Capistrano Unified Board Faces Backlash for Termination of Superintendent

Capistrano Unified Board Faces Backlash for Termination of Superintendent
Capistrano Unified School District in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., on Sept. 20, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Micaela Ricaforte

Capistrano Unified School District parents are frustrated over what they say is a lack of transparency surrounding the Board of Education’s decision to fire its superintendent “without cause” in a special meeting just days before Christmas.

After spending most of the Dec. 21 meeting in closed session, trustees voted 4–3 to terminate Kirsten Vital Brulte’s contract effective Dec. 31 after she served for eight years as superintendent. Her contract was originally set to end in 2026.

Trustees Michael Parham and Gary Pritchard—who were elected to the board in November—voted to terminate the superintendent along with Krista Castellanos and Amy Hanacek, while trustees Gila Jones, Lisa Davis and Judy Bullockus dissented.

Deputy Superintendent Clark Hampton is now serving as interim superintendent while the board searches for a replacement.

The decision was made “without cause,” according to Castellanos in a Dec. 22 statement.

Since then, the board has faced backlash from some parents who argue that such a decision shouldn’t be made on such short notice and without community input.

“The way the board went about it—the weekend before winter break, with discussion during a closed session, no transparency toward the parents—feels very underhanded,” Capistrano Unified parent Jessica Forest told the Epoch Times. “I lost a lot of trust in district leaders because of this.”

Others say they thought it strange that the district ended Vital Brulte’s contract so abruptly.

Jim Glantz, former teacher who recently ran for a seat on the district’s school board said typically districts overlap the position of superintendent to provide continuity.

“Normally you would transition someone out and have them train the new person,” Glantz told the Epoch Times.

Melissa Crew, co-founder of a Capistrano Unified parent group Moms on the Ground, said the termination will only hurt taxpayers.

Though details on the severance package were not immediately available, Vital Brulte earned $366,398 last year with an additional $71,926 in benefits, according to records from Transparent California, a public employee pay database.

“Firing Vital Brulte burdens taxpayers with an unplanned, additional expenditure,” of her severance package, Crew said, “not to mention other consequential expenses for … the salary of the intermediate superintendent and the hiring of a new superintendent.”

She added that removal was unnecessary and “irresponsible to constituents” because it could lead to instability as the district is still trying to recover from pandemic lockdowns.

“Expenditures such as this should have been considered at a regularly scheduled time with participation from the community,” Crew said. “This action demonstrates blatant disregard for constituents’ best interest.”

Meanwhile, some noted that three of the four trustees who voted to fire Vital Brulte were backed by the district’s teachers’ union during their campaigns; Castellanos was appointed by the board in 2019.

Campaign records show both Pritchard and Parham received roughly $60,000 throughout their 2022 campaigns from Help Organize for Public Education, a committee formed by the district’s teachers union, Capistrano Unified Educators Association.

Heather Puhek, Moms on The Ground co-founder, said she hoped the board’s decision was not influenced by union interests.

“Parents want a superintendent that will focus on the safety and education of our children, not union agendas,” Puhek told The Epoch Times.

The newly elected Parham, who advocated for new leadership during his campaign, told The Epoch Times calling the special meeting for the termination was his idea.

Parham said his motives weren’t based on political or personnel issues. Rather, he said he believes the district needs a “different style of leadership” to resolve ongoing issues such as enrollment, faculty needs, and facility repairs.

He said he pushed for the board to terminate Vital Brulte’s contract as soon as possible so that the school district would have the opportunity to “get the best candidates” to replace her sooner.

“Change is always hard,” Parham said. “No one wants to make big shifts. But often when new leadership comes in, they make changes to staff. When you know [what you need] to get you to a good place, you can’t do it halfway.”

Trustee Bullockus told The Epoch Times she hasn’t received any communication or “roadmap” for a “new direction” from Parham or any other board members.

Additionally, Bullockus said, her constituents have told her that they were happy with the district’s direction under Vital Brulte.

“I have received not one call, text or email [from community members] telling me that they’re happy the superintendent has been released,” she said.

Several parents also told The Epoch Times they were generally satisfied with Vital Brulte’s leadership, describing her as a moderate and fair superintendent.

Some said they appreciated her push to reopen schools for in-person learning in the fall of 2020.

Melyssa Chen, a parent who is also on the district’s Parental Advisory Committee, said it was likely the reason the district suffered less learning loss.

Chen pointed to data from a district report presented to the advisory committee in November, that showed the percentage of district students who met English-Language Arts standards only fell by 0.74 percent from the pre-pandemic 2018–19 school year compared to the 2021–22 school year. Students’ math proficiency fell by 3.56 percent, during the same time period.

“Vital Brulte’s efforts to open schools during the pandemic shows how greatly it benefited the students of Capistrano Unified,” Chen told the Epoch Times.

Vital Brulte could not be reached for comment.

Micaela Ricaforte covers education in Southern California for The Epoch Times. In addition to writing, she is passionate about music, books, and coffee.
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