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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

New SMHS Principal: I Know What I'm In For

Richard Rundhaug, the just-hired interim principal of San Marcos High, said in an interview that he is well informed about the quagmire of controversy at the school – and believes his professional experience equips him to help “heal” the discord.

“I realize that I’m walking into a situation that is...politically sensitive,” Rundhaug told Newsmakers.

“But setting up the healing process is one of the skills that I bring,” the 49-year old administrator added, in his first local media interview, a cellphone conversation from his home near Tuscon.

A review of the Google Machine shows that Rundhaug, fortunately, has experience in dealing with controversy.

During a 2008-14 stint as superintendent of the Willcox Unified School District (1,200 students), one school board member allegedly tried to force him to steer school construction money his way and another reportedly pressured him to attend the Mormon Church, according to news accounts, while some taxpayers criticized Rundhaug over his management of voter-approved bond funds.

In his current post, as interim superintendent of Liberty Elementary School District in Buckeye, Az. (3,408 students) he took over for a superintendent whose contract was bought out, after a nasty dispute over his handling of elite programs for gifted students.

And in a shocking episode two months ago, a sixth grade teacher at one of the district’s elementary schools was arrested on charges of having sex with a 13-year old student.

“It was a surprise -- it dominated my job for several weeks,” Rundhaug recalled. “The principal called me, we strategized, and within minutes of him talking to me, he had called law enforcement.”

Our story to date. Last week, the SB Unified School District board voted 4-to-1 to hire Rundhaug as interim principal, amid an ongoing storm of legal, political and community disputes at San Marcos.

It's the latest chapter in a tense saga involving the school and the district since January, with the discovery of an online chat room, where a group of male San Marcos students expressed threats and abusive statements about female classmates, followed by the removal in March of popular principal Ed Behrens, against the wishes of many parents, students and faculty.

The still developing events have three key threads:

Legal. Behrens, represented by high-profile attorney Barry Cappello’s firm, last week filed a Superior Court action against the district, seeking a judicial order reinstating him, combined with a complaint that challenges his dismissal as illegal, unconstitutional, retaliatory, "unreasonable and arbitrary" and seeks a jury trial to determine an unspecified financial award for "substantial and undeniable damage to his reputation and community standing."

Political. A group of angry parents, upset about the firing and what they fear it portends for Superintendent Cary Matsuoka’s plans for the school, are organizing efforts aimed at winning a majority of seats on the school board, targeting two positions that will be on the November elections, as well as a possible future recall of anti-Behrens school board members.

Campus community. Some parents also are unhappy about the unsteady process that resulted in Rundhaug’s hiring. After an initial search for a permanent principal failed to attract suitable candidates, amid widespread coverage of the Behrens affair, Matsuoka reconfigured the search and committee, to seek an interim principal. Rundhaug was the one and only candidate, a committee member said.

What Rundhaug brings. There are a host of issues underlying the contentiousness at San Marcos, but a central one is the conflict over specialized study "academies," both there and at Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara high schools.

Behrens was energetic and aggressive in organizing and fundraising for a host of such academies.

Many parents remain suspicious that Matsuoka engineered Behrens's ouster as part of a longer-term plan to break up or take over the academies and other intensive study programs.

In the interview, Rundhaug told Newsmakers he faced a similar situation when he took over as interim superintendent of the Liberty district this year; the previous superintendent left before his contract ended, after a series of battles over programs for elite students.

"My predecessor had been bought out,” he said. “The board and the superintendent didn’t get along, and there were factions in the community over a gifted program and an International Baccalaureate program.

"There were people who felt, either (the programs) were over-emphasized or under-emphasized,” he said.

Rundhaug said his approach in the new job was “to do more listening than talking,” in an effort to “build up trust” from all sides in the fight, which focused on apportioning funds among and between schools that did or did not have the special programs.

Newsmakers didn’t get too deep into the weeds on this, but the new principal said that over the first three months of the year, the board reached consensus on a series of fiscal and policy steps that helped “fix both these programs, take them to their best capacity, as much as the budget would allow.”

“It took a lot of transparency and a lot of visiting people one on one and being available to as many people as I could,” he said. “Building up a lot of trust was part of the healing process.”

Asked about controversy over the academies at San Marcos, as well as Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara high schools, he added: “I see some parallels in the situation I just handled, and with the skills I exercised in that situation.”

Crisis management. By mid-March, Rundhaug said, the controversy over the gifted student programs was moving towards resolution and, after months of long and contentious board meetings, things finally had settled down.

“The March board meeting was just an hour and fifteen minutes,” he recalled. “We had that sense – ‘this other chaos is behind us and we’re beginning to pull it out.’”

And then the parents of a 13-year student at La Brisas Academy, using a monitoring app on their son’s phone, discovered a series of explicit sexting messages and images between the boy and Brittany Zamora, his 27-year old sixth grade teacher, in the town of Goodyear in the Liberty elementary district.

The parents informed the boy’s principal, who told Rundhaug. Law enforcement immediately was called, he said. The teacher was arrested, but the story went viral as Rundhaug moved into crisis management mode.

"The safety of our students is our #1 priority.," he said in a statement reported in stories around the world. "Transparency is equally important. We are fully cooperating with the Goodyear Police Department and will comment further at the appropriate time."

As more details were learned, it was reported that the principal had received complaints from other students in the class about the relationship between the teacher and her student – six weeks before the discovery of the texts.

Rundhaug defends the principal’s action, saying that the student complaints were presented as Zamora exhibiting classroom “favoritism” toward her alleged victim.

“He heard students complaining of 'favoritism' – what does that mean in the sixth grade?” he said. “(The principal) confirmed that and gave the teacher some very specific directions about not letting the boy hang around her at recess, and he monitored that.”

“I think he did almost everything he should have done – he investigated, looked for specific evidence, and monitored the direction he gave.”

Before and during the episode, the Liberty board was conducting a search and interviews to fill the superintendent post permanently. Rundhaug applied for but did not get the position.

"I'll take the hits." A graduate of Hope International University in Fullerton, with a Phd from the online Capella University, Rundhaug has held a variety of public school administration posts in Arizona since 2001. He also has worked as an educational consultant and, in 2016, became a franchise owner of an Express Employment Professionals office in Tuscon.

His contract with Santa Barbara begins on July 1 and runs for one year. During that time, he said, his wife and kids will stay in Arizona, and he will rent a place here, commuting on some weekends.

Given the fall-out over Behrens's dismissal, Rundhaug said that having an interim principal may prove an easier transition for the school community than having a permanent administrator installed immediately.

“There’s some value in it, from the standpoint that people probably feel less threatened by someone coming in that situation,” he said

“I’m the one that you can dump on if you need to,” he added. “I’ll take the hits – give it to me straight, and there’s not going to be a long-term consequence for giving it to me straight."

“I want to help the healing process,” Rundhaug said. “I want to set up San Marcos so when a new principal arrives, it’s as stable and ready to take over as possible.”


Images: Richard Rundhaug (courtesy photo); Ed Behrens; Cary Matsuoka talks to San Marcos High School parents; logo of Las Brisas Academy in the Liberty Elementary School District; logo of San Marcos High School Royals.

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