Ojai Unified School District ousts superintendent Tiffany Morse

Ojai Unified Superintendent Tiffany Morse will part ways with the school district.
Ojai Unified Superintendent Tiffany Morse will part ways with the school district.

Tiffany Morse, superintendent of Ojai Unified School District, is out as head of the financially embattled district after nearly four years as its leader.

District trustees voted unanimously Monday night to approve a "separation agreement" with Morse that includes a severance and vacation payout, board President Rebecca Chandler announced after a closed session meeting.

The superintendent was terminated without cause. The board did not immediately provide details of the agreement, saying only the district would make it available via public records request.

Morse's ouster comes after months of mounting pressure from community members during board meetings and votes of no confidence in the superintendent from the district's teacher and employee unions.

"We agreed that we're better off moving forward with different leadership," Trustee Phil Moncharsh said.

Chandler said it was a mutual decision, but that the board directed legal counsel to open negotiations with Morse during closed session last week.

"We just felt the board was going in a different direction," she said.

Morse also called her departure a mutual decision.

"It's a process we've been working on collaboratively," she said.

Chandler said the district would be looking for an interim and permanent superintendent but that current Assistant Superintendent Sherril Knox will be serving as acting superintendent.

Morse arrived in the district in 2019 from the Ventura County Office of Education, where she served as executive director of career and technical education. As a superintendent, she won praise from board members and other education leaders for her "innovative" approach, taking home a regional superintendent of the year award in 2021.

But in recent months, state and county budget reviews exposed six-figure errors and heavy overspending on the district's financial books, with one state fiscal crisis team finding Ojai Unified at "high risk" of fiscal insolvency.

Trustees opted to review Morse's performance in a closed session meeting last week before voting Monday night to approve her termination. Morse did not attend Monday night's meeting.

"I feel that we can begin the real work of healing this district," Richard Byrd, president of the Ojai Federation of Teachers, said. "There's still a lot of work to be done, but I feel confident."

Work ahead

With Morse still in her position but under the eye of a county-appointed fiscal adviser, the district has worked to get its books in order and planned major cuts. In the last month, trustees moved to shutter two schools and lay off dozens of employees, cuts the district’s analysis says will save upward of $3.3 million a year.

"I'm proud of the work the team did to correct the fiscal issues from the prior year," Morse said Tuesday. "Everybody worked really hard to get to a place of fiscal solvency, which is where we knew we would end up. We just needed the time."

Those cuts won't officially take effect until, at earliest, the end of the school year and trustees could still choose to rescind some cuts if the district's financial position improves. On Monday, trustees unanimously voted to give the district's latest budget report a negative certification in spite of budget numbers that, including the proposed cuts, showed the district trending toward surpluses in each of the next two years.

Chandler said Monday that the documents showed a positive certification "for all intents and purposes," but that trustees had chosen a negative certification in order to continue receiving extra administrative help from the county education office.

Open meeting law violations

In the process of discussing cuts, trustees drew reprimands from the Ventura County District Attorney's office.

Hours before Monday's meeting, District Attorney Erik Nasarenko announced that his office had issued the district a cease and desist demand, alleging officials had violated the Brown Act, California's open meeting law.

“California law requires the vast majority of school district decision-making to be conducted in open and public meetings,” Nasarenko said in a news release. “Ojai Unified’s recent actions were a significant departure from that requirement and necessitate immediate corrective action.”

The district attorney's demand letter said that the district broke Brown Act regulations by discussing layoffs and district finances in a Feb. 21 closed session and by holding a March 1 Budget Committee meeting without public notice.

The letter gives the board 30 days to make an "unconditional commitment to cease, desist from and not repeat" the violations or risk a formal court action by challenging or ignoring the letter.

Chandler declined to comment on the alleged Brown Act violations, saying only the district had legal counsel working on a response.

Anthony Wold, an attorney with the DA's Public Integrity Unit and the letter's author, said he also reviewed a third complaint of a "singular instance" in which the district didn't publish a board meeting document in a timely manner.

Wold said he found evidence to back the complaint, but chose to "informally request the district improve" in the area instead of including it in his letter.

The district received both the letter and informal request on Monday morning, Wold said, but as of Tuesday morning had only acknowledged receiving his message.

Isaiah Murtaugh covers education for the Ventura County Star in partnership with Report for America. Reach him at isaiah.murtaugh@vcstar.com or 805-437-0236 and follow him on Twitter @isaiahmurtaugh and @vcsschools. You can support this work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Ojai school district ousts superintendent Tiffany Morse