ENCINITAS — The San Dieguito Union High School District’s interim superintendent has agreed to stay on through the end of the school year, bringing some stability to a district whose board of trustees began the new year with contention and allegations of Brown Act violations.
In the fall, Interim Superintendent Tina Douglas, who has held the role since former superintendent Cheryl James-Ward was placed on leave last year, stated her intention to resign her superintendent duties and return to her original role as associate superintendent of business services by the end of January.
However, Douglas agreed with the district board of trustees on Jan. 10 to stay in her role through June 30 to provide consistency as the district transitioned to a new board of trustees.
“I still believe this is best for us, providing for the much-needed stability for our students, staff and community. I am grateful for the Board’s re-commitment and look forward to working as a governance team,” Douglas said in a statement.
The district has commenced its search for a new, permanent superintendent and will have a selected candidate in the role by the beginning of the 2023-24 school year.
Despite this positive development, the board’s Jan. 10 meeting also brought allegations of Brown Act violations to the newly elected board.
The allegations spurred from the board’s Dec. 13 meeting — the first meeting for the body’s new members Phan Anderson, Rimga Viskanta and Jane Lea Smith — and its selection of a board president and vice president.
While agendized to take place at the end of the meeting, Viskanta proposed, and the board approved 4-1, moving the item to the beginning of the meeting before public comment. Trustee Michael Allman cast the lone dissenting vote, expressing concerns about not allowing the public to share their opinions before board members selected a president and vice president.
Viskanta earned the majority vote for board president over Michael Allman, who was also nominated, and Smith was the majority choice for the vice president position over Anderson, who nominated herself.
In the days following, a handful of community members would argue that moving this item before public comment violated the Brown Act, the government code regarding public meetings, by not allowing public participation.
In response to this criticism, the board called a Jan. 10 special meeting to “cure and correct” any potential Brown Act violations, essentially redoing the vote. Viskanta said this was done to facilitate public participation, not because something was done illegally.
“We did not have to do this action again; we chose to do this action again because it’s the right thing to do, and we do want to facilitate public participation,” she said.
Other community members, as well as Trustee Katrina Young, pointed out that the selection of the board president and vice president before public comment has been a common practice in the district in recent years.
Ultimately, Viskanta and Smith were again selected as board president and vice president.
Board protocol changes
The school board also received a cease and desist letter from an attorney representing community member Marci Strange, urging the board to cure and correct another action from the Dec. 13 meeting during a discussion regarding an increase to teachers’ health benefits.
During the discussion, Allman requested to display a document to the meeting attendees, which he said included calculations of how much the increases would cost the district. Viskanta rejected these requests, expressing concerns about whether the document was appropriately introduced as part of the agenda. Viskanta also questioned the source of information and where it originated.
Allman, who claimed he had sent the document to all his fellow board members, stated the refusal was illegal, a claim echoed in a letter from Strange’s attorney.
“This deprived the public of access to information distributed to all members of the Board before the Meeting and which was directly relevant to a decision before the Board, a clear violation of [the Brown Act],” the letter stated.
The board discussed this incident and the cease and desist letter in closed session at its Jan. 10 meeting but did not take action to “cure and correct.”
However, at its long-awaited governance workshop the following day, the board set new standards for introducing materials from board members during meetings and placing items on the agenda.
The lengthy and, at times, heated discussion ended with board members and Douglas agreeing on two new protocols.
Whenever a board member requests to place any item on the agenda, the item will have to be placed on the agenda of the upcoming or following meeting, as long as it relates to board business. If it is an action item, the proposing board member must include language about the potential vote.
The board president, superintendent, and a second rotating board member will now set the agenda. This marked a change from the previous policy when the board president had the final say on what made it onto the agenda.
In addition, board members are allowed to share their own information in the form of a document during the meeting, as long as they include the source of information and send it ahead of time only to the superintendent.
They agreed it also cannot be shared with other board members before it is shared with the public, as doing so would constitute a Brown Act violation.
“In my opinion, this is significant progress and goes a long way to ensure that the voice of elected trustees will not be silenced,” Allman stated on his official board member Facebook page.
The protocol changes will come back to the board to be finalized at its next meeting.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the board unanimously approved Viskanta’s motion to move the selection of board president and VP to the beginning of the meeting. Allman had voted against the item to make the final vote tally 4-1. We sincerely regret the error.