Trustee says lack of communication on Michael Halt’s removal “a textbook example of gross negligence”
By John M. Alpay, Trustee, Capistrano Unified School District
The manner in which Capistrano Unified School District Superintendent Kirsten Vital removed San Clemente High School Principal Michael Halt can only be described as a textbook example of gross negligence. 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. As stated in the press release issued this past Wednesday, “Change is a natural part of moving a system to the next level and essential when ensuring the futures of our students.” I agree.
It was with great fanfare last year that we announced the hiring of Kirsten Vital as our next superintendent. Without question the post of superintendent for the Capistrano Unified School District is a challenging and difficult job that requires a special breed of person. The recruitment process took many months and required the services of two separate recruiting firms. We wanted somebody bold. We wanted somebody who was not afraid to make the hard call. We wanted somebody who would take us from a really good school district to something we could hold out as a national model of public education.
We found all of that in Kirsten Vital. And I still firmly believe that she possesses those characteristics and has the talent, intelligence and ability to make us into what we want to be. She even showed wisdom by choosing to buy a house and settling down in San Clemente. The only thing that we did not realize is that she also appears to be completely and utterly tone deaf.
Parents, teachers and students have all come to love and respect Michael Halt. After the board appointed him as principal for San Clemente High School, I personally challenged Michael to spend the time and become integrated into the community and not just learn, but truly understand how San Clemente is a special community and how central the high school is to its identity. I think we can all agree that as a Marine with command presence, he took on the task and achieved his objective in an efficient and expeditious manner.
With that in mind, did Michael Halt deserve to be terminated during the middle of AP/IB exams, a few short weeks before graduation and the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the high school? As indicated in the Wednesday press release, the Board of Trustees voted a number of months ago to end Michael Halt’s employment at the end of the school year. Because this is a personnel matter, I cannot provide further details. However, I can state without equivocation that at no time did the board affirmatively vote to put him out in the street in such an unceremonious and uncivil fashion.
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. Given the tone of Wednesday’s press release, one can only wonder if it is a message to others in the district not to stand up and challenge the superintendent. I say this because for those who remain, they must continue the task of educating our students, but I sense that they may now do so in fear. Multiple teachers and staff members have told me in the last week that they are no longer permitted to talk to trustees. One employee even feared that he would “end up like Mike” if I was seen talking to him.
The need for corrective action and change is clear. First, we need to establish an effective and open means of communication. This kind of structure clearly does not exist within our district. We need to hire professionals on a full time basis or at this point somebody competent who can work with existing assets. Six days of silence is unacceptable.
Second, our superintendent should engage with our community, teachers and staff. It is not enough to simply say “I live here!” Instead follow a good example and be like Mike and sincerely engage. For example, the upcoming San Clemente Education Foundation’s 12th Annual Event would be an ideal event for the entire family.
And finally and most immediately, allow Michael Halt the honor and dignity to attend San Clemente High School’s end of year ceremonies, anniversary celebrations and to graduate with his seniors. At this point he may politely decline to participate, but at least the choice will be his.
It is my hope that Superintendent Vital will listen to this now public plea. If these actions are undertaken then I believe we will begin the healing process to repair the damage done in this past week while at the same time showing a United States Marine Colonel the proper respect that he has earned and fully deserves.
Anything short of this recommended course of action would in my opinion constitute a continued lack of communication and engagement to the detriment of our students. And in that kind of scenario, while exceptionally costly and disruptive, it may be in the district’s best interests to part ways with more than one employee.