TVUSD criticized for superintendent selection process as district shifts attention to pandemic

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Kim Evans (left), a counselor at Erle Stanley Gardner Middle School, and Edgar Diaz (right), a teacher at Gardner, converse while observing social distancing rules at Temecula Valley Unified's school board meeting on March 17.

It might be difficult to believe, but it’s been just weeks since the Temecula Valley Unified School District governing board announced it had made its decision on a replacement for longtime district superintendent Tim Ritter.

During closed session March 3, Ritter formally announced to the board his intention to retire after the end of the school year. The announcement came following several closed session discussions on the topic since the end of January.

In the same closed session, the board immediately moved to choose a familiar face,  deputy superintendent Jodi McClay, to take Ritter’s position as superintendent.

Members of TVUSD’s teacher’s union, though, expressed that while they may value McClay’s familiarity, they considered it very troubling that the district had jumped so quickly to promote her with virtually no public input.

Jeff Kingsberg, president of the Temecula Valley Educators Association, told Valley News the day after the board’s March 3 decision that while he though McClay would serve the district well, he was disappointed TVUSD’s board made the decision to choose an insider to replace Ritter with no public input.

The decision to appoint McClay was made in a 4-1, closed session vote with board member Barbara Brosch casting the sole ‘no’ vote.

During the board meeting prior to the March 3 meeting, the educators association presented a petition signed by hundreds of teachers calling for a “robust vetting process” in choosing the next superintendent. Kingsberg at the time called on the board to “move away from the ‘we know best’ approach in favor of a ‘let’s determine what’s best’ framework that empowers all community stakeholders,” according to a news release published by TVEA at the time.

On March 4, Kingsberg said McClay shouldn’t have been hired as the next superintendent immediately after Ritter announced his retirement, and certainly not without a public hiring process.

“The fact that those two things were linked together and especially that they were done in closed session without any feedback — there’s not a whole lot of transparency,” Kingsberg said.

More TVUSD teachers showed up at the board’s next meeting March 17 to express just that opinion.

But when they did, they did so in a changed world. On March 3, the TVUSD board announced the news about Ritter’s retirement and his replacement to a typical board meeting audience. During the March 17 meeting, the five TVUSD teachers who showed to criticize the process that led to McClay’s appointment were the only non-media audience members. And they had to sit six feet apart.

In the intervening 14 days, the coronavirus that had broken out in Wuhan, China, quickly turned into a global pandemic, sickening nearly 200,000 and killing more than 8,000 worldwide, including 100 deaths in the U.S. at the time of the meeting.

Board members Sandy Hinkson, Barbara Brosch and Kristi Rutz-Robbins, along with Ritter, McClay and other district staff, sat by themselves in the board room, heeding state recommendations to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people, while the audience sat in an adjacent room listening to the meeting through speakers. Board members Julie Farnbach and Lee Darling elected to call into the meeting remotely.

The teachers, called up one at a time to enter the board room to make their statements, did not let the highly unusual circumstances deter them from speaking their piece.

“When I heard about the decision to bypass a national search for TVUSD’s next superintendent, I was sad,” TVEA board member and Vail Ranch Middle School teacher Steve Campos said. “The more I thought about it, emotions like frustration, disappointment came up within me and that led to me being upset that the voices of our collective unit of teachers were completely dismissed. As elected officials, I thought you were supposed to represent those whom elected you into office instead of the few with whom you are in regular contact.”

Erle Stanley Gardner Middle School counselor Kim Evans, after thanking Brosch for her being a “thoughtful leader” with her lone dissenting vote, was even more direct.

“Why is it that Ms. McClay does not need to go through an interview process as do employees? If the board has confidence that she truly is the best candidate, what is the harm in verifying that with an interview process for the highest position in the district?” Evans pressed the board members. “I would also like to ask the board, since when did we become a monarchy where King Ritter passes the crown to the next in line? We’ve heard a lot about nepotism in previous years, and this is the icing on the cake.”

It is not, in fact the first time that nepotism has come up in the last few years – Ritter’s hiring of his daughter, who had a prior misdemeanor conviction, drew some criticism in 2015.

Evans continued with the royalty comparison.

“King Ritter passes his crown to his next in line, best friend, who inherits her kingdom, making over $300,000 in salary and benefits,” she said. “And what benefits exactly do the royal subjects, the board, get out of this deal?”

Earlier in the month, after the appointment had been made, Hinkson, the board president, defended the board’s decision by saying members had put a “great deal of thought into the desired qualities of our next leader and whether to do an outside search for candidates” before deciding to appoint McClay as the new superintendent.

“In considering the challenges facing our district in these times, we feel the benefits of elevating our homegrown insider, who has an extensive history in our district and community and a detailed knowledge of our values and vision, greatly outweigh any benefit that might come from engaging in a broader search,” Hinkson said at the time. “We have the utmost confidence in Ms. McClay’s ability to maintain our forward momentum, while at the same time bringing new ideas for growth.”

Reached for comment on Wednesday, Hinkson said the board valued its partnership with the union and understood their concerns, but reiterated her previous statements.

“Regarding specific comments shared by 3 speakers last evening from TVEA about the Board’s decision not to go outside for a full-scale search, we previously addressed this at the time the decision was made, and feel confident in our decision and rationale not to go outside and expend additional search costs and processes,” Hinkson said.
She stressed that the board’s attention was now directed at dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic.
“Our focus is on coming together now as a learning community of vested stakeholders to focus on what is in the best interest of our students,” she said. “We have a huge responsibility ahead of us and we don’t take this lightly.  We have the utmost confidence and respect in the ability and talents of our administrators, teachers, and staff to meet the challenges ahead with compassion and ingenuity. “
The mood of the rest of the meeting, indeed, was one of shock at the swiftness with which the pandemic had impacted schools. As coronavirus cases began turning up in Southern California, the district first canceled nonessential activities March 12, then the very next day announced it would cancel classes through April 6, though no cases were actually reported in western Riverside County until the day of the board meeting.

Then, the morning of the meeting, Riverside County Public Health Officer ordered all schools in the county, to include colleges, closed through April 30. Kaiser’s move was followed later in the day by California Gov. Gavin Newsom suggesting schools may not even reopen until the 2020-2021 school year, news that the board was just hearing as they began open session.

The board voted unanimously to grant emergency powers to Ritter – who is still the superintendent until July – to take actions without having to get permission with the board during the rapidly-changing pandemic situation. The board also voted unanimously to declare a need to close schools, a formality backing its already-announced decision.

Hinkson expressed that the board did not know where the situation, in all its fluidity, would ultimately end up. She suggested that future board meetings may look very different, and that it was possible all the board members could be meeting remotely soon.

“Things change quickly. On Friday we thought we could have 50 people in here, we were gonna set up chairs 6 feet apart, and then it was 25 and then today it was 10,” Hinkson said. “We can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

Farnbach was supportive of finding a way to call into future board meetings by video, rather than just by audio. And she offered up a very good reason.

“I’m a high-risk patient, I’m not going anywhere except to the doctor’s office,” Farnbach said.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.

8:30 p.m. Wednesday: This story was updated with additional comments from TVUSD Governing Board President Sandy Hinkson.