Decision Imminent in Principal's Dismissal Case

By Anne Lowe

OPEN MEETINGS – A decision is expected soon in a case filed by a high school principal who was dismissed by the Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District without any explanation in an open session.

Norm Clevenger filed suit stating the school board failed to publicly address his dismissal after he requested they do so in February 2008.

According to the Ralph M. Brown Act, complaints or charges against an employee must be heard in an open session if the employee requests them to be; Clevenger contends in his lawsuit that the district violated the open meetings law when they failed to disclose the complaints against him to the public.

A Santa Barbara Superior Court judge dismissed his case in November 2009 and Clevenger appealed. Arguments were heard on September 8 and a decision is expected within 30 days, the Santa Ynez Valley News reports.

The Court of Appeal judges will base their decision primarily on written documents the attorneys submitted, said Bob Bartosh, Clevenger’s lawyer. The Sept. 8 hearing lasted only about 10 minutes, he added. The judges had the opportunity to ask questions of both Bartosh and the school district’s counsel, but Bartosh said they questioned only him.??

The judges are expected to issue a decision within 30 days, and Bartosh said last week he has “no idea” what their conclusion will be.??

Attorneys for the school district could not be reached.??

In addition to charging the school district with violating the Brown Act, Clevenger sued for breach of contract, failure to deal in good faith, and retaliation in the events that resulted in his suspension and then the nonrenewal of his contract for the following year.

??Clevenger is seeking back pay, monetary damages and reinstatement to his position at SYVUHS.??

When Clevenger was dismissed in February 2008, then-district superintendent Fred van Leuven reportedly told Clevenger that he was being suspended immediately, with pay, and had him escorted off campus. Five days later, the school board voted not to renew his contract for the next school year.??

Community members rallied in support of Clevenger, who had been principal of the high school for nine years. The lack of a public reason for the popular principal’s departure was a point of contention, and students’ parents and others waged a campaign to collect petition signatures to recall all five school board members.??

The group dropped its campaign after one of two board members whose terms were ending did not file to run again in November 2008.??

The only explanation for the dismissal apparently came in an exchange of several letters between Clevenger and van Leuven after he was let go. In the letters Clevenger pressed for an explanation, and van Leuven said a conversation between the principal and the school board president had caused van Leuven “to lose confidence in your (Clevenger’s) ability to represent the district and me in the community.”

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