By Camila Castellanos and Oscar Areliz
Outlook Valley Sun
Despite having interviewed 10 applicants to fill a temporary vacancy on the panel, the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board ultimately decided last week not to fill the seat, indicating that doing so might give the appointee an unfair advantage in the November election that will permanently fill it.
The seat has been vacant since May 31, after former board Vice President Ellen Multari, who served on the panel for nearly nine years, stepped down because she and her family were moving out of the district.
After some pushback from community stakeholders who have said (including in an online petition) they would like members to choose an applicant to temporarily fill the seat, the matter has been placed as an agenda item for discussion at the next board meeting on Tuesday, June 30.
The board also further consulted with the Los Angeles County Office of Education and its own legal counsel to discuss the validity of the decision to leave the seat vacant, according to board President Joe Radabaugh.
“We immediately took action over the weekend to engage L.A. County Office of Education and our own expert legal counsel to review the situation and ask that they provide their independent opinion regarding whether we in any way, at any time along the way, inadvertently violated the Brown Act or our own bylaws so we could immediately take steps to remedy,” Radabaugh said in a statement. “By [Tuesday], we received confirmation from both parties that we acted properly.
“However, to proactively clear up any miscommunication on the matter with the community, we have moved to place this specific item on the agenda for next week’s board meeting on June 30.”
The board held two meetings last week over two days to interview the 10 applicants for the vacant seat, which initially was advertised as being up for provisional appointment until the next election, scheduled for Nov. 3, when voters would chose a permanent board member.
During its last meeting following the interviews, the board discussed that it had previously been unaware that it had the option of keeping the board seat vacant. Radabaugh noted that LCUSD Superintendent Wendy Sinnette received confirmation of this option from the county education office prior to the virtual meeting June 17.
That exchange was with Jeff Young, interim director of business advisory services at LACOE, who told Sinnette that the LCUSD has 60 days from the date of vacancy to make a provisional appointment for the remainder of Multari’s term, which expires in December 2020. If the board chooses to make an appointment, the deadline to do so is July 30. If no appointment is made, the seat will remain vacant until it is filled at the regular election in November.
Ultimately, board members voted 3-1 to keep the seat vacant and allow people to vote for a candidate in November. Dan Jeffries was the lone dissenting vote, making it only the third non-unanimous decision by the board in the last nine years, according to Sinnette.
The vote came after lengthy discussion regarding the possibility that choosing a candidate to temporarily fill the post might infringe on the outcome of the election, giving an unfair advantage to the person holding the seat.
Board member Kaitzer Puglia was the first to express concern, saying she felt it should be a decision made by community members in the election.
“I wanted this decision to be just kind of organic and as equitable as possible,” Puglia said. “I think we need to hold off and really allow citizens to make the decision in November. There are 10 amazing candidates. I am moving toward allowing the seat to remain vacant. I’m really passionate about allowing the citizens of La Cañada to vote in the next school board member.”
Puglia presented the motion, board member Brent Kuszyk seconded and Radabaugh voted in favor.
Meanwhile, Jeffries, who cast the dissenting vote, agreed with his colleagues that selecting one of the candidates might give that person “an implicit endorsement” in the November election.
However, he ultimately decided that the board needs a new member now, even provisionally, to help navigate the current uncertain times.
“But there is a lot to get done on policy issues, flexibility, politics of getting additional state funding, and we are doing this not only amid COVID-19 and budget issues, but also undertaking major capitalistic improvement projects,” he said. “There is a lot to get done, not just between now and election, but also in months coming after that. I appreciate what you’re saying, Kaitzer, but I think it may be necessary to ask to have that assistance now.”
Sinnette, citing her role as superintendent, said she would not contribute to discussion of on the matter. When board members asked her opinion, she said only that she recognized the difficulty of the matter.
“I see the dilemma the board has to weigh, between being respectful of electoral process and wanting that to happen, and also we’re in unprecedented times, to have a four-member board — there’s obviously … some need for someone to round out the full slate of board membership,” she said. “It’s very, very difficult.
Sinnette advised board members to do what is best for them as a unit and reminded them that she and her staff work for them.
“The heavy lifting has to be done by staff,” she said. “We’re your employees. We’re the people who take your direction and are committed over the next eight weeks to effecting all that we need to effect, to reopen to the extent possible and then also to really articulate how we better deliver education in these uncertain times.”