July 19, 2024

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Orange Unified accused of ‘full ambush’ to fire superintendent; did it violate state’s open meeting law?

8 min read
Orange Unified accused of ‘full ambush’ to fire superintendent; did it violate state’s open meeting law?
Credit: Orange Unified / YouTube

Orange Unified board member Kris Erickson, second from left, speaks during the Jan. 19, 2023, board meeting. Other members are John Ortega, left, Angie Rumsey, and board President Rick Ledesma, right.

Firing the former superintendent of Orange Unified and immediately hiring an interim superintendent to replace her at the same meeting in January may have violated the state’s open meeting law.

 Both actions were rammed through by a newly empowered conservative school board majority in the 27,000 student district that includes the city of Orange and parts of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. They may have violated the Ralph M. Brown Act,  which requires that elected bodies take action only at public meetings, without prior private discussions, open meeting advocates said.

On Feb. 3, Gregory Pleasants, a parent of a child enrolled in the district, filed a 24-page Brown Act complaint known as a “cure and correct” motion that threatens to sue the school board unless it nullifies actions taken at an illegal meeting. The district has 30 days to respond.

 “Whether to fire a superintendent and hire a new one — a decision of immense consequence to the district, the public and the education of students — should be done as thoughtfully and deliberately as possible with as much civic engagement as possible,” said David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that promotes a free press and the people’s right to know. 

A battleground district

Orange Unified has become the latest education battleground, particularly intense in politically “purple” areas of California, like Orange County, over “parental rights,” school choice, Covid school closures and classroom instruction about race and gender.

In last November’s election, conservatives assumed control of the school board by flipping a fourth seat when voters ousted a 22-year incumbent and replaced her with a conservative-backed and well-funded candidate, Madison Miner, by a margin of 0.2% — 221 votes out of 61,845 votes cast. 

Miner ran on returning the district’s focus to math and reading and giving parents more say over what’s taught. A school board should treat a superintendent as a company views a CEO, she said this week. “If the company is not showing the reports that you would hope to be a successful company, then usually at the top is where you have movement.”

Less than two months after the election, board President Rick Ledesma convened a special board meeting with the minimum 24-hour public notice to take action on firing Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen and placing Cathleen Corella, the district’s assistant superintendent of education, on immediate paid administrative leave pending an “academic audit” on what is taught in the district. 

Also on the agenda was appointing their replacements: Edward Velasquez, a retired superintendent of Montebello and Lynwood unified school districts, as interim superintendent, and Craig Abercrombie, an Orange Unified high school principal, as acting assistant superintendent. Velasquez resigned unexpectedly last week after only five weeks on the job.

Firing, hiring in closed session

The board met on Jan. 5, while the district was on winter break. Both Hansen and Corella were out of the country at the time. The votes and the discussion were done in closed session, then announced in public without explanations from the majority members. 

 Despite the minimum public notice, dozens of parents and community members showed up for the meeting. In several hours of angry comments, they denounced Hansen’s impending firing and praised her tenure. Several noted that the Orange County PTAs had named her administrator of the year in 2022.

 A school board has the authority to call a meeting to terminate a superintendent’s contract without citing a reason or “cause,” although doing so hastily during school vacation, when families are least expecting such a vote, is not in the spirit of the Brown Act, said Loy.

What a public body cannot do, however, is short-circuit the open meeting process. Under the Brown Act, a majority of members on an elected board cannot discuss with one another anything that is on the agenda, including how members are going to vote and strategies for handling agenda items. This prohibition applies to any form of non-public group meeting and secretive serial meetings in which one member contacts individual members or through a chain of communications, in which A calls B, who calls C, who calls D to assure an outcome.

There are indications that serial meetings may have happened before the Jan. 5 meeting among the four members who voted to oust Hansen and hire Velasquez as interim superintendent.

One indication was in the sole document that the district provided to EdSource in response to a public records request for all communications between members of the school board about Hansen’s possible dismissal and Velasquez’s hiring. EdSource made the request on Jan. 13. After no district response, EdSource’s attorney, Duffy Carolan, of the San Francisco law firm Jassy Vick Carolan, sent board Clerk Angie Rumsey a letter on Feb. 15 demanding immediate compliance with the request. “This would include all communications between individual members or group communications using their Orange Unified email addresses as well as personal emails and texts,” Carolan wrote.

The board’s executive assistant responded one day later with an email with two redacted areas that Ledesma sent to Rumsey at 10 p.m. on Jan. 3 with the Jan. 5 board agenda attached. 

