Public advocacy group San Diegans for Open Government has filed a lawsuit against the Poway Unified School District over the hiring of the district's new superintendent Marian Kim-Phelps in March of this year.
According to the complaint, filed in state court, the March 7, 2017 board of trustees meeting wherein trustees officially hired Kim-Phelps was nothing but a show. In fact, Poway Unified and its trustees had already decided to hire Kim-Phelps behind closed doors and had already agreed to a compensation package nearly one month before the board voted publicly, thus violating the state's open meeting laws.
On February 14, three weeks before the board took any formal vote on appointment of the next superintendent, trustees and other district officials had already taken to social media to share the good news. On that day, district communications employees posted a message on social media platform, Twitter, announcing the appointment: "The [Poway Unified School District] Board has chosen a new superintendent: @mkimphelps who comes to us from the [sic] Westminster. Congrats and welcome. More info to come."
District staff posted a similar message on the district's Facebook page as well. Poway school board trustee TJ Zane also announced the news via Twitter as well.
Staff continued to post messages and issue news releases leading up to the March 7 board meeting when trustees were asked to give their final approval. One of the press releases in question, claims the lawsuit, was penned by Kim-Phelps.
The public advocacy group is asking Kim-Phelps return any monies she received prior to the March 7 board meeting. In addition the complaint seeks to rescind the superintendent's contract and force the district to start fresh, this time in line with the Brown Act.
The complaint arrives as Poway Unified looks to distance itself from controversies surrounding the district in recent years, including allegations that the district made shoddy bond deals and more recent allegations the former superintendent John Collins collected $300,000 in unauthorized vacation pay over the course of a three-year period.
A district spokesperson says the lawsuit is without merit.
"We respectfully disagree with the lawsuit's contention that there has been a violation of the Brown Act," Poway Unified spokesperson Christine Paik writes in an April 27 email. "The Board of Education substantially complied with the requirements of the Brown Act. The Board did not engage in an illegal closed-session meeting at any time prior to the February 14, 2017 open session or the March 7, 2017 open session. We do not see any reason a court would disagree."
As for the contention that Kim-Phelps also penned press releases announcing her appointment, Paik denies that ever happened.
"No press releases were written by Dr. Kim-Phelps. The press releases were written by myself, the Director of Communications. The first was released on February 15th, after the February 14th board meeting where Dr. Kim-Phelps was named as the finalist. The press release states: 'Dr. Marian Kim-Phelps will officially become the new Superintendent for the Poway Unified School District on March 7th, when her contract is approved by the Board of Trustees.' The second press release was released on March 7th, after her contract was approved."
The attorney for San Diegans for Open Government, Cory Briggs, says he plans to show that the hiring did in fact take place behind closed doors.
What [we] have learned so far shows a clear-cut violation of the Brown Act, [Poway Unified's] wish-it-weren't-so attitude notwithstanding," writes Briggs in an April 28 email. "Three board members discussed compensation with the new superintendent through an intermediary in closed session, and the conversations went far enough in their minds that they — people on both sides of the transaction — took steps to publicize the outcome of their mutual agreement on employment. When's the last time anyone saw such a PR blitz to promote the hiring of a new top executive who hadn’t really been hired? Internally, even [district] leadership isn't buying the story that it's trying to sell to the public."
The case will now make its way through state court.