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Steven Lawrence in 2010

The ouster of Mt. Diablo school district Superintendent Steven Lawrence will be offered up for public consumption as what is known as a contractual release "without cause."

Loose translation: We'll pay you to leave, so we don't have to pay lawyers to fight you in court.

But you don't need to drill very deep to find a long list of causes. Lawrence was distant and secretive. He made questionable decisions. He never embraced transparency or showed an aptitude for team building.

Trustee Cheryl Hansen, not one to mince words, assessed him this way one year ago: "What I have witnessed from this superintendent is a lack of leadership and a lack of planning, transparency and sensitivity to community, student and employee concerns."

None of his shortcomings ranked as fireable offenses, but the collective effect was to make you wonder whether he was the right guy.

He wanted to make administrative hires without school board approval. He endorsed hiring an elementary school principal who subsequently was learned to have violated federal privacy laws and had a DUI conviction. He met in private with Chevron officials while they were seeking a $68 million bid for a district solar project.

In short, he explored the far reaches of acceptable behavior.

Perhaps the single episode that most brought his qualifications into question was the way he reacted to -- and lobbied against -- Clayton Valley High School's petition for charter status.


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Teacher Pat Middendorf, who spearheaded the movement, said the reasons for the move were set in place before Lawrence was hired in February 2010 -- the district had been oblivious to concerns about student misbehavior and academic performance -- but she and her colleagues wanted to alert him of their intentions.

"He said, 'This will make me look bad if you go charter,'" she remembered. "Our reaction was: 'You're kidding! That's what you're worried about.'"

Lawrence subsequently threw every possible hurdle into Clayton Valley's path. He announced that its departure would cost the district $1.6 million. He sent messages to parents and teachers throughout the district explaining the hardships this would mean for other schools. Parents turned against parents, schools against schools. School board meetings turned into shouting sessions.

"I can't imagine that it could have been handled more poorly," Middendorf said. "It's still something that hangs between high schools, and even middle schools, because he told their principals to back him up."

The Mt. Diablo school board rejected Clayton Valley's petition before it won on appeal to the Contra Costa County Office of Education. Lawrence didn't take defeat well. Without approval of his own board -- or notifying the county -- he commissioned a financial analysis of what the charter conversion cost the district. It was the last secretive move of a secretive administration.

Hansen was matter-of-fact in explaining Lawrence's departure. She said that a year ago, when talk of extending his contract came up, she urged postponement until after the November board election.

"A lot of times new boards bring a new philosophy," she said. "We got two new board members with a different perspective. The direction we want is a sense of transparency and communication."

It brings to mind Lawrence's words when he was hired: "I know that when I sit in this chair, everything that's done is my fault."

As much as anything, it's what he didn't do that cost him his job.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.