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Education Matters: Another case of ‘who would know’

Another example of “who would know” follows last week’s column regarding San Dieguito Union High School District’s quiet intention to construct a new district office.

This time it concerns the promotion of Associate Superintendent of Administrative Services Mark Miller, to deputy superintendent.

After reading agendas these past few months that identify Miller as deputy superintendent, I searched through previous board agendas looking for the action item proposing his promotion.

Not finding any, I sent an email to SDUHSD Supt. Robert Haley, who told me Miller’s title was changed last June when his contract was extended, and he was given a 2.5 percent raise.

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Checking the June 20 agenda, I found only one item related to Miller. It was Item 19 which asked the board to approve new contracts for all four associate superintendents equally: for Miller, Tina Douglas, Cindy Frazee and Bryan Marcus.

Each was to be given a contract extension through to June 30, 2022, with a 1 percent annual salary increase, to $198,407.

When I questioned Haley about this agenda item, where no mention was made of Miller’s promotion, he referred me to the minutes of the June 20 board meeting, which came out two months later, on Aug. 22.

This was when the public was made aware, if anyone were to notice, that Miller’s contract alone was amended at the June 20 board meeting.

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To be clear about this, the public was never informed that Miller was being considered for a promotion, until it was announced that it had already happened.

All the public knew, from the board packet, was that Miller was to be given the same raise as the other three associate superintendents, with no title change.

The smell test

The minutes for the June 20 board meeting, published Aug. 22, states that the motion to approve Miller’s promotion was amended by the school board. The motion, made by Joyce Dalessandro and seconded by Kristin Gibson, was approved 4-0, with trustee Mo Muir absent.

Miller’s contract as approved states that his new title would be deputy superintendent, with an additional raise of 2.5 percent above the 1 percent given to all associate superintendents – effective July 1, 2019 through to June 30, 2022.

This brings Miller’s salary up to $203,367.

After seeing this, I sent Haley the following email: “That’s interesting. The June 20 board meeting agenda, Item 19, simply has all four of them being approved at the same level with a 1% increase for all four, all the same. So the original agenda, which the public saw, did not have Miller’s change on it. But it was amended at that board meeting to reflect the promotion?”

Reply from Haley: “If you look at the agenda as a whole you will see that the associate superintendent contracts were agendized for discussion in closed session, item 3 C. The Board of Trustees has the right to amend actions by motion on items listed on the agenda, which is what they did on item 19 A.”

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My response: “Sure. But obviously, you wanted this to happen. The board wouldn’t make any such motion without your okay beforehand. … To be clear, I don’t really care about the promotion. What I care about is transparency. And this does not pass the smell test.”

Reply from Haley: “Sorry to hear that. The contract was on the agenda for both closed and open session. There has not been, in the past, clarity on who is in charge if the superintendent is not available. This did not create a new position, just made it clear which of the associate superintendents was next in the chain of command. This was done previously in the district when Rick Schmitt was made deputy superintendent.”

My response: “I was here when Rick was named deputy supt. I’ve been here for over 20 years doing this work, so I go back a long way. I don’t object, as I said, to the need for the position. It’s how it was done that’s troubling. The public was not informed that this would be happening beforehand. Did you decide to do this after the agenda was published? If so, why? The idea that this was a sudden last-minute decision in closed session doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Six days later, Haley responded: “The title change came up in the context of closed session negotiations.”

Special education

There’s no justification for excluding the intent to promote Miller on the original agenda. It’s not plausible this was a last-minute decision made by the board in closed session without Haley’s prior approval.

So why was it not on the original agenda, distributed five days before the meeting?

Of course Haley would have known; the board did not spring it on him. This had to be his directive. The idea that Haley didn’t intend to promote Miller until the day of the board meeting is preposterous.

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Why was this kept secret? Were they worried people might object if the public board agenda included the proposed promotion?

Was this done in this way because board member Mo Muir was absent from that meeting? Her long-planned vacation was well-known to Haley and other board members.

Muir, who may well have objected to the promotion, has been a critic of Miller in the past, stemming back to the summer of 2017 when she supported parents protesting the placement of special education portable classrooms at Earl Warren Middle School.

The mishandling of the Adult Transition Program, which serves special education students ages 18 to 22, remains a sore point for many parents and advocates who remember Miller as refusing to take responsibility for the ATP classrooms/trailers placed at Earl Warren Middle School.

It wasn’t just that the expensive portable classrooms, which were ultimately abandoned for ATP use, were a striking contrast to the beautiful, newly constructed campus, placed as they were off to the side like an after-thought. The modular classrooms themselves were problematic.

Critics said they were inadequately designed to meet the needs of special education adult students, with their cramped quarters, poor lighting and single toilets.

Miller was hired one year earlier, in 2016, to oversee the special education program, among other duties.

But according to many parents, Miller was absent from much of the discussion and interaction between the special education parents and the district that first year he was hired.

“There never was any accountability regarding Miller’s lack of oversight to the installation of two double-wide portables near Earl Warren that cost the district nearly $1 million yet couldn’t fit the program it was supposed to house,” said one parent who asked for anonymity, fearing reprisals from the district.

Several special education parents remain dissatisfied with the way Miller has handled their issues.

“They are disillusioned,” the parent said. “They tried to get the district to care, and despite their comments about the lack of transparency and action, they [the board] promoted Miller.”

No excuses

Perhaps Haley can be excused for not knowing about the ATP episode since he was not superintendent at the time. However, three current trustees were serving on the board then: Dalessandro, Beth Hergesheimer and Muir.

The other two board members, Kristin Gibson and Melisse Mossy, were just elected last year. So perhaps they can also be excused.

But none of them, Haley included, can be excused for denying the public’s right to be properly informed beforehand of the intent to promote Miller.

Certainly Dalessandro and Hergesheimer were well aware of the contentiousness swirling around Miller during that summer of 2017. Yet they supported Miller’s promotion to deputy superintendent. In fact, Dalessandro made the motion to do so.

Whether one thinks Miller deserves the promotion is not the bigger concern, although some could reasonably argue it’s not without controversy.

The over-riding issue is the lack of transparency and the hidden agenda to appoint Miller to the post. The full board should have recognized that this should have been disclosed to the public before taking action in closed session.

To appoint someone second in command of the San Dieguito district without proper advance notice shows blatant disregard for the public’s right to know. What’s the purpose of a public agenda if things can be changed secretly in closed session beforehand?

The lack of full transparency is not just irresponsible. It feels deliberately deceptive.

— Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com


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