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Elsasser back at CUSD, board accused of lack of transparency – podcast

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Despite numerous public comments decrying a perceived lack of transparency, the Claremont Unified School District Board of Directors voted 5-0 Thursday to re-hire the single candidate it entertained for the job of superintendent, Jim Elsasser, at $335,000 per year plus a generous benefit package.

Elsasser, who led CUSD for nearly nine years before leaving at the end of 2020, will start back on July 1.

Though the vote was a formality, the public comment portion of the evening was anything but routine.

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“This thing here stinks of political garbage,” said Claremont resident Ricky Reyes. “When the time comes to vote for your old buddy to come back, who’s going to stand up and vote against getting the old gang back?”

CUSD Board President Steven Llanusa, pressed on producing the financial details of outgoing superintendent Jeff Wilson’s severance package — which is public information — walked back his earlier commitment to the COURIER to release it to us following the Thursday meeting.

“On the advice of legal counsel, I have since been advised to let people know they can file a Freedom of Information Act request,” Llanusa said.

The COURIER filed a FOIA request Monday. Llanusa “guessed” the COURIER would be receiving the non-protected, non-confidential public information inside of a week.

After a series of tense text and phone interviews over the past two weeks as the COURIER pushed him to release the public information, Llanusa had refused to talk to us in person or on the phone.

On Thursday, we were able to get to him at the public meeting and ask him which came first, Wilson’s firing, or the board being made aware of Elsasser’s availability or interest in returning to helm CUSD. He responded that Wilson’s separation agreement was finalized on March 17.

So was the board aware of Elsasser’s availability on March 17?

“That’s not how I would put it,” Llanusa said.

We asked him how he would put it.

“I’m not prepared to say at this time,” he answered. “These are personal, confidential personnel decisions.”

Llanusa was asked again which came first: Wilson’s firing or Elsasser’s interest in the job.

“There were no negotiations with Jim Elsasser prior to [March 17],” he said.

The COURIER again asked him if the board was aware Elsasser was available prior to March 17.

“On the advice of legal counsel, because it is a personnel matter, I cannot discuss privileged information,” he said. “That’s all I’m prepared to say at this time.”

Asked if there were any other applicants for CUSD’s superintendent job, Llanusa responded “No.”

We then asked Llanusa how long CUSD will have to pay for Wilson’s healthcare coverage as part of his still shrouded in secrecy severance package.

“No comment,” he said.

The COURIER asked if that information will be included in its forthcoming FOIA request.

“You will get it when you get it, and you will see what is there,” Llanusa replied.

Prior to that less than fruitful exchange, the board heard numerous public comments over Zoom that ranged from polite disagreement to outright disgust.

Zoom caller Jordan thanked Wilson for his service, and said he thought he did a great job under difficult circumstances. He then asked the board what direction it was taking the district, referencing Llanusa’s April 15 letter to the community in which he stated the board wanted to move in “another direction” in firing Wilson.

“I think we’re all very interested to know what direction the board is taking, and what that is,” he said. “Because there was really no information about it, and I think that’s really important to all know just as parents who have children in this district. So, could someone answer the question and maybe let us know?”

The board did not respond to this or any of the numerous questions and comments from the public.

“So, is that more to come, or was that pretty much it?” asked Zoom caller Alex. “Because I think a lot of us have been waiting for this meeting to see what kind of direction the board is looking to take with the new offer for a new superintendent.”

Caller Eric Griswold made his feelings known quickly.

“Thank you for having this meeting tonight. We learned absolutely nothing,” he said. “I hope that everybody listening tonight pays attention to the fact that we are having an election on November 8, and there are members of this board of trustees who perhaps need to be replaced. It is absolutely despicable behavior on your part, and I am looking forward to seeing at least three new members, and if the other two want to resign, that would be fine with me too.”

Several commenters expressed dismay over the board’s silence in the face of so many questions about the superintendent issue. Llanusa claimed the Brown Act precluded the board from responding.

“So we can’t ask questions about the agenda items and get responses on those questions?” a Zoom caller asked. Llanusa said the public could ask questions, but the responses may not come at the meeting. The man asked when they would come, and Llanusa said when they show up on future board meeting agendas.

“So there will discussion potentially of the questions that have been asked tonight that have not been responded to?” he asked.

“Potentially,” Llanusa said.

Just prior to the unanimous vote to re-hire Elsasser, CUSD Board of Education member David Nemer took to the mic to expound on transparency.

“I think there’s some confusion on the issue of transparency and hiring. I’m not talking about this particular situation, but just in general,” Nemer said.

There are two ways to hire a superintendent, he said: one is confidential, the other more public. He said he understood the public’s desire for a more transparent process, but there are problems with that approach, one being it can limit the pool of applicants.

“There are often prospective applicants for superintendent that don’t particularly want the district where they’re currently employed to be aware that they’re out there applying,” Nemer said. “That discourages some good candidates from applying in the first place. So you end up with a weaker and more shallow pool [of applicants].”

For this reason, most school boards decide on superintendents through a confidential hiring process, Nemer said. He then recalled a previous CUSD superintendent search, in 2004, where the public was invited to take part and make its voice heard.

“And I was involved in that,” Nemer said. “It was very public. It went on for days and days. There was a lot of input from the community. And the selection that was made turned out to be, I think I can safely say, one of the poorest selections that we’ve had, historically. It did not work very well.”

Nemer then said the board had “a lot of public input” prior to Wilson’s hiring in 2021.

“Even though we didn’t have a totally public process [with Elsasser’s re-hire], we solicited and received a lot of public input a year ago, and it seems that it’s pretty much the same priorities and the same concerns,” he said. “I don’t think anything has changed radically in the community in the last 12 months. And so, that’s partly why we didn’t go through that process again.”

Nemer said he was aware there were “mixed emotions” about the board’s decision to fire Wilson and re-hire Elsasser without community input of any kind.

“But an outcome that’s different from what someone wants doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not aware of their concerns and their inputs and everybody’s opinions,” Nemer said. “So I know that doesn’t satisfy anybody, but I just wanted to point out that there’s a problem with having the full, open, public kind of selection process that affects all potential types of applicants, everybody, across the board.”

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