Voting in closed session on Tuesday night, July 19, the Valley Home School Board by a 5-0 margin agreed to place Superintendent-Principal Thomas “Kevin” Hart on paid administrative leave after his arrest on suspicion of child molestation by the Oakdale Police Department.
Hart was not present at the meeting.
The move comes 13 days after Hart’s arrest on July 6 and had many parents who attended the meeting wondering why the decision to remove Hart from the workplace took so long.
“Why is he not on administrative leave?” asked parent Adi Wedegaertner before a packed meeting room of concerned parents and news media crews. “I cannot in good conscience allow my children to be around with that doubt over their head.”
“He wasn’t effective before,” added Kristin Eskew. “How effective will he be now?”
Other parents voiced concerns that if the criminal charges were still pending at the start of the school year on Aug. 10, that Hart not be allowed on school grounds.
Some, meanwhile, defended Hart.
“Allegations can happen to anyone,” parent Fred Mendez told the board. “We’re supposed to be presumed innocent before guilt. Give this man his fair due.”
Valley Home teacher Sandra Moore spoke up stating she was confident the allegations would be proven false and to avoid a media trial.
During the break for the closed session, Jamie Jorgenson said she was surprised at how much time had passed since Hart’s arrest and the time the board called the special meeting.
“Wasn’t anything brought to their attention at last week’s board meeting?” Jorgenson asked. “If I was a teacher here they would have immediately put me on leave.”
Valley Home resident Sandra Holt said she had seen Hart at the school daily as late as Thursday, July 14.
“At this point, many parents are willing to remove their children from the school,” added Wedegaertner during the break. “They (the school) would lose their ADA (average daily attendance funding) and I fear that would bankrupt the district. It’s a real tragic byproduct of all this.”
Parents applauded when Valley Home School Board President Ron Smith announced the board voted unanimously to place Hart on administrative leave.
Smith and other board members were tight lipped on commenting and referred questions to the school’s legal counsel, Chet Quaide.
The California Education Code requires that when a school district employee is criminally charged with a sex offense, that the employee be placed on a mandatory leave of absence.
Quaide said Hart was placed on administrative leave, which is paid, and not the “mandatory leave of absence” as defined in the Education Code. If the district attorney files charges against Hart, his status will be changed.
According to state law, a “mandatory leave of absence” is unpaid.
Quaide also said the district wasn’t officially informed about Hart’s arrest until the day of the school board meeting when they received a notification letter from the Department of Justice.
“It’s very hard for the board to function when no notification is immediately made,” said Quaide. “There was no legal obligation to act.”
Some parents disputed Quaide’s belief, stating that they learned about the incident and contacted board members after reading the original July 13 article about Hart’s arrest in The Leader.
“Thirteen days is too long to hold off,” said one parent who didn’t want to be identified. “He (Hart) should have stepped up and put himself on leave regardless if he did it or not.”
Hart has been superintendent of the 160-student district since 2008. His annual salary is $94,760.
On Monday, July 25, Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon said he was contacted by Smith and asked if he would assist their district in securing an interim superintendent until the issue with Hart is resolved. The county office is in the process of that at this time.
The district attorney has not filed any charges against Hart and is awaiting some follow-up investigation by the Oakdale Police Department. Hart is expected back in court on Aug. 5.