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Elsasser back with CUSD, but questions remain-updated

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Claremont Unified School District’s superintendent drama took an unexpected twist this week  when it made public its intent to re-hire former leader Jim Elsasser, who just two years ago left for a job with the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District.

The district’s board of education was set to vote after press time Thursday in “consideration and approval of the contract of employment with Dr. Jim Elsasser as Superintendent of Schools for the Claremont Unified School District, with an effective date of 7/1/2022.”

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Elsasser, who spent nine years at CUSD prior to his departure at the end of 2020, was universally feted upon his departure as a beloved and respected figure. He had been on the job in Placentia-Yorba Linda just 16 months before announcing the move Monday.

Elsasser’s all but certain return follows the April 1 announcement of current superintendent Jeff Wilson’s firing, “without cause,” after just one year on the job. Speculation regarding the circumstances of Wilson being shown the door so abruptly were inflamed further by an April 15 statement issued by CUSD Board of Education President Steven Llanusa.

“Earlier this year, the Board determined to exercise a clause in Dr. Wilson’s employment contract that allows the Board to release Dr. Wilson without cause,” read Llanusa’s statement. “This clause means what it says — Dr. Wilson has been released from his position as Superintendent without cause.”

Llanusa’s statement, apparently intended to help quell the online and in-person chatter around town about CUSD’s latest personnel move, had the opposite effect.

The head-spinning series of events helps put into context the machinations of the past two weeks, during which comments on CUSD’s Facebook page and elsewhere have varied from “What in the world?” to “vague,” and “uncomforting.”

Wilson was hired in May 2021 after a lengthy candidate search conducted by Educational Support Services Group — at a price tag of between $19,750 and $24,500. CUSD’s Board of Education voted 4-1, with Llanusa dissenting, to approve his four-year contract at $273,646 per year, plus benefits.

According to Wilson’s contract — which is viewable on the COURIER’s website — he “shall” receive a cash severance equivalent to one year’s salary and a year of health benefits in the event he is fired without cause. So taxpayers appear to be on the hook for $273,646 in severance pay, plus the cost of Wilson’s healthcare benefits through June 30, 2023.

The COURIER has been working hard to determine the complete financial implications of Wilson’s departure. But nobody close to the situation is saying anything.

Reached Wednesday, four of the five members of the CUSD Board of Education — Nancy Treser Osgood, Kathy Archer, Bob Fass, and president Llanusa — declined to comment further for this story. Each deferred to Llanusa, who cited “protocol” for the reason he refused to entertain questions from the press. The COURIER made clear its intent to ask questions only about non-confidential or non-privileged, public information matters, but the board refused en masse to be questioned. David Nemer did not respond at all.

Llanusa told the COURIER Monday it must file a Freedom of Information Act request to get at the complete financial details of Wilson’s severance package. We did so on Monday, but CUSD had not yet produced the results of that request by press time Thursday.

Once again, the financial details of school district employees’ severance packages are public and not protected under federal, state or local personnel confidentiality laws.

“Jeff [Wilson] has asked that questions about his separation be answered by him,” Llanusa said. “He is aware of the public’s right to know, and will follow the process laid out for public requests for information regarding the Freedom of Information Act. Jeff’s contract outlines the financial obligations for release without cause.”

But over the past two weeks Wilson has steadfastly refused to answer any of the COURIER’s questions about the financial aspects of his severance package.

Reached via text early Tuesday, Wilson told the COURIER he had checked with CUSD’s legal counsel and had been advised not to comment to the press about the public financial information portion of his severance with the district.

“Hi Mick,” Wilson wrote. “I did my checking and cannot comment on what has happened to me here at CUSD. I’m sorry and I know you are just doing your job.”

Llanusa wrote in the April 15 letter the board wanted to move in “another direction” in firing Wilson.

“[S]uch change is not based on a performance flaw or any concern whatsoever regarding Dr. Wilson and his fine work at CUSD,” Llanusa added in the letter.

If not performance, then what was the decision based on?

“As written in the statement given to the community, the board simply determined to take a different direction,” Llanusa said. “As indicated in the agenda for the upcoming meeting, hiring Jim Elsasser as next year’s superintendent will be presented for a vote. All items regarding this transition need to be finalized at a duly authorized board meeting.”

There is also the looming question of the timing of CUSD’s move. Wilson announced his departure from CUSD in an April 1 letter to the community, citing “unforeseen circumstances.” It’s unclear at this point whether those circumstances had to do with the district’s desire to re-hire his predecessor, or if that came after the fact. The COURIER has yet to find anyone close to the situation who will go on record to answer this question of timing, including the school board members.

Another interesting wrinkle is Llanusa is the only CUSD board member who voted against hiring Wilson back in May 2021. The COURIER asked him if he could elaborate on his misgivings.

“I cannot … No comment,” he said.

Asked if his reticence to answer the question was due to a legal concern, or simply a personal preference, Llanusa again said, “No comment.”

He then bristled when asked if some readers might perceive some of his answers, or lack thereof, as evasive. “There will be a meeting on Thursday,” he said. “All information will come out then.” Asked if his May 2021 reservations regarding Wilson’s hiring would be included, Llanusa again demurred. “Those are not pertinent to this issue,” he said.

Llanusa said there will be a time when the public will have more information regarding Wilson’s departure.

“But the information needs to be released appropriately, and if it’s confidential or privileged information, [it] has to be requested utilizing a Freedom of Information Act request,” Llanusa said. “As I said, those requests should go through Superintendent Jeff Wilson’s office.”

Following a volley of terse text exchanges on Tuesday, the COURIER asked Llanusa instead for a face-to-face or phone interview. He refused, leaving unasked our questions about the timing of the superintendent change, and the value of the healthcare portion of Wilson’s severance package.

Throughout the week, the COURIER repeatedly made clear to Llanusa and the other board members its follow-up questions were not of a confidential or privileged nature, yet each of them refused to talk. Llanusa said information about Wilson’s severance would be publicly available after Thursday’s meeting. The COURIER will update this story when that information becomes accessible.

1 Comment

  1. E. COREY

    Mr. Rhodes, I share your frustration. I, too, have experienced the hostility and condescension of the same board members that you detailed in your report. No elected official should treat the press or their constituents like this. Their lack of responsiveness to you as a journalist and the public is deeply problematic, and extends well beyond personnel decisions. Please continue with your efforts to hold this school board accountable to the community.

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