An interview with former Superintendent Sharon McClain

Dr. Sharon McClain was hired by the Del Mar Union School District after a nationwide search and became the new superintendent in 2008 after Tom Bishop was released. McClain, the former superintendent of Hermosa Beach City School District moved to San Diego from Long Beach, living apart from her husband Joe Condon, also a former superintendent.

In coming to Del Mar, McClain said she knew there were some problems but thought she could help move the district forward. A year and a half later, on March 31,

McClain was fired

  1. Here she shares some thoughts about the board’s decision and her plans to file a lawsuit against the district.

Have you decided to sue the district?
I am moving forward. My lawyers and I talked about how to move forward and what to do and we’ll file papers. I’m letting him just take care of that. We talked about why and my basic reasoning is that the hardest thing for me is that when you worked in a profession almost 30 years and somebody accuses you of doing something bad so they can fire you and they’re not clear with you what that is — it’s my reputation.

And I know other superintendents have lost their jobs in California over the years, many of them have. But that’s why we have a contract so there are some protections for you.

And the board didn’t follow my contract either. They were supposed to have evaluated me by May 15 of last year; they didn’t give me an evaluation until August so they breached my contract.

There are things like that in other districts but the board has at least honored the contract and this board refused to honor my contract. We had negotiated, agreed to a buyout of 12 instead of 18 months, which education codes gives me. We were negotiating to make it even less than that and I was willing to work with them but they just stopped negotiating.

I think they think this is the easy way out. But they haven’t treated me fairly. I don’t feel that I’ve been fairly treated.

Do you feel that the suit will take away from the children? It’s definitely going to cost the district. There’s no way around it. But I didn’t make this choice the board made this choice. They chose for me. I wouldn’t have left. I would’ve worked on and did the best that I could and I was doing the best that I could do under the circumstances. And so I didn’t make the choice. I feel like if the board hadn’t done what they did I would still be in my office today instead of here talking to you.

What were some of the things you enjoyed about being superintendent here?

First of all Del Mar is really a wonderful district. The first thing it’s got that’s the best thing of all, it’s got great kids.

Then you’ve got parents who are really involved and willing to step up and do all kinds of jobs in the schools. You can’t go on a school campus that you don’t have a parent working somewhere, doing something.

Then you’ve got really good staff, you’ve got wonderful teachers. Then you’ve got the principals and I know I’m sounding like Pollyanna but you truly have eight really good principals, you don’t have a weak principal. Then you have the district office, which has a very strong staff.

How would you describe your working relationship with the board?

Our working relationship was difficult at times. One of the things that was very difficult for me was having so many board meetings. Our board was scheduled really to have only 12 meetings a year and in the first year we had 44 meetings. I counted them up and that was a meeting every five and a half days on average. And by the time I left at a year and a half we had 63 board meetings.

It was very difficult to keep up with the board meetings because there are a lot of legal requirements for school board meetings and published minutes and so forth, so it was difficult for staff with the amount of reports they were asked to do and I had a lot of people doing a lot of different things.

But I was lucky in that when I came to the district I had heard that the staff was really good but they really were good and they tried to step up and do the best job they could. That was the most difficult thing, the number of meetings and the number of things the board kept asking for over and over again.

When did you begin to see that it might not be working?

I think there was a disconnect between what I saw as the superintendent’s job and the board’s job and what they saw as the superintendent’s job and the board’s job.

The disconnect was that my philosophy is that the board sets the direction for the district, they have the 30,000 foot view of the district and then they leave the day-to-day operation of district to superintendent. And that wasn’t the philosophy of the board. The board really became involved in the day-to-day operations of the district, which made it really difficult to those who were in administration of the district.

In December, the board held a meeting to discipline or dismiss you over a parent’s complaint in a student discipline issue and they took no action. Were you thinking you and the board would be able to continue or did you have a feeling it wasn’t over yet?

I think I knew at that time they were going to find something else. I felt like it wasn’t over.

And that parent’s complaint was the only one you know of?

Right. In August they wrote an evaluation document and said some things in the document that they wanted me to do and work on and some criticisms of some things that I had done. I responded. Their document was eight pages long and my response was 55 pages because I had a lot of evidence. They said ‘You didn’t do this,’ ‘You didn’t do that’ and I had done them to the best of my ability and the best job I could under the circumstances.

When did you find out about the dismissal? How were you told and what did they say?

I was in a meeting on Monday with the district office group. We met every Monday from noon to about 4 or 5 p.m. We were in that meeting and Comischell (Rodriguez) came in and she said she wanted to talk to Darlene (Nadlonek, district personnel technician).

I thought it was odd so I came out of the meeting and I asked, ‘What’s going on?’ and I could tell by Comischell’s face that something was wrong. We went back in my office and she (Comischell Rodriguez) said, ‘Well it’s the dreaded letter. We didn’t make it.’

So you go into that special meeting knowing you would be fired or did you think public comment might be able to sway them?

Oh, I knew they were going to fire me. After I talked to Comischell, that was on late Monday afternoon and they had scheduled the meeting for Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. and of course nobody could’ve come to that. So Comischell insisted it would be at 12:30 p.m. and parents complained they couldn’t be there at 12:30 p.m. because of picking up children, so it was switched it to 12:45 p.m.

