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Leader fired in spite of protests

DEL MAR — Less than halfway through her four-year contract, Superintendent Sharon McClain was fired by the board of trustees on March 31, a move that could potentially cost the Del Mar Union School District more than $400,000.
The decision comes almost exactly two years after three of the current board members voted to spend approximately $300,000 to buy out the contract of the previous superintendent.
After more than an hour of public comment supporting McClain and nearly two hours of closed-session deliberations, Trustee Annette Easton made a motion to terminate McClain’s contract. Doug Perkins said he spent the past few months analyzing and agonizing over the issue, but he felt it was “in the best interest” of the district to second the motion.
With Katherine White supporting, board President Comischell Rodriguez opposing and Steven McDowell abstaining, McClain was released “with cause,” meaning all pay and benefits would cease immediately. Other than saying McClain had committed a “material breach of contract,” Rodriguez said trustees couldn’t discuss details because it is a personnel matter and there is a threat of litigation.
McClain said she plans to file a lawsuit against the district to recover, at minimum, the remaining two-plus years on her contract and attorney fees. Her salary for school years 2010 through 2012 was $371,000.
“What I’m fighting for right now is my reputation,” McClain said. “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong. I haven’t done anything I should be fired for.”
Although the meeting was scheduled when most parents would be picking up their children from school, it was standing room only in the meeting room at Del Mar Hills Academy. One parent had a stack of e-mails from more than 100 parents opposing McClain’s release. At least one speaker from each of the district’s eight schools tried to save McClain’s job.
“Budget issues have divided this community,” parent Cynthia Rajsbaum said. “You’ve finally managed to unite all of us.”
Of the nearly 30 people who chose to speak, only one supported the decision to terminate McClain’s contract. That was her husband, Joe Condon, who retired last summer after serving 17 years as superintendent for the Lawndale School District.
Condon said at one point he advised McClain not to take the job. He said he made some inquiries about school boards and didn’t hear many positive things about Del Mar. In fact, he said, some rated Compton and Del Mar among the most troubled in the state.
Other speakers described the move to release McClain as “appalling,” “outrageous,” “unwarranted,” “disgusting,” “disappointing” and “a waste of money.”
“It’s a half-a-million-dollar hissy fit,” said Kate Takahashi, whose children attend Carmel Del Mar School.
“It sure doesn’t seem like a financially prudent move,” said Doug Rafner, a member of a recently convened task force charged with finding ways to save the district money.
McClain said she was “heartened” by the public response. “It really made me feel wonderful,” she said. “I’ve given my heart and soul to working in this district. It is facing some big problems and challenges and I threw myself into trying to help.”
McClain said she believes a main source of the problem is a difference in opinion about her job description.
“There was always a difficulty in understanding the role of a superintendent,” she said. “I saw my job differently than they saw it. My job is to run the district day to day. The board’s job is policy making.
“I think we had eight or nine closed-session meetings discussing job descriptions,” she said, adding that there was no clarity about what she would be evaluated on.
McClain said the situation began getting difficult shortly after she provided a 54-page response to an eight-page evaluation document she received from the board.
In early fall, McClain said she was asked to resign. She said she told board members she would if they would honor her contract, which required a 12-month salary buyout of approximately $180,000. The state education code mandates an 18-month severance, which is what her predecessor Tom Bishop received, but McClain said she agreed to a 12-month buyout. She said didn’t get a response.
McClain was notified about the March 31 vote two days before the meeting. She said board members had apparently already made up their minds because a meeting to appoint an interim superintendent was scheduled before the vote on her contract took place. The agenda for an April 1 meeting to name her replacement was posted at 9 a.m. on March 31. At that meeting, trustees appointed James Peabody, superintendent for Julian Union High School District, as the interim schools chief.
Rodriguez, the board president and only trustee to vote against firing McClain, said logistics dictated the scheduling of the April 1 meeting. She said it’s difficult to find meeting space within the district. “I was planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” she said.
“They didn’t have to schedule it for the next day,” McClain said, noting the district was going into spring break the following week. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
She also wondered when the board met to discuss hiring her replacement. “It certainly didn’t happen at a board meeting,” she said. “When did they determine that was the best person for the job?”
Despite unanimous public input in her favor, McClain said she had “absolutely no hope” her job would be saved. “To me, that’s wrong,” she said. “They got public input but their minds were already made up.”
Echoing comments from several speakers, parent Victor Legner said board members who voted to remove McClain should reconsider running for re-election.
“Don’t even bother,” Legner said. “You will be out.” Easton, White and McDowell, who in a 3-2 vote supported the Bishop buyout in February 2008, all face re-election in November.
“This is a sad way to end my career,” McClain said. “I really love the district. I would love to have stayed and helped, but I’m not going to have that opportunity. I wish them all well.”