The email laid out plans for the meeting and how Ledesma and board member John Ortega planned to try to avoid discussions with the opponents of the termination “so as not to get dragged into their discussion.” But, Ledesma continued, if the other board members “keep objecting and go off on their rants,” at some point Ortega would call to end the debate, and Rumsey should second the motion, which, with the majority’s support, would end the discussion and lead to a vote on the agenda item.

The first sentence of the email implies that there were previous communications involving planning for the meeting between Ledesma, Rumsey and maybe others: “Remember John will make all the motions, and it would be best if you seconded at least the first one if not every time he makes a motion.”

The email contains several redactions. Ledesma’s email address was blackened out, as was Rumsey’s email address. Given the length of the redaction, so were the names and email addresses of possibly others sent the email.

The California Public Records Act generally permits excluding employees’ private email addresses from the public, with two notable exceptions: if the sender is conducting public business and cites the identity of others in an otherwise public communication. Ledesma’s email “clearly pertains to public business,” Loy said, and so were other board members. Even if they were using their private email address, state law supports disclosing their identities, he said.

In her letter to EdSource, the executive assistant to the board wrote that matters relating to closed sessions and attorney client privilege were exempt from disclosure. Two lines within the body of the email were also blackened out.

A ‘full ambush’

Kris Erickson, one of the three members who voted no on firing Hansen, called the meeting a “full ambush.” She and the two other members, Ana Page and Andrea Yamasaki, said they were totally unaware of the meeting before getting the legal notice the day before.

“It was clear when we walked in that it was a done deal. It was finished; we had no input,” said Erickson, an attorney. She said she was “shocked” by the meeting notice.

Ledesma first contacted Velasquez on Jan. 4, the day before the meeting. He got his phone number from Ortega, who had worked under Velasquez in Montebello Unified and subsequently had business connections related to school security.

At the Jan. 5 meeting, Erickson publicly said she had received “absolutely zero information” about Velasquez before the vote to hire him; that’s why she abstained on the vote. 

At the board’s next meeting, on Jan. 19, the board took up Velasquez’s temporary contract. When Erickson began questioning him about his background, Ledesma cut her off, saying the board hired him on Jan. 5, and only the terms of the contact were up for discussion. Erickson called Velasquez’s hiring “rash, rushed, reckless, outrageous.”  We had not interviewed him or seen his resume, she said; when she asked for more information, “I was told to Google him,” she said.

 Ledesma did not respond to EdSource’s request for an interview.

Ledesma’s letter to Rumsey established that three board members — she, Ledesma and Ortega — discussed how the Jan. 5 meeting should be handled. But it takes a majority of members communicating privately to establish a Brown Act violation. The email does not show whether Miner, who also voted for Hansen’s firing, was on the chain of recipients. 

In an interview this week, Miner denied being part of any discussion with board members before the meeting. “It would not have included me,” she said. “ I was not in on that conversation, if there was one.”  

She said she first learned of the meeting the day before, in an email that the board’s executive secretary sent to board members, and she had no conversation with any member before the closed-door discussion. She also hadn’t spoken with Velasquez before hiring him as interim superintendent. “I was told I would have an opportunity to meet with him after the vote,” she said, and she did so the following Monday.

Even if she might have handled the meeting differently had she been president, Miner said, she agreed with the result. “Hopefully now we can move in a different direction since we’ve changed our leadership at the district,” she said.

Complaint demands legal meeting

Loy said the board could turn around and take the same votes with the same results as long as it complied with the open-meeting requirements. The purpose of the Brown Act is to ensure public bodies are transparent, not judge the wisdom of the decisions.

A complaint is a required step before Brown Act litigation. Pleasants indicated he plans to sue; doing so would turn up evidence to validate “reasonable inferences from facts on the record,” he wrote. One “reasonable inference” was that Ledesma wouldn’t have discussed work offers with Velasquez and a replacement for Cathleen Corella before the Jan. 5 meeting if he hadn’t “affirmatively confirmed” that he had the votes before making employment offers. 

Velasquez had planned to serve as interim superintendent only for a couple of months, until he had earned enough money to collect his maximum pension. But his first month had not been easy. The two board meetings were long and contentious. After some parents complained that an online library app allowed younger students to access books meant for older students, he suspended it for a few days, stirring opposition. 

Velasquez didn’t cite a reason for quitting early. District spokesperson Hana Brake told the Orange County Register that Velasquez “feels like the focus has been taken off of where it should be — the students.”

Miner said Velasquez told him another reason was that filling out the number of Public Records Act requests he had received was “very taxing on his time and so he felt that his time was up sooner than he would’ve hoped.”

The board will meet Thursday in special session to name an acting superintendent, according to the published agenda.

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