The board was definitely trying to have meeting at a time when there would be least amount of resistance from the community so they had at time when a larger portion of community couldn’t be there. I was surprised that so many people did show up and even some teachers tried to get away from lunch and left and actually spoke.

But I knew and I had cleaned out my whole office the day before. I was certain. There was no question in my mind that they were ready to terminate my contract. What was that like, the decision to fire you made in open session, what were you feeling?

It was an awful experience. I devoted my life to education and since I was a little girl I wanted to be a schoolteacher. I achieved my goal and I got into administration because I wanted to make a difference and I felt that I could make an impact.

Now looking back on it I can see the biggest impact happens in the classroom, it really does. The rest of us are just facilitators to make whatever happens in the classroom work.

That was really a very difficult meeting for me. I prepared a statement ahead of time because I didn’t want to sound bitter and angry and it was very very difficult.

I’m angry with Mr. (Daniel) Shinoff, the board’s attorney, because he said I asked not to have a public meeting, which is absolutely not true.

I showed up at the meeting about 15 minutes before and learned at that time that I was supposed to speak for 20 minutes and I had no idea, he had never told me that so I protested to him and said I didn’t think that was fair. He said ‘Well, how much time do you need to speak?’ and I said, ‘About three, maybe five minutes,’ and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll limit my comments to same amount of time.’ He never said anything that that constituted as me asking not to have public hearing.

Another thing he said in that article (

in an interview published in this newspaper

), so I feel compelled to talk about it since he talked about my releasing his bills. Well his bills are public documents and I tried to protect those bills by having them redacted. I asked a different law firm, I didn’t ask Mr. Shinoff’s law firm to redact their own bills.

He asked me about that weeks before and I had told them who the lawyer was that redacted them and I told Comischell. I called the lawyer, Melanie Peterson, and told her Mr. Shinoff was really upset about how bills got redacted and she said to tell him to call her. So he knew that so for him to say in the paper that I had just sent them out and wasn’t a lawyer didn’t have the right to do that, that’s just completely false.

And you were never given a reason for your dismissal besides “serious performance violations”?

No. The only document I have is the document from August, my evaluation, which I responded to. Then they wrote a letter to me about the parent complaint, a disciplinary letter saying you should’ve done this and I responded to that as well. So I haven’t heard anything since.

When I talked to Comischell she said I’d get a document so I was expecting a document or I was expecting him (Shinoff) to read something at the hearing. I still don’t have anything. So to me, I should still be working and I don’t know what cause that they have.

The things in the August document, they weren’t serious?

Well they were things like I should’ve hired somebody sooner for HR because we knew that Rodger (Smith) was leaving. But you know you don’t hire someone six months before they start the job you generally hire three months or so before they start the job. You generally wait so I didn’t agree with that. So I asked another person on staff to move into that position and the board said that was not legal.

I felt the things they were criticizing for were things within my purview as superintendent to do. And they felt they had to make all the decisions.

Another one was that Holly McClurg’s (the staff person who filled the HR position until a permanent replacement was hired) name was in the board agenda and I shouldn’t have done that and I went back and counted all the names of people hired in the agenda and there were 200 something. So those are the kinds of things that were in there.

To me they were picky and they were easily remedied so I didn’t feel there was any substantial cause in that document and I don’t feel there was substantial cause in the issue over the parent either so I don’t know what the substantial cause is.

If there were substantial cause, why wouldn’t they have told me? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. If I did something egregious to hurt the district, why haven’t they come forward and told me what I’ve done?

I really believe it’s more of a personality issue, what I said before — what my vision of what the superintendent’s job is and what the board’s job is and their idea of what it was.

What are your plans now and are you going to stay in San Diego?

Well, no. I will probably move back to Long Beach. My husband and I are making plans deciding what we’re going to do. I am doing some consulting already and I’m enjoying that. I know that Tom Bishop, after he left, he coaches a lot of small district superintendents around the county so he’s quite busy and I hope to be busy too.

Also, I love to teach. I’ve taught at graduate programs at so many different universities and I really miss it. I had always taught while being a superintendent. I’d been teaching at Pepperdine and Cal State Northridge and I had been doing that on and off while I was superintendent at Hermosa Beach.

When I came here I just did not have the time, I was just so overwhelmed with the number of board meetings and all the stuff that was going on, so I’m looking forward to doing that again.

And also spending time with your grandchildren? I’ve got nine grandchildren and I’m really enjoying — the youngest one is only six months old so she’s really a joy. The oldest one is 13 so he’s in junior high school and that’s really an interesting thing.

Do you have any advice for James Peabody?

I think that the community is going to make some important decisions in November. I think you need a board that has the whole community’s interests at heart and I think that will happen in November and I think then it will be a good place for him to be working because everything else is in place.

You know the kids, the parents, the staff it’s a good district. They consistently score higher and higher and I mean it’s just amazing. And that’s a team effort. The reason for that is that you’ve got good kids and really talented people working to help those kids. I think that he’s in a good position to be for next two years and I wish him luck. I want the district to settle down and be happy.