School Board Controversy Is Top Story of 2018

Another year is near an end, and for San Marino that year included a multitude of surprises, welcome developments, disappointments and some intriguing mileposts for the city’s proud residents, enthusiastic educators and diligent workers.
In observance of the approaching new year, The Outlook has highlighted 18 of San Marino’s biggest stories of 2018.

 

NORGAARD V. SMUSD,  ET AL.

OUTLOOK Photo School board member Chris Norgaard’s lawsuit against the school district for its investigation regarding allegations against him was San Marino’s biggest story of 2018. Norgaard, pictured with fellow board members Nam Jack (left) and Lisa Link, ultimately settled with the district in a manner that altered board policy on interacting with faculty and staff.
OUTLOOK Photo
School board member Chris Norgaard’s lawsuit against the school district for its investigation regarding allegations against him was San Marino’s biggest story of 2018. Norgaard, pictured with fellow board members Nam Jack (left) and Lisa Link, ultimately settled with the district in a manner that altered board policy on interacting with faculty and staff.

A saga that began in January and ended just before the start of the current school year, the San Marino Unified School District’s investigation concerning school board member Chris Norgaard, and Norgaard’s subsequent lawsuit against the district, was the city’s top story of the year.
The lawsuit was ultimately settled in a manner that updated school board policy on board members’ visits to campuses and interaction with teachers, but it took months of both public and closed-session discussion by the school board, critical statements published online and in media, and a court-ordered mediation conference to get there. All the while, the community was forced to read between the lines as the two parties reached impasses and traded barbs.
Then-Superintendent Alex Cherniss and Assistant Superinten-dent Linda de le Torre brought in a third-party investigative firm in January to investigate allegations that Norgaard had in recent years kissed district employees at school events while greeting them and, on one occasion, persistently contacted a teacher during off-hours in a manner she considered inappropriate. The investigation was confirmed later that month in emails to news media.
Soon afterward came the San Marino Police Department’s statement that it had opened a battery investigation against a school board member. The district’s statement identified Norgaard by name; the Police Department’s did not, as is consistent with law enforcement practices.
By April, Norgaard — who has consistently denied any wrongdoing — was publicly mulling a lawsuit alleging defamation against the district. He ultimately did file one in the following weeks and added a civil rights violation claim after the district voted to freeze him out of Cherniss’ annual evaluation because of the possible conflict of interest.
Court documents said that several allegations against Norgaard could be substantiated, but the investigative firm added a key opinion that it believed he was acting with an inaccurate interpretation of personal and professional conduct and not out of sexual motivation.
The parties settled in August, with no money or damages awarded and with a reworked policy that forbade school board members from visiting schools or contacting faculty without the superintendent’s permission. The criminal investigation was closed when the primary witness elected not to press charges. According to de la Torre, the district spent $506,802.30 on the matter, of which $447,563.49 was reimbursed by the Joint Powers Authority to which SMUSD is party.
Perhaps beholden to tradition, the school board selected Norgaard, who served as its clerk this year, to be its vice president for 2019.

 

2 CONTINUITY TRUMPS CHANGE

IN SCHOOL BOARD ELECTION

A new school board member was sworn in this month alongside two incumbents as a result of a November election, but that might have happened only because an outgoing board member decided against seeking re-election.
C. Joseph Chang and Shelley Ryan returned to the board for additional terms, and they’re joined by finance-minded Corey Barberie. The three were chosen from a pool of seven candidates and will be tasked with helping pick a new superintendent, effectively prioritize capital projects and reconnect with a contingent of disaffected parents in the coming months.
Transparency and fiscal issues dogged the district all year as certain vocal groups called for reform in both practice and attitude. At the end of the day, however, Chang was propelled to a fifth term (his last, he has said), easily beating his vote total in his previous election, in 2013. Ryan returned for a second term after her first year as board president. Barberie took the place of Nam Jack, who did not seek a third term.

 

SUPERINTENDENT LEAVES

After more than four years as SMUSD’s superintendent, Alex Cherniss departed in September for different pastures, taking the same gig with the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.
The decision came amid news that a settlement between the district and Norgaard was developing, although the two events haven’t been directly linked. Loren Kleinrock, the man Cherniss replaced, was chosen to take over for Cherniss, albeit in an interim capacity. The school board deferred seeking a permanent superintendent until after the election.
Cherniss’ legacy includes breaking ground for the Barth Athletics Complex, facilitating the creation and expansion of academic partnership programs among local institutions and keeping the district on target for top academic performance in the state despite changes in curriculums and evaluation metrics. It also includes the botched introduction this year of a bond proposal that was quickly shelved in the face of lukewarm-to-hostile reception, as well as the inquiry precipitating the Norgaard lawsuit.

