Reasons for SCHS principal’s removal remain a mystery

Questions remain about the sudden removal of popular San Clemente High School Principal Mike Halt last week. Due to district policies preventing discussion of personnel issues, little light can be shed, for now. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Questions remain about the sudden removal of popular San Clemente High School Principal Mike Halt last week. Due to district policies preventing discussion of personnel issues, little light can be shed, for now. Photo: Allison Jarrell

By Jim Shilander

A week after a Capistrano Unified School District news release confirmed that Principal Michael Halt would not be returning to San Clemente High School for the remainder of the school year—and would not be retained for the following year—parents, staff and students are largely still wondering why.

Part of this is due to the district’s own policies, which prevent district personnel from publicly discussing personnel matters. But it also has to do with a sense of disbelief shared among many in the community that Halt had been embraced by. Deni Christensen, the school’s assistant principal for guidance, will finish the year as interim principal, the district announced in the same release.

“The District has rigorous standards for principals and other administrators as well as a fair and relevant system for evaluating their performance, the release stated. “Principals or administrators who are not meeting the district’s rigorous standards are provided assistance to improve their performance… The district does not take the decision to non-reelect administrators lightly.”

The district’s standards are based on the Association of California School Administrators California Professional Standards for Educational Leaders, which set six criteria for principals and other administrators, including:

  • Facilitating the development, articulation, implementation and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community.
  • Advocating, nurturing and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth.
  • Ensuring management of the organization, operations and resources for a safe, efficient and effective learning environment.
  • Collaborating with families and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs and mobilizing community resources.
  • Modeling a personal code of ethics and developing professional leadership capacity.
  • Understanding, responding to and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal and cultural context.

Because Halt came from outside the district, he was subject to a two-year probationary period before a decision could be made on his future employment with CUSD. The release sent by the district indicated a decision had been made prior to March 15 to not return Halt to the post for next year.

Halt released a statement Wednesday thanking students for his time at the school.

“It has been both an honor and a privilege working at San Clemente High School, and I have loved living and learning in this community,” Halt wrote. “The students and staff at SCHS are second to none, and I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished together; our record of success speaks for itself. If I could share one final thought with my students, parents and staff it would be this: please do not view this parting of ways as a discount against the amazing work we have done together. My departure is not based on your lack of achievements or results, so each of you should be proud of what you have accomplished and contributed to this school.”

Current Aliso Niguel High School Principal Chris Carter, a San Clemente resident, was announced as the new permanent principal, effective at the end of the school year. In an email sent to parents at the same time as the decision, Carter said he is looking forward to the opportunity.

“San Clemente is my home, and my family and I are Tritons,” Carter wrote. “I share your passion and commitment to excellence in all that we do. I will focus on leading a rigorous instructional program and enhancing systems to support all students to elevate our school to the highest levels of achievement. Serving as your principal provides me with the unique opportunity to lead the school that I entrust to my own children’s education.”

On Friday, approximately 100 people, mostly parents but including students, rallied in support of Halt at the SC Times’ weekly Beachside Chat at Café Calypso, at which District Superintendent Kirsten Vital was the guest speaker.

“It’s baffling to us that during the term of our former superintendent Joe Farley, Mike Halt was a superstar principal, and when we got a new superintendent, Mike Halt suddenly became problematic,” parent Anna Mendez said in a prepared statement, which included questions about rumored political motivations behind Halt’s removal. “The fact that Mike has so many accomplishments to his name, is so very respected by the community and is dismissed within six weeks of the school year ending, and the fact that the school board did not anticipate such an uprising, demonstrates that the school board is completely out of touch with the community they’re supposed to be serving.”

“I understand and hear your frustration, I hear the sadness and the hurt,” Vital said in response to questions over Halt’s removal. “The reality is that I can’t answer the very questions of ‘why’ that you all want. I can’t do it under the laws of the state of California. I would like to, but I cannot.”

Many parents said they want Halt restored to his position, or, at the very least, to be invited to graduation in order to congratulate the seniors. That suggestion was also made by San Clemente trustee John Alpay, in a letter released Friday (printed in this week’s edition). Alpay criticized the district’s lack of communication with parents regarding the removal.

