Monday, June 18 , 2018, 11:12 am | Fair 65º

 
 
 
 

Norm Clevenger Files Lawsuit Against Santa Ynez School District

Clevenger, now principal at San Marcos High, demands monetary damages and reinstatement to his Santa Ynez post, although he says he has no intention of returning.

Norm Clevenger, the popular principal hired to lead San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara just months after his controversial firing from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in February stirred parent outcry, has filed a lawsuit against the Santa Ynez School District.

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Norm Clevenger
In the writ of mandate, Clevenger is asking for monetary damages and reinstatement to his former post at Santa Ynez High, but he told Noozhawk on Wednesday that he doesn’t intend to leave San Marcos High.

“It was done prior to my interviewing for the position at San Marcos,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have no intention in leaving San Marcos or returning to Santa Ynez High.”

The saga over Clevenger’s dismissal began Feb. 8, when Santa Ynez’s outgoing superintendent, Fred Van Leuven, informed Clevenger that he had decided not to renew Clevenger’s contract. Clevenger has said that Van Leuven’s decision amounted to a flip-flop: Earlier in the year, he said, Van Leuven had told him he would allow the new superintendent to make that decision.

Upset that the retiring Van Leuven was making the decision, Clevenger called school board member Joe Dugan to discuss the matter. A few days later, Clevenger — who had led the high school for nine years — was placed on administrative leave and escorted out of the building.

On Feb. 19, in an auditorium overflowing with parents, the school board decided not to renew his contract. The vote triggered an organized campaign to recall the school board, but the campaign, which claims it garnered 13,000 signatures, dropped the effort after Clevenger was hired at San Marcos. The group, Reformation of Santa Ynez High, said Clevenger’s hiring at San Marcos proved the point that the board was wrong. 

The lawsuit was officially filed on June 17, about a week after Clevenger accepted the position at San Marcos. But Clevenger said the last time he had seen the writ of mandate was in May, which is before he interviewed for the San Marcos position. At the time, he had to approve the paperwork for his attorney, he said.

Clevenger’s attorney, Bob Bartosh, said the late date is because of a back-and-forth negotiating exchange between himself and the school district’s legal counsel.

Clevenger is taking a pay cut to work at San Marcos High, where his annual salary will be $126,550. At Santa Ynez High, he made $132,000.

In the lawsuit, Clevenger alleges that the decision to fire him took place during an illegal secret meeting held by the school board, Bartosh said.

Specifically, Bartosh said that Clevenger tried to exercise his legal right under the California open meetings law — known as the Brown Act — to request a full public hearing, where complaints and charges against him would be aired. The public hearing was held Feb. 19, but, Bartosh said, Van Leuven’s testimony was insufficiently brief, in that he said only that he had lost confidence in Clevenger’s ability to lead.

“That isn’t ‘complaints and charges,‘“Bartosh said. “We are fairly certain there were complaints and charges discussed in closed session.”

The Santa Ynez district’s new superintendent, Paul Turnbull, said that neither he nor the district’s legal counsel could discuss the litigation.

Turnbull was a rising star in the Santa Barbara School District until he accepted the top job in Santa Ynez on Feb. 8, the same day Van Leuven told Clevenger his contract would not be renewed.

Meanwhile, Santa Ynez High’s new principal is Suzanne Nicastro, formerly the principal of Vandenberg Middle School. Her April hiring ran counter to speculation in North County media that Turnbull had intended to fill the position with another administrator from the Santa Barbara district: Dos Pueblos High School Principal Mark Swanitz.

Swanitz’s father, Jerry, had served as a teacher, coach and administrator at Santa Ynez Valley Union High for 39 years. After Clevenger’s dismissal, Jerry Swanitz was appointed to serve as the school’s interim leader.

“That was a very unfortunate supposition,” Turnbull said Wednesday. “I think (Mark Swanitz) is an excellent principal and an even better person. … It basically was conspiracy theories, and it’s unfortunate.”

At the time of the speculation, Mark Swanitz was asked by the Santa Maria Times whether he had applied. He responded that it would be inappropriate for him to comment.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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