 

4 CITY REPRESENTED ON ROSE COURT

Of its four applicants, San Marino ended up with two delegates on the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Royal Court this year. One, Louise Siskel, was crowned Rose Queen, with Sherry Ma serving as one of the six Rose Princesses. Siskel, a San Marino resident, attends Sequoyah High School in Pasadena, and Ma attends SMHS.

 

5 MAN IMMOLATES HIMSELF IN TRUCK

One San Marino resident’s Monday morning took a shocking turn in March when a pickup truck careened into her SUV as she backed out of her driveway, after which the pickup’s male driver poured gasoline all over the truck, got back in the cab and set the vehicle ablaze.
The resident escaped serious injury and, before the fire began, drove to the Police Department to report the incident. The man’s truck was fully engulfed by the time first responders arrived. Identifying him took several months, but it confirmed early indications that he was a gardener whom the resident fired months earlier.

 

6 ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER NO. 1 RANKING

SMUSD kept the crown once again: It was California’s top-performing school district, according to the state’s academic evaluation system.

 

7 CASH, CHECK OR CARD?

City Councilman Steve Talt outlined a goal of budget reform when he became the 2018 mayor, and city officials covered a lot of ground to get there.
It took a two-month continuing appropriations resolution and a multitude of extra meetings (two went beyond six hours, one past midnight), but the City Council and municipal staff set the tone for the future. In establishing new protocols, procedures and mindsets for budgeting this year, they hope to make it easier to be fiscally responsible, transparent and effective in providing services to the city.
Perhaps the most significant of those moves this year was creating the Capital Improvements Program and using more than $13 million from reserve funding to kick-start it.

 

8 SMUSD FACES QUESTIONS ON SPENDING, PLANNING

Throughout the year, SMUSD and its board of education had vocal challenges from community members regarding how much money it was spending on what projects, and also how easy it was for people to track that information.
It started with town hall-style meetings, one specifically in response to the floating of the bond proposition to fund up to $160 million in facilities projects. Another meeting concerned students’ homework load in the context of growing awareness of mental health and wellness. A watchdog group eventually was begun by several of the residents, and the district shelved the bond proposal for a later date.

 

9 PRESERVATION ORDINANCE FINALLY ENACTED

The City Council enacted an ordinance to protect the community’s historic resources earlier this year.
The issue had come up numerous times in recent years, with residents crying foul as homes they felt warranted preservation were demolished to make way for new ones. With an eye toward keeping the city’s unique heritage intact, then-Mayor Talt made it a goal to finally enact the ordinance. He got his wish in a unanimous council vote.

 

10 SMHS UNDERGOES ACTIVE SHOOTER DRILL

OUTLOOK Photo Cmdr. Aaron Blondé escorts Cpl. Kenric Wu during the San Marino Police Department’s active shooter drill at San Marino High School.
OUTLOOK Photo
Cmdr. Aaron Blondé escorts Cpl. Kenric Wu during the San Marino Police Department’s active shooter drill at San Marino High School.

No one was happy to do it, but officials felt that the times’ realities called for it: In the spring, police officers staged a simulated active shooter situation at San Marino High School.
The drill prompted students to practice what they were supposed to do depending on where they happened to be when a San Marino officer started firing blank rounds from a rifle. Faculty enacted the safety measures they’ve trained for, and first responders practiced for something they hope to never have to do.

 

11 RECREATION DEPARTMENT BEING REVAMPED

Parents and residents were relieved that their emotional pleas to keep the city’s Recreation Department were heard; however, changes will be made.
The City Council took a hard look at the department, which has had trouble recovering costs and attracting large amounts of local participation; moreover, the Stoneman building, the base for most department programs, has various needs. Dr. Steven Huang, the new mayor, has said he wants the department to be self-sufficient as soon as possible, and the city is seeking to hire a director who can steer the department in the right direction.