“The lack of official communication regarding his termination for almost six days caused a great amount of unnecessary yet completely understandable discontent, confusion and anger,” Alpay wrote. “The ability to put Michael Halt on leave for the remainder of the school year and duration of his contract is the Superintendent’s prerogative. I do not support her action. It was a blunder of monumental proportions.”

However, fellow trustee Amy Hanacek, who sent her own children to San Clemente schools, disagreed with Alpay, calling his letter politically motivated.

“Board decisions are made after this very long and intentional process—in this case, my decision was not quickly made without endless scrutiny and questioning… It’s excruciating and particularly so in such a close-knit community like San Clemente,” Hanacek wrote. “Mr. Alpay was part of the entire process with equal opportunity to understand and question this process. John Alpay appears to have crafted a not very veiled attempt at political self-preservation. A pattern is forming with him of voting one way then flip-flopping if things get uncomfortable. Our students deserve the very best we can give them—they are worth being unpopular for.”

Mystery and Rumor

San Clemente High School student Victoria Mendez speaks out in favor of principal Michael Halt at Friday’s Beachside Chat. Photo: Andrea Swayne
San Clemente High School student Victoria Mendez speaks out in favor of principal Michael Halt at Friday’s Beachside Chat. Photo: Andrea Swayne

Valerie Woodstra, President of the SCHS PTSA, said parents began hearing rumors of a potential change at SCHS almost two weeks prior to the announcement, during the period where the school was dealing with the death of student Saylor Voris from leukemia. Woodstra said things reached a fever pitch during the first full week of May, when Halt was suddenly absent from his office.

“I’ve never heard anything negative about Mike,” Woodstra said. “What every parent I’ve run into has been asking is why. I’ve heard no one say anything bad about him.”

Woodstra said she’s heard frustration about the district making the decision to remove Halt without soliciting the opinion of parents and students on his performance.

A group of parents who recently had an issue at the school regarding a movie shown by a teacher in an AP Art History class, along with other issues raised by parents regarding the same instructor, stated in a release that they felt Halt handled their situation appropriately (the letter appears in this issue).

“When these concerns were elevated to him less than one week ago, we feel that he reacted appropriately and was engaged in ensuring it was handled correctly,” the release stated. “He welcomed parents and students to address any concerns they had and meet with him personally–fully committed to transparency. Essentially, he showed why he was highly regarded by parents and students alike at SCHS and we are 100 percent confident that he would have managed this situation correctly, given the opportunity.”

Science teacher Cecily Kipe, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said staff feels similarly to parents. Kipe said many staff members first heard about the rumors from parents, rather than receiving communication from the district about what was happening at the school, a move she described as “disappointing.”

“He is very respected by staff, a strong leader, who stuck to his word,” Kipe said. “He supported the staff and had a direction and vision for the school. He tightened up discipline, which needed to be tightened up. And he had a vision on curriculum.”

That Halt’s removal came at an already stressful time for students and faculty, with a number of advanced placement and international baccalaureate tests coming, she said, made an already stressful time more difficult. Kipe added that staff members are reluctant to speak out.

“Among staff, there’s a difficulty believing that Mike Halt would do something that would cause him to be fired,” Kipe said. “People are thinking, ‘If they could do that to the principal, what could they do to me?’”

Students have also been feeling the stress. At Friday’s event, student body president Alex Zewiski said students were looking to the community for help in the days ahead.

“We’re the ones who need support,” Zewiski said, noting how trying the last month has been at the school. “We’re the ones who aren’t changing there. You can’t take 3,000 kids and take them out of that school. But you can sure as hell try to support them.”

Victoria Mendez, the daughter of Anna Mendez, also spoke at the Friday event, and has been critical of the district’s handling of the situation. Mendez said students were largely focused on the upcoming testing, despite rumors about something going on with the administration. She said the announcement has galvanized many to advocate for Halt’s return.

“The announcement of Halt’s dismissal created extreme frustration for students, because we personally loved and respected Principal Halt,” Mendez wrote in an email. “At the same time, it has created a climate of activism, as students have united in determination to achieve justice for Halt. Students truly believe that they will affect change and they are not ready to stop fighting until that has been accomplished.”

