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Steven Lawrence in 2010

CONCORD -- The Mt. Diablo school board is launching a search for new leadership after making good on its promise to take the district in a new direction by firing the superintendent and general counsel.

After several closed-door meetings in the past month the trustees emerged Thursday night to announce they had voted to sever the contracts with Superintendent Steven Lawrence and General Counsel Greg Rolen without cause, effective next week.

The early terminations come nearly a year after contract extensions were approved by the previous board. Since then, dissatisfaction in the district's leadership mounted, and new trustees Barbara Oaks and Brian Lawrence were swept into office in the fall on a campaign for change.

"People said a lot of things like, 'We just go to work and put our heads down and there's not a lot of communication and there's not a lot of trust and there's not a lot of respect,'" Oaks said, explaining why she voted to end their contracts. "We need a leader who can go out and build the relationships and the trust so that our students will benefit."

Brian Lawrence echoed Oaks' concerns.

"I think that there is low morale in a lot of areas of the district," he said, "and there are large segments of the community that feel very disconnected from the district leadership."

The Mt. Diablo district in Contra Costa County is one of the largest school districts in the state. It serves about 33,000 students in 50 schools in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Clayton, Bay Point and portions of Martinez, Pittsburg and Walnut Creek.

Last month, an investigation by this newspaper revealed that Rolen previously approved recommendations for about $100,000 in contracts for translation services provided by his then-girlfriend, without disclosing their relationship. He had also established a reputation as an attorney who often delayed or blocked requests for public information.

Both men have more than a year remaining on their contracts. The final settlement agreements are still being worked out, but Brian Lawrence said he expected the superintendent and general counsel would each be paid for about half of the time remaining on their contracts, or a total of seven months, including salary and benefits.

The superintendent earned $295,907 in salary and benefits in 2011, which would mean his buyout could total about $172,600. Rolen made $253,036 in salary and benefits in 2011, so his buyout could cost the district about $147,600.

Steven Lawrence and Rolen said in separate emails on Friday that the agreements weren't done deals.

"At this time no separation agreement has been finalized," Lawrence wrote. "Therefore, any comments would be premature."

Rolen wrote that he would like to comment later about the circumstances and his tenure in the district.

"There have been some ongoing discussions about a mutual separation," he said. "However, there is no agreement as yet."

Former trustee Sherry Whitmarsh said she and other parents are disappointed with the decision because they believe the superintendent and general counsel were serving the district well.

"I felt Dr. Lawrence was doing more for the students and keeping the district fiscally sound," she said. "Mr. Rolen was able to greatly reduce our legal expenses over the years by coming to some equitable agreements with some other law firms and hiring in-house counsel."

Parent Mary Gray, the mother of three district students who attend schools in Pleasant Hill, was furious with the district's decision to fire the superintendent

"He has done nothing wrong. Now, they're putting the district back in chaos and my kids are going to be affected and I'm pissed," she said. "Maybe it's time for a recall."

The board voted 3-2 to end Lawrence's employment by Wednesday, with trustees Linda Mayo and Lynne Dennler dissenting. The vote was 4-1, Dennler dissenting, to release Rolen by the same date. Mayo and Dennler did not return calls seeking comments about their votes.

Board President Cheryl Hansen said Friday that the board still plans to tweak language in the agreements during a closed session Sunday. The trustees plan to consider interim superintendent candidates during the meeting and expect to hire a superintendent search firm. The board expects to hold another meeting later next week to approve the final settlement agreements, Hansen said.

IF YOU GO
The Mt. Diablo school board will hold a special meeting at 8 p.m. Sunday in the district office at 1936 Carlotta Drive in Concord to begin the search for a new superintendent. Details are available by calling 925-682-8000, ext. 4000, or by going to http://esbpublic.mdusd.k12.ca.us. Click on "April 28."
For more, read the On Assignment blog at IBAbuzz.com/onassignment.