Tim WhytePauline HartePatti RasmussenRichard RiouxLeon Worden

Black N Whyte

Something's fishy in hiring of new Hart principal

Tim Whyte · September 7, 1997

In print, I'll call them my baloney detectors, but that's not what my old city editor used to call them. Whenever she detected something was amiss in politics, she'd say her (you-know-what) detectors were going off.

My baloney detectors, they've been working overtime on the Gary Fuller situation. Fuller was either a really bad hire as principal of at Hart High School or he's the victim of a lynch mob of parents who are not content with making his life miserable in Frazier Park -- they've got to try to sabotage his new gig, too.

I don't know Fuller, or the parents who seem to be after his professional hide. It could go either way, as far as I'm concerned. I'll just wait and see.

But something does smell funny about the situation on this end. Mike von Buelow, the director of personnel for the William S. Hart Union High School District, is awfully cryptic in some of his answers to our questions about the situation, and even though Superintendent Robert Lee says "it was shared with the board that there was controversy" in Fuller's old district, four out of five school board members say they didn't hear about it until after Fuller was hired.

Heck, a couple of board members heard about it for the first time when a Signal reporter told them about it.

Here's the background:

Fuller was hired to replace longtime Hart principal Laurence Strauss -- who's leaving behind a pair of size-14 shoes. Fuller previously had been serving as superintendent of the El Tejon Unified School District, up in the Frazier Park area.

During his watch, the district and Fuller became the targets of complaints that have resulted in inquiries from the Kern County grand jury, the state education credentialing board and a branch of the federal Department of Education. The accusations range from charges of hiring mismanagement to failing to adequately provide resources for disabled students and claims that Fuller turned a blind eye to a teacher's alleged abuse of a student.

The claims could be true, but it's easy to imagine a scenario in which they're bogus; there is some question about the credibility of at least some of the complainants, including an El Tejon school board member who has claimed, in writing, to be a "prophet of God." (It goes to show, anyone can file a complaint.) That doesn't mean the accusations are untrue, but the mere fact that they exist doesn't mean they're true, either. Government agencies routinely receive such complaints and find them to be false.

That may prove to be the case here. But for now, the issue raises some valid questions about the Hart hiring process.

As a matter of normal course, you'd expect the director of personnel to do the vast majority of the hiring. I generally wouldn't expect the superintendent to sign off on routine hires, nor would I expect the board of trustees to get involved in most hiring decisions.

However, the district only has four high school principals, so hiring one is not routine. At minimum, the superintendent ought to be in the loop and should sign off on the hiring of principals. Beyond that, in a situation like this, should the school board be notified? I think so.

Von Buelow acknowledges he knew of the claims pending against Fuller before making the hire. He will not say who, if anyone, he alerted, but we know four school board members who say they didn't find out until after Fuller was hired.

Superintendent Lee has indicated the information was "shared" with the board, but he hasn't specified when. Clearly, it was not before Fuller was hired, and the fact that a couple of board members first learned of it from a reporter casts doubt on whether the district ever "shared" the controversy with the board at all.

These were not normal circumstances. It's not every day that you hire a principal who, along with his district, is under investigation by county, state and federal authorities. I think the board deserved at least a heads-up on this one, a chance to either endorse the decision or recommend against it. Guilty or innocent, the district hired someone who came with a whole lot of baggage. It was one of those situations that, given the potential for a public relations backlash, warranted the involvement of more top-level district decision-makers than usual, if for no other reason than to protect Von Buelow and Lee.

Would Fuller have been hired if the board had been brought into the loop? Maybe, maybe not. But if he were hired, it would have helped the district be doubly sure it wasn't making a mistake.

It sort of makes you wonder who Fuller knew at the district office. Maybe no one. Maybe someone who was a key in the hiring. (For the record, Lee says he never met Fuller until the job interview.)

That's not to say there's necessarily anything wrong with hiring someone about whom you have professional knowledge. On one hand, it's a problem if you're perceived as giving someone a job simply because they're a friend or they belong to your church, when someone else is better qualified. But on the other hand, having prior knowledge of someone's abilities and weaknesses can help you be sure you're hiring the right person.

In fact, if the district were more open about it, maybe we'd find out someone's personal knowledge of Fuller and the situation led them to believe the claims were bogus. That might be fine, but Von Buelow has been employing the "it's a personnel matter so we won't talk about it" mantra that public officials love so much. Every time they invoke it, reporters and editors get more suspicious.

Is something amiss in the hiring of Gary Fuller as the new Hart principal? Did Von Buelow and-or Lee exercise due caution? Are those skeletons in Fuller's closet, or just a few wacko Frazier Park parents in skeleton costumes?

Honestly, I don't know. But my baloney detectors are going nuts.

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