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comments (20)

  • Concerned about Vital & LePatner
    May 13, 2015 at 1:29 pm #
    After reading about Vital’s tactics in her previous district, I am wondering if CUSD principals last year who are now teaching @ CUSD were in fact demoted by Vital. Last years’ principals of Del Obispo Elem. and Palisades Elem. both took teaching positions this year. I do not know these men, so I do not know the reason given for stepping down. Does anyone know why they are now teaching and not principals? Are there any other principals who took teaching positions? There seems to be an awful lot of shuffling in administration. Sorry for being a little off topic — just trying to put some things together in my mind. Thanks!

    REPLY
    It happened to me!
    May 13, 2015 at 3:01 pm #
    Hi,
    Thank you for asking this question as it is not simply San Clemente where this is happening. There have been 40+ administrators over the last 3 years both at school sites and at the district level who have lost their jobs. There have been 3 in Personnel who had refused to make things up for Brentlinger and Leptner and were told to move on or retire early. The last one sent out a wonderful e-mail to administrators stating to be ethical and do what is right even if it meant losing your job. To never give in to the ones threatening you.

    I know this because the same thing happen to me. I was lucky enough to get a position in another district so I am not afraid to speak up. The others who were not as lucky were placed back into the classroom under the assumption that they chose to leave administration. This is NOT what happened.

    Anyone who stood up for students rights or did what is in the best interest of the school site and community became a target for Michelle LePatner, she has an agenda and if you are not with her, she works to get rid of you.

    Michelle LePatner took our jobs from us and Jodi Brentlinger along with Leona Olson carried out her dirty work for her. They sent reports to the board with nothing but false accusations and the board voted to let us go without any due process. There was also no warning or knowledge that this was going to happen to you. They asked you to come down and meet with them in March and they told you that you wouldn’t be back. The whole story that they work with you for a year or that the administrators knew about it is completely false.

    I do not blame the board as they only know what they are given, but I hope they now go back and put a system in place to provide for feedback from the party they are removing from their position.

    They also need to open an investigation into this. I have friends who lost their jobs and are too afraid to say anything after what happened to them. They were great, well respected administrators who were either made to retired early or were put back in the classroom.

    We were all threatened to go quietly and not talk about it. I am so glad that this is finally coming out and I hope something is done about it.

    I ask the board to open an investigation into the past 3 years of re-assignments.

    I ask a reporter to find out who has left the administrative ranks in the last 3 years and talk to them about what happened. There is an incredible TRUE story behind all of this.

    I also ask that an attorney get involved and let’s sue LePatner and Brentlinger personally for defamation/slander and the district for liable. They need to be held responsible for ruining the reputation and careers of some great administrators.

    This REALLY happened across ALL of CUSD and it is not alleged or simply false accusations, it is the TRUTH.

    REPLY
    CUSD parent
    May 13, 2015 at 8:35 pm #
    This comment is 100% true and correct. I personally know four administrators that were ” leveled out” or forced to retire last year. They were brought in and given their walking papers at the end of the year. I know that there are seven administrators this year alone including Mike Halt, that have been “reassigned” or “suddenly choosing to retire.” This is outrageous and I cannot believe that the board has sat by and watched this happen and voted to allow it to happen. I am going to hope that they were given little to no accurate information on these cases so they could not make the most informed decision. As much as I hate what happened to Mr. Halt, and I don’t agree with it at all, perhaps the positive is that his case will bring about a much needed change. Without them being so greedy and punitive with his case, perhaps many more of these administrators who have been literally screwed over will come forward and tell their story.
    There is no remediation for these dedicated professionals, there is no ” working with them.” They are literally given no warning and they are called in and given their walking papers and then have their keys taken away. It is a horrible process. These are professional people not criminals! Then Jodee Bretlinger and Le Patner make up all sorts of things in their report to the board, never giving the board the chance to talk to the administrator being let go. Why not? What are they trying to hide? How does the board know the truth? They don’t. They are relying on Le Patner, Vital and Bretlinger to give them correct information and they are all liars! I agree with it happened to me when they state that the board needs to investigate ALL of the administrators that were ” re assigned” in the last three years and see if they were rightfully let go. I can confidently tell you that they were not. If the board is not willing to get rid of these three women, I think we need to find a way to get rid of the board. We need a board that will support the students, parents, teachers and administrators, not protect those that are ruining our district from the inside out.

