I commend Capistrano Unified School District Trustee Jim Reardon’s proposal at the district’s June 24 meeting. The board considered instituting a whistleblower protection policy to give district employees protection against retribution when bringing forward criticisms of the district’s practices.
Nevertheless, I have to add that my applause is lacking enthusiasm. While such a policy is needed in any large agency, it doesn’t come near to patching the hole that the debacle of Colonel Mike Halt’s firing and subsequent “reelection offer” exposed.
Whereas offering Halt a position as principal at a school other than San Clemente High School seemed like a move to protect the district from a lawsuit, I’m afraid it will have done just the opposite.
What the board has done is conceded that Halt should never have been “non-reelected” in the first place. To follow that admission with an offer of a position anywhere other than SCHS, I expect, will be the meat of a lawsuit against the district.
What the school board decided to do in conjunction with its reelection offer was to indefinitely table Trustee John Alpay’s request for an independent investigation into Colonel Halt’s initial firing. That was a mistake. CUSD needs this probe more than ever, and now that they have chosen not to do one, the inquiry will likely be vetted in a court of law for their admitted wrongful termination.
CUSD needs a thorough checkup and with such scrutiny should be a plan to revise its system of employee review. The district has hidden behind the shroud of “personnel matters” to the extent that the public cannot know how we arrived at the current state of affairs. Nevertheless, it is apparent that there has been a method to the numerous firings of administrators in San Clemente schools for the last few years; much of the blame has fallen on the shoulders of one assistant superintendent. If one superintendent can do that kind of damage in such a large district, we need a new system.
I have attended a number of board meetings in the last two months, and I was repeatedly shocked when faced with the agendas. If a 3-inch, three-ring binder is inadequate to hold a typical board agenda, there are, without doubt, going to be big mistakes.
In the wake of these fiascos of the board is an opportunity. In the 1980s, Tylenol faced an enormous crisis when its products were tampered with; Jack in the Box also faced a huge backlash in the 1990s when it served E-coli-laden meat, killing innocent customers. Both companies restored their images and, in doing so, changed the way their entire industries did business. CUSD needs to do the same. It must make a system of review that allows proper checks so that no one as upstanding as Halt could be said to not be “meeting the District’s rigorous standards.”
It is possible to create efficient systems of review in districts as large as CUSD. Atul Gawande, in The Checklist Manifesto, looks at the problem of extreme complexity, from flying airplanes to performing specialized surgeries. His conclusions would suggest that if we, as a society, can build skyscrapers that do not collapse, we should be able to hire and retain good employees. Dr. Gawande provides a number of recommendations for dealing with these problems, of the most important: effective communication and authentic teamwork. And these areas are most efficient when they include participation from a wide variety of sources, especially those with the least amount of power.
A complex system would never rely solely on a single source of information. And if communication and teamwork were emphasized at CUSD, Halt would not be Estancia’s new principal and many former San Clemente administrators would be further refining the excellent work that they had already been doing in our schools.