A student boards a school bus after school dismissal on Jan. 20, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

While parents and students across Orange County took a break from school over the winter holidays, their local school boards very much stayed in play. 

Today, at 4 p.m., right on the heels of the New Year’s holiday, a newly-elected governing board majority in the Orange Unified School District has scheduled a special meeting to consider firing both their Superintendent, Gunn Marie Hansen and Cathleen Corella, an Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services, according to school district records

As our newsroom has reported, the pandemic’s controversies over masking and COVID testing, along with ongoing intense debates over teaching ethnic studies and discussions about gender have intensified school board elections and public deliberations like never before across the county. 

This past November, voters in both the Capistrano Unified and Orange Unified school districts elected tight majorities that could spur very different policies this coming year.  

And they aren’t wasting any time in getting started. 

As I wrote last September before Labor Day, elected officials at the local level, especially those sitting on tight margins, often take controversial votes at times when they expect residents aren’t looking.

[READ: Santana: Beware, Holidays Like Labor Day Can Trigger Taxpayer Hangovers]

This winter holiday was no different.

New board majorities at both the Orange Unified School District and Capistrano Unified School District both took aim at their top administrators in abruptly scheduled special meetings around the holidays. 

Here’s Orange Unifed’s Agenda item on the potential firing

Just four days before Christmas, a new governing board majority at the Capistrano Unified School District took action against their Superintendent, Kristen Vital Brulte, agreeing to end her contract on a tight 4-3 vote.

Here’s Capistrano Unified’s agenda item on the firing of Vital Brulte

Our colleagues at the Orange County Register – Erika Ritchie and Teri Sforza – both did great work over the holiday, reporting on these special meetings to give parents a chance to understand what’s in play. 

Register reporter Roxana Kopetman also helped keep residents out front in Orange, reporting on the developing situation there with that new school board majority. 

Despite having the votes to make these moves, the new governing majorities don’t seem to be talking much publicly, offering residents no real sense of why large payouts should be granted to get rid of administrators that so far haven’t been linked to any big mistakes, fraud, waste or abuse. 

Given the large salaries of these superintendents – Vital Brulte had a total compensation package of $438,324.00 in 2021 while Gunn Marie Hansen earned $426,978.00, according to Transparent California – taxpayers should expect to pay out those kinds of numbers under the severance clauses typically granted to high ranking public sector executives. which usually grant them a year of pay when released without cause. 

Despite arguments for changing out executives, there’s been no public discussion about why there needs to be a change or what skill set is needed going forward in a superintendent.

It’s a similar pattern seen throughout OC when local agencies fire top-ranking executives: say very little, abruptly end their employment contracts and pay a hefty severance package.

In Anaheim, the former City Council majority abruptly fired City Manager Chris Zapata in early 2020 for seemingly questioning COVID bailout packages spent on the then-closed resort interests – while having a positive performance review months earlier.

Council members publicly offered no reason for sacking Zapata, which cost the city half a million dollars. 

[Read: ​​Anaheim’s $475,000 City Manager Sacking Heightens Accountability, Transparency Concerns]

Now, there was an election this past November, and it seems voters got pretty clear choices between candidates. 

Many school board candidates sounded off on their views on education in the Voice of OC candidate questionnaire

Yet final vote tallies last November in these particular school boards were pretty tight. 

What’s clearly missing here now is a public discussion to better understand the path forward, maybe even forge consensus. 

Abrupt meetings like these underscore why generations ago, lawmakers established California’s open meeting law, called the Brown Act, to help residents stay in charge of their institutions instead of the other way around. 

“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” reads the preamble to the state’s open meeting law

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

That state law requires governing majorities to give residents at least 72 hours notice before they make governing decisions. 

But instances like these really might make local residents ponder whether elected officials across Orange County should adopt even more lengthy cooling-off periods before governing majorities – especially tight ones – can make such moves.

There’s nothing stopping any governing council from adopting agenda rules that give residents more notice than just three days to get involved.

And enhancing such cooling-off periods would also negate last-minute special meetings designed to blunt participation during times like the holidays. 

Sound policy alway survives debate. 

Bad policy never can. 

That’s why, regardless of the idea or plan, residents should always be wary when governing majorities shift into turbo.  

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