    REPLY
    It happened to me!
    May 13, 2015 at 3:26 pm #
    The Board should also look into the administrators that LePatner has recommended for positions in CUSD. If CUSD has such high standards, then why are administrators who were let go in their district being hired in CUSD? One in particular was let go with many others from Santa Ana following LePatner’s near escape in that district. He interviewed here and was ranked near the bottom of all who interviewed, but to the surprise of all who were on that panel, he got a job. Now less than 2 years from being let go in his district, he was recommended for a Principal position at a CUSD High School? I ask that someone look into this and the interview rating sheets to see why he was given special treatment. CRONYISM by LePatner so she would have someone who would help carry out her agenda. This is just one instance…

    REPLY

    • Mike is only one of many is this political nightmare. Proof and facts do not matter, it’s really whatever they want to happen will happen.

  • I applaud John Alpay for having the morale courage to speak out at tonight’s meeting and admit that the board did not handle things appropriately and that he piggy backed on Mr. Sigafoos’ request for an independent audit regarding the release of Mike Halt.

    • Pherby, can you expand a little more on what happened at the board meeting and what Alpay said? I have small children and couldn’t attend.

    • Pherby, before you give Alpay too many accolades be aware that if it was not for a parent in the audience telling Alpay something he overlooked we would have not had a crack at a special meeting. While he did propose a special meeting NONE of the board members would provide the necessary 2nd vote needed. Details are on http://www.BrngMikeBack.org

  • Key to this issue are the complaints stemming from the inclusion of a student in an AP art history class who was neither emotionally or intellectually ready for that level of work. Complaints levied due to a low grade and the usual childish whining about meanness and unfairness of the teacher and inappropriate subject matter. The teacher was teaching to the subject and not to the test…perhaps this was more shocking for the parent and child than a few nudes? Of course these people didn’t want Halt fired…he’s a great guy. Nor do they want the backlash of being involved…hence the letter in the SC times.
    My own child signed up for AP classes in junior year, and was cited for plagiarism, and received a low grade. She struggled to keep up with a college level class and gave in to poor judgement…her poor judgement not the teachers. I apologized to the teacher, maybe this family should too.

    • SC Mom, sorry but your statement is inaccurate. John Alpay already explained that the board rubber stamped Vital and Le Patner’s recommendation to terminate Mike on February 25th. The AP art issue that you are mentioned just occurred the week he was escorted off campus. If you want to catch up on the facts in a timeline sequence visit http://www.bringmikeback.org/the-scoop.html

  • The parents, teachers and community of the students who spoke at the board meeting should be really proud of their young people! They were articulate and genuine. They spoke from their hearts and their minds. It was very impressive. I hope the Trustees listened and consider these young people’s comments carefully and do not dismiss them because they consider them as being from “children”. These students are the people who are the most affected by all of these decisions. These students are intelligent and informed and what they say is so very relevant.

  • While I applaud John Alpay for his statement an for forcing the issue on the agenda for the May 27 Board of Trustees last night, I feel that there are now more facts coming to light that would lead us to believe that CUSD administrators (Vital, Le Patner or other) may have willfully misrepresented facts that lead to several individuals termination and who know what else. This matter should not wait until yet another closed door meeting on the 27th, but immediately referred to the Sheriff’s Department, or even federal.

  • There is no “two year probation” for administrators. That is for teachers only. Administrators have no rights to administrative positions. I wonder why Vital would characterize Halt’s termination this way.

  • We all need to email the board of trustees!! We need 4 votes at that meeting so that the investigation can happen!

    I am committing to writing them every single one!

    We need to put our words to action and not back down!!
    COMMIT TO WRITING! Just putting it here in the newspaper it goes no where!
    Now is the time to ACT!!

