TVUSD trustees fail community on superintendent succession

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Opinion section
Valley News - Opinion

Jeff Kingsberg

Temecula Valley Educators Association

At the opening of the March 3 Temecula Valley Unified School board meeting, board President Sandy Hinkson read that the board acted in closed session by a 5-0 vote to accept the resignation of Superintendent Timothy Ritter effective July 31, and to appoint Deputy Superintendent Jodi Mc Clay by a 4-1 vote with member Barbara Brosch dissenting to the same post Aug. 1.

Did the governing board act within its means? Yes, in that the superintendent is the only district position which they directly hire and supervise. Did they demonstrate fidelity in seeking and utilizing community and stakeholder feedback in doing so? Absolutely not.

The role of TVUSD superintendent is a critical leadership position. The superintendent oversees 28 school sites encompassing more than 27,000 students and a staff of over 3,000 employees. The superintendent in TVUSD is a highly paid position netting over $300,000 in salary and benefits as the superintendent advances on the cabinet salary steps. It is also a position which has not turned over frequently in the now more than 31 history of TVUSD with Ritter, who will have served 10 years upon retirement, being the fourth ever TVUSD superintendent. Arguably, it was a critical decision for the five-member board, which is elected by district voters who reside in one of five designated trustee areas.

The Temecula Valley Educators Association started to survey members about desirable professional and personal qualities desired in the next TVUSD leader in fall 2018. What emerged was that our teachers and specialists believed that someone with significant previous superintendent experience who was a visible and accessible leader would be the best fit. Our members also strongly believed that the search for such a person should include outside of TVUSD candidates as well as current TVUSD employees. We followed up seeking additional employee feedback in late 2019 which yielded similar results. After sharing this member input with the governing board and anticipating Ritter’s pending retirement, we sought a member petition seeking a board resolution to conduct a comprehensive search inclusive of outside candidates. This petition was signed by a decisive majority of 840 members and publicly delivered to the governing board at the Feb. 18 meeting.

What happened next as shared in the opening paragraph is gravely concerning for the following reasons:

Our teachers never got a direct reply to our formal TVEA petition asking for a resolution. The board apparently believes their two closed session actions March 3 is that reply. This petition was much more than a single public comment, rather a collective statement from a decisive supermajority of our members.

The governing board linked the immediate hiring of McClay to Ritter’s retirement announcement. Arguably these should have been separate events, both which should have followed a response to TVEA’s formal petition. The Valley News reported March 4, that Hinkson shared via email that “Ritter had been sharing openly for some time that he planned to retire at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.” Why was Ritter’s retirement not formally submitted earlier rather than being linked to part of a carefully choreographed district announcement?

The governing board did not conduct a community survey, community forum or any other feedback vehicle to hear from other stakeholders and residents. They circumvented the voters who are designed to place them in their trustee role and lost a critical opportunity to engage with community. They had five months from Ritter’s official announcement and the end of his tenure for placement of a superintendent.

When examining the vote and the makeup of the board closer, this methodology becomes even more suspect in that only two of the four members who voted for the superintendent appointment March 3 were directly elected by the voters. Lee Darling from Trustee Area 1 walked into his seat immediately after the governing board voted to hastily implement the trustee system in May 2016. With only a few short months between this placement and the candidate declaration period, no other candidate declared, and no election was held for this seat. Julie Farnbach from Trustee Area 4 returned to the board in August 2019 as an appointee to complete the term of elected board member Adam Skumawitz, who resigned when the district told him his wife was ineligible to return to full-time work while he was a sitting board member.

In their actions March 3, the board has created a scenario in which McClay will enter as superintendent with not necessarily a lack of stakeholder confidence in her personally, but certainly a lack of confidence in the omission of a process. Our teachers are key to the essential district mission of educating students, yet the governing board has ignored our voice and reinforced the prevailing TVUSD insular culture of “We Know Best.”