 

12 GIRLS’ VOLLEYBALL SQUAD TAKES RIO HONDO TITLE

Photo courtesy Eric Danielson The San Marino High School varsity girls’ volleyball team won their first Rio Hondo League championship since 1990.
Photos courtesy Eric Danielson
The San Marino High School varsity girls’ volleyball team won their first Rio Hondo League championship since 1990.
Photo courtesy Eric Danielson Madison Kaufman celebrates during one of the Titans’ playoff matches.
Madison Kaufman celebrates during one of the Titans’ playoff matches.

The SMHS varsity girls’ volleyball team had its most memorable fall season in nearly 30 years. Second-year head coach Joseph Rios guided the Titans to a 25-6 record, including a perfect 10-0 mark in Rio Hondo League play, to claim the program’s first league championship since 1990.
The Titans continued their winning ways in the postseason and defeated Palos Verdes Chadwick and Oak Park in the first two rounds of the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 playoffs. San Marino’s run came to an end in the quarterfinals as the Titans fell to No. 1-seeded Quartz Hill of Lancaster in the quarterfinals. Senior standout Keila Barra made the All-Southern Section Division 4 first team.

 

 

13 GIRLS’ BASKETBALL TEAM MAKES PLAYOFF RUN

In her third year at the helm, SMHS varsity girls’ basketball coach Annie Yee achieved her goal of guiding the Titans to a Southern Section playoff berth and much more. The Titans’ 2017-18 campaign was an unforgettable one as the program reached the section quarterfinals for the first time in decades.
San Marino finished the season with an 18-11 record and recorded playoff victories over Anaheim Katella and La Puente Bassett. Then seniors Sabella Singh, Cheyenne Trac and Joyce Liang stepped up for the Titans, along with young standout Audrey Lin, who was determined to help her team go further into postseason. Singh was recognized by CIF-SS and earned a spot on the all-section first team.

 

14 TITANS PRODUCE RIO HONDO FOOTBALL MVP

OUTLOOK Photo The San Marino High School varsity football team won the Rio Hondo League crown with help from Beau Hobbie, who set a career rushing record.
OUTLOOK Photo
The San Marino High School varsity football team won the Rio Hondo League crown with help from Beau Hobbie, who set a career rushing record.

Since the arrival of head coach Mike Hobbie in 2011, the SMHS varsity football team has been one of the most competitive in the area. However, Monrovia has stood in the way of the Titans’ quest for a Rio Hondo crown.
History didn’t repeat for Monrovia, as Hobbie bested the Wildcats for the second time
in his career and guided San Marino to its first league championship since 2015.

Beau Hobbie
Beau Hobbie

The Titans entered the Southern Section Division 9 playoffs
as the No. 3 seed and defeated Segerstrom of Santa Ana in
the first round. The Titans advanced to the quarterfinals
but were defeated by North Torrance, 33-28, in a thrilling playoff game.
San Marino finished the season with a 9-3-1 season and running back Beau Hobbie had a season to remember, being named the league’s most valuable player after rushing for 1,521 yards and 26 touchdowns. He set a career rushing record at San Marino with a total of 3,517 yards, averaging an impressive eight yards per carry.

 

15 FAMILIAR FACE AT HMS

With the promotion of Jason Kurtenbach to a district office position, SMUSD turned to Huntington Middle School’s assistant principal to take over as principal.
Alana Fauré, with nearly three decades of work in the district, made for an easy transition at San Marino’s only middle school. She had served as assistant principal for three years. SMUSD has hired a new principal at various schools for the last three years.

 

16 HUNTINGTON LIBRARY NAMES NEW PRESIDENT

Karen Lawrence New Huntington President
Karen Lawrence

Karen Lawrence was hired to replace Laura Trombley as president of the Huntington Library after the institution’s board spent more than a year on its search.
Lawrence joined the Huntington by way of Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was president. Two of the institution’s current big projects include the restoration of the venerable “Blue Boy” painting and Phase 3 of the Chinese Garden.

 

17 710 DEMISE BEARS FRUIT FOR SAN MARINO

The 710 Freeway corridor project was finally put to rest this year, but its money is being doled out to area communities with the intent of improving their traffic situations and achieve what the tunnel was supposed to do. San Marino is taking the lead on a traffic signal synchronization project involving Huntington Drive and San Gabriel Boulevard after receiving $10 million from Metro, and hopes to add more to its coffers to help improve traffic flow and safety.

 

18 HMS TURNS 100

It was a special birthday year for Huntington Middle School, which is a century old this year. Thanks to the hard work of HMS’ PTA and faculty, graduates from decades ago returned to celebrate the school’s centennial and summon their favorite memories from back in the day.

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