    • WE NEED 4: Let's Do This Residents of the CUSD!!!!!!!!! Reply

      @ Now is the TIME! We need four? The four board members with the most at stake here are the ones whose terms expire soonest (2016) Alpay, Hanacek, Pritchard, and Reardon. Let’s make this happen, guys. If you have any chips to cash/call in, now is the time to do so.

      If the Board is going to remove Vital and Lepatner, they are likely going to need to buyout their contracts, which could total nearly/more than (?) $750,000. We need to “make it OK” for them to do this. What will it cost us to *keep* them…not only in potential litigation but the larger, more important cost to our children’s educational experience. I imagine the CUSD fiscal year begins on July 1. Let’s make this happen now, get the loss off of the books in *this* fiscal year, and work on a strategy for rebuilding for the future of San Clemente Schools…We need to knock ’em out in round 1…They’re going to try and wear us down by taking this to 10.

  • Get BUSY:

    Trustee emails: John Alpay JMALPAY@capousd.org
    Hanacek, Amy AHANACEK@capousd.org
    Lynn Hatton AHANACEK@capousd.org
    Gila Jones GIJONES@capousd.org
    Martha McNicholas MMCNICHOLAS@capousd.org
    Gary Pritchard GPRITCHARD@capousd.org
    Jim Reardon JMREARDON@capousd.org

  • Let's Do This Residents of the CUSD!!!!!!!!! Reply

    We can’t stop at the investigation. While this is necessary, and a small win, the students need Principal Halt reinstated. We need MORE people to show and represent on the 5/27…The CUSD Board needs to know that the support for Principal Halt is growing. It will NOT extinguish until we get answers and the students’ principal back.
    Trustee emails: John Alpay JMALPAY@capousd.org
    Hanacek, Amy AHANACEK@capousd.org
    Lynn Hatton AHANACEK@capousd.org
    Gila Jones GIJONES@capousd.org
    Martha McNicholas MMCNICHOLAS@capousd.org
    Gary Pritchard GPRITCHARD@capousd.org
    Jim Reardon JMREARDON@capousd.org

  • The evaluation of Principal Michael Halt and all documentation of his professional goals for growth and assistance provided him by the superintendent under his “probationary” period should be uncovered. Under the Freedom of Information Act and with Mike’s permission this performance data must be revealed. As Mike’s supervisor at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, he never missed an opportunity to grow. His integrity and professional character is being impugned in silence and obfuscation by the school district. In the name of Transparency let’s see what communication there was betweenike and his supervisor these past two years. I suspect these documents will shed more light on the evaluators than Mike himself. In any case, it will reveal some much-needed truth!

  • City Council Meeting 5/19 Reply

    Is there any value to ask San Clemente residents who are upset with the latest CUSD debacle attend the City Council meeting this week – to express their disappointment with the CUSD and to encourage the initiation of an exploration to secede from the union? We’ve got two weeks to rally the CUSD to “do the right thing,” and I have no doubt the passion is fueled and that this will happen…Meanwhile, does it also make sense to explore “what-if” options now?

  • Maybe if you have left a story regarding your treatment, you can go to the http://www.bringmikeback.org
    website and leave your story and legitimate email to be contacted to help the cause.
    Since we all don’t have a clue what to expect, your insight might be extremely helpful!!

  • SCMomAndConcernedCitizen Reply

    I agree with SCDad. Please refer to ilikemike facebook page for the latest post from Mike Halt’s previous superior who is appalled at what is happening to his good name here. And we feel appalled as to what is happening to our children. I believe, in addition to Vital and LePatner, Amy Hanacek as well any other board member who has steadfastly been in their court (Lynn Hatton-Hodson?) should also be referred. They have refused to even look at information they were not provided regarding Principal Halt’s untimely dismissal, until their feet were held to the fire.

  • Update: the district scheduled a special meeting for this item on 5/21. After 4 hours in closed session, they came back without a decision, and scheduled another special meeting for June 4th to continue discussion. The item is still on the 5/27 regular meeting agenda, so please come & ask the board to vote YES on the investigation. #ilikemikehalt

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