of public education.”
“This reckless decision is a waste of taxpayer dollars that has the potential to destabilize the Orange Unified School District and jeopardize the education of over 26,000 students,” Min said in his statement which came the day after the board’s vote.
Board member Kris Erickson, one of the three board members who dissented, told Voice of OC she was blindsided – that she only learned the names of the replacements on the night of the meeting.
“We were still on winter break, our superintendent and assistant superintendent were both out of the country … As a board member, I knew nothing about this. I had absolutely no warning. In my opinion, it was an ambush so that we couldn’t prepare adequately for the board meeting,” Erickson said in a Monday phone interview.
She continued: “We were clearly not in the know as to what was going to happen, I specifically asked in writing for any written material, backup material on who (the board president) was considering as an interim … and was told I didn’t need that information.”
The vote took place in closed session, meaning behind closed doors, as is narrowly allowed for government body negotiations under state open meetings law known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, so long as they’re regarding topics like price and terms in real estate matters, or personnel and employment.
But the silence of the school board has raised questions about whether the office of OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer, a former school board member himself, will look into whether it all went down by the book.
Though a spokesperson for Spitzer’s office, Kimberly Edds, has declined to say whether there have been formal complaints or plans to investigate.
“We don’t discuss investigations,” Edds said in a Monday text message to a reporter.
Asked if that meant an investigation was ongoing, Edds replied, “We aren’t acknowledging either way.”
While it can be obvious when local officials work against the public’s right to know, proving violations of public meetings laws can be tricky, said Shailah Nathu, assistant general counsel for CalAware, in a phone interview.
“A lot of stuff doesn’t pass the smell test,” Nathu said. “It’s the appearance versus the evidence.”
Erickson, the school board member, said she isn’t yet aware of any formal complaints regarding Hansen’s firing.
“I know the board hasn’t received any notice of a Brown Act violation from any member of the public,” she said.
“That does not mean it’s not going to happen.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly limited Brown Act exemption to real estate transactions, when there are also narrow exemptions for topics like public employment.