Escondido Union High School District headquarters
Escondido Union High School District Headquarters. Photo by Chris Stone

The Escondido Union High School District board appears determined to rush through the appointment of a new superintendent within weeks, despite the sudden resignation of a long standing trustee in the midst of this critical undertaking. And they are all but preventing meaningful public input on the process. As a concerned parent, I want to know why.

On May 10, Superintendent Anne Staffieri announced her departure. Six days later, Board President Jon Petersen led the regularly scheduled board meeting as if nothing had happened. There was no discussion whatsoever on the search for a new superintendent. 

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Instead, a special board meeting was announced for May 18. The agenda posted the day before the meeting included the approval of a $19,500 contract with search firm Leadership Associates and a discussion on the process to select the new superintendent.

Unlike regular meetings, public comments are strictly limited to agenda items during special board meetings. However, two important pieces of information were not included on the agenda, leaving the public both unable to prepare comments or to properly address them at the meeting.

First was the stunning and inexplicable announcement that Petersen had resigned earlier that day, leaving the board set to select the new superintendent with only two long-term trustees and two freshman trustees, one of whom was just appointed by the board earlier this year. Petersen, a 20-year veteran of school board protocol, surely knew that the timing of his resignation would prevent any discussion of its impact on the superintendent search at the meeting. 

Second, the astonishingly short timeline for the superintendent search process was not available for review prior to the meeting. A link on the district’s Superintendent Search page shows that just 10 business days were allotted to gather input from stakeholders and present the board with candidates.

This timeline was established without allowing for public comment on how the board vacancy impacted the superintendent search. Contrast this two-week selection process with the typical 3- to 6-month search for a superintendent, and you’ll wonder what is really going on here.

Six days later, the board held another special meeting with only one item of business on the agenda — to decide whether to fill the vacancy on the board with an appointment or call for an election. Even though conflicting start times initially posted on the board’s website generated confusion for those who wished to attend, four members of the community addressed the board.

Despite the limitations on what they were allowed to say, all four speakers indicated that whether by appointment or election, Area 5 deserved to have representation on the board before a new superintendent is selected. While they were able to convey this sentiment to some degree, two speakers were repeatedly cut off by the board president for speaking outside the scope of the agenda when they attempted to speak about the appointment process and timeline within the context of the superintendent search. 

The board voted to appoint a new trustee in July rather than waiting for a special election. It is worth noting that applicants for the Area 5 trustee seat, who require no special education or training, have more than twice as long as potential superintendent candidates to apply. Perhaps more importantly, after this appointment, 40% of the school board will be staffed with appointees, not members elected by their respective districts. 

Despite planning an appointment for Area 5 in just six weeks, the board remains intent on rushing the superintendent selection before the vacancy is filled. This timeline has provided only a single, one-hour community input session with the search firm, which was held at 5 p.m. on May 25. Not only is that a difficult time for working parents to attend on any weeknight, it was also a night when multiple elementary schools in Escondido were holding end-of-the-year events, forcing parents to decide between supporting their children or attending the sole community input session.

The scheduling of these special meetings, with limited advance notice, with limited scope of discussion and at inopportune times for working parents, has been completely at the discretion of the board. The board’s actions have prevented the public from addressing the impact of Petersen’s sudden resignation from the board on the superintendent search process.

Whether by accident or design, the board is clearly limiting community input on this critical personnel decision. Furthermore, the so-called “targeted” search approach, excluding customary platforms like EdJoin or ACSA, relying instead solely on Leadership Associates’ private network of candidates, narrows the pool. Even more baffling, the position isn’t even listed on the Leadership Associates website with their other Active Searches.

Members of the community are frustrated by these limitations and some do not believe that the board is engaging in this process in good faith. This was evident during the community input session with Leadership Associates. Although the open forum was designed to solicit input on a limited scope of questions, several participants used the chance to speak without fear of being gaveled down.

Attendees had questions on the length of the search process and the irregularity of appointing a superintendent with a new vacancy on the board. Several voiced concerns that the board already had a candidate in mind and implied that the vacancy on the board and the rushed selection process were not unrelated events. 

The board will likely respond that this search was done transparently and collaboratively because they have requested input via a survey and a community input session. But the only input allowed from the community is about the qualities desired in a new superintendent, not about the process to find the right candidate. In the end, they can cherry pick qualities of their candidate to claim their selection was based on community input, but they won’t be able to credibly show that they have picked the best possible candidate. 

To be clear, the board is legally within their rights to appoint a superintendent without conducting a search at all. However, the trustees have an obligation to their constituents to search for and select the best available candidate for this position.

Paying a search firm $20,000 to perform a 10-day, targeted and “closed” search while limiting comprehensive input from the community, does not serve that obligation or lend legitimacy to a process that should rightfully take months to do properly. Our students, parents, and district employees deserve much better from those we entrust with the future of our school district.

Elizabeth Shulok is a small business owner in Escondido. She has one current and two future Escondido Union High School district students.