OUSD steaming ahead in  circles without a helmsman

By Tina Richards

The Orange Unified School Board’s search for a superintendent to replace Mike Christensen, who retired last month, has so far been characterized by false starts, misinformation and questionable decisions.

Although Christensen announced his retirement April 28, the board didn’t begin an earnest quest for either an interim superintendent or long-term replacement until mid-June.

At its June 22 board meeting, trustees heard presentations from three executive search firms specializing in school district superintendents.  All were former superintendents themselves, offering similar search techniques and timelines.  One was based in California, two were based out of state, with one presenter noting he lived locally and his kids went to OUSD schools. 

During a closed-door meeting July 1, the board selected McPherson & Jacobson of Oklahoma.  The vote was reportedly unanimous. Several trustees said later that they liked that firm because it had a stringent vetting procedure.

Phoning it in
Prior to the July 27 board meeting, Thomas Jacobson provided trustees with applications and resumes from four candidates for interim superintendent.  He did not attend that meeting, but called in from Oklahoma to discuss his recommendation for the position.  

Kathy Moffatt was displeased from the onset.  She said she was disappointed that Jacobson had not bothered to attend in person, and appeared disconcerted by the candidate he had recommended.  From simply reading the resumes of the four, she said, his recommended candidate was “the least attractive in terms of experience.”  Jacobson explained that the candidate he recommended had bond experience.

Brenda Lebsack agreed that Jacobson’s choice was the “least qualified.” Ledesma asked the absentee consultant about the bond experience of the other candidates and was told they had none.  The resumes told a different story, however, and Moffatt pointed out that at least one did. 

Both Lebsack and Moffat appeared confused as the questioning continued, indicating that some of the answers Jacobson provided did not agree with what appeared on the resumes. Having researched the candidates on their own prior to the board meeting, both were more enthusiastic about two other candidates because they were “Orange County familiar” and have "worked with our own principals.”

The board should know
Alexia Deligianni-Brydges asked if the board could interview the candidates before making a decision.  “Why do we have a consultant?” Ledesma asked with unconcealed sarcasm.  “It seems like we have expertise on the board.” In the interest of time, he favored going with Jacobson’s recommendation because interim superintendent “was not a critical decision.”

John Ortega agreed that the interim position did not warrant labored board discussion, and also favored accepting the expert’s recommendation. “Why did we hire McPherson & Jacobson?” he asked. “I don’t have experience of being a superintendent.  Do any of us on this board?  They have a firm full of superintendents, why second-guess them?”  Ortega, who has served on the OUSD board for 15 years and worked with five different superintendents, fell back on sarcasm.  “Forget it,” he said. “Let’s hire a superintendent ourselves because we have all the experience. We don’t. This firm is amazing because they have more experience of being a superintendent.”

With two board members clearly opposed to the recommended candidate, Deligianni-Brydges holding out for interviews, Andrea Yamasaki absent, and Tim Surridge saying nothing, the trustees agreed to defer the interim position decision until its next meeting, Aug. 10. That meeting had already been slated as a public board discussion of what OUSD was looking for in its next superintendent, and to give direction to McPherson & Jacobson. 

Closed door discussion
The Aug. 10 meeting lasted four minutes. It followed a closed session wherein there was apparently strong discussion about the merits of the search firm and the possibility that Mike Christensen might be willing to return to the district in some capacity.  Neither Surridge, Ledesma or Ortega attended the public meeting.  Kathy Moffatt called it to order, and asked, on the record, for a contract negotiated with Christensen last February to be agendized for the Aug. 17 meeting.

Although none of the trustees would talk about what happened in the closed session, Christensen’s contract was apparently a topic.  The former superintendent had accepted it, and it was supposed to be approved at a board meeting, but President Rick Ledesma never put it on the agenda. Moffatt indicated that if the board approved the contract at this late date, it might open the door to further discussion with Christensen.  

Once she got the contract item on the public record, Moffatt adjourned the meeting. 

A week later, Christensen was off the table. The board voted four (Moffatt, Lebsack, Yamasaki, Deligianni-Brydges) to three (Surridge, Ledesma, Ortega) to sever its relationship with McPherson & Jacobson.  Those favoring the dissolution cited “red flags” that came up during the July 27 phone conversation.

“The information given was inaccurate,” Moffatt said.  “The resumes and applications told us something different.”  

Trust, but verify
“I was surprised he wasn’t here at the last meeting,” Lebsack said.  “We had resumes in front of us and he gave us misinformation.  I called about his candidate’s bond experience, and the response wasn’t that good.  I can’t trust them, I’ve lost confidence.”

“Consultants have extreme experience,” Ortega countered.  “Just because he didn’t do what you wanted, because you didn’t accept his candidate, don’t abandon the whole firm.”

Tim Surridge agreed.  “We’re being way too quick to abandon this firm,” he said. “We’ll have to spend taxpayer money to get out of this contract.  Okay, he didn’t pick the candidate some of the board wanted.  I agree that he didn’t seem prepared.  But we’ll have to pay to get out of this contact, then find another search firm.”

“I object to the suggestion that we didn’t like the candidate,” Andrea Yamasaki interjected.  “It has nothing to do with the candidate, it’s the firm.”

“We might have to pay some costs,” Moffatt acknowledged, “but we won’t pay the entire contract.  It’s a bargain when you consider going forward with a firm that provides inaccurate information.”

Time to cut bait
“I looked at their placement history,” Deligianni-Brydges advised.  “Many superintendents they recommended had been fired, suspended or left early. One used district funds for a senate campaign.”

”We have to be careful connecting those candidates with the firm,” Ledesma said, suggesting that the candidates and the search firm were not the same thing.  He did, however, admit that McPherson & Jacobson was not his first choice, and following the vote, asked the board if it wanted to revisit the other firms that presented in June.  It did.

For now, Deputy Superintendent for Education Gunn Marie Hansen is serving as “acting superintendent,” not to be confused with interim superintendent, who will be named later.  

“I am hopeful,” Kathy Moffatt says, “that we will be voting on a candidate for interim superintendent at the next regular meeting.”