More Than A Half Year Of Uncertainty Over MUSD Superintendent Ends With Resignation

After months of confusion that was exacerbated by the confidentiality requirements that apply to public employees, the status of Morongo Unified School District Superintendent Thomas Baumgarten became clear this week when he resigned from his position November 10, effective immediately.
In the aftermath of the forced exit of former superintendent Cecelia English in June 2014, Baumgarten, then the assistant superintendent of student services, was appointed interim superintendent. Baumgarten’s steady-handed guidance of the district in the immediate aftermath of controversy relating to a move to provide English with a 5.77 percent raise over the $175,000 annual salary conferred upon her the previous year when she left as the director of academics at the Newark School District in Northern California to replace the previous superintendent, Jim Majchrzak was lauded, in particular because Baumgarten appeared to be diligent in looking after the district’s bottom line. Additionally, the greater degree of trust and comity Baumgarten had with the board was generally seen as substantive improvement in the district in terms of function and teacher morale.
The school board dropped the “acting” prefix from Baumgarten’s superintendent title in February 2015. Later that year, Baumgarten initiated an inquiry, which led to a full audit, of Hope Academy Charter School and its executive director, Jared Mecham. Hope Academy had been sponsored by the Morongo Valley Unified School District. That audit uncovered and documented multiple fiscal irregularities, questionable expenditures, nepotistic arrangements and inappropriate related-party transactions at the charter school. Baumgarten said his suspicions had been raised after he learned that Mecham had expanded Hope Academy’s operations into several adjacent and distant districts located in San Bernardino, Kern and Riverside counties without the district’s express permission or knowledge, despite a requirement that any proposed expansion for a new independent study resource center outside the district’s boundaries would be explicitly communicated to the Morongo Unified School District.
Baumgarten appeared to be riding high, but events at Yucca Valley High School last year and early this year undid much of the goodwill toward him. That contretemps grew out of a conflict between Jay Stepp, Yucca Valley High School’s cross country and track coach, and his assistant coach, Holly Brimhall. Stepp felt that Holly Brimhall was undercutting his authority as coach with several of his athletes. This was exacerbated by Brad Brimhall, who had been the Trojans’ baseball coach since October 2019, siding perhaps understandably, with Holly Brimhall and assailing Stepp in several emails, described variously as “unfortunate” or “ill-conceived” and “tartly-worded.” When Baumgarten declined Stepp’s request that Holly Brimhall be relieved of her coaching assignment, Stepp resigned.
Beginning in April, Baumgarten took an unexplained leave of absence. Because of the COVID-19 situation, whether Baumgarten was in place as superintendent or not was unclear as the 2019/20 school year ended at the end of May. The school board, in the meantime, temporarily elevated assistant superintendent of human resources Doug Weller to serve as acting superintendent. The district was less than clear throughout the summer as to whether Baumgarten was functioning in the role of superintendent.
When the 2020/21 school year began in August, it seemed Baugarten was once again back in the saddle at the district. A press release from the district after he tendered his resignation indicated, contrary to the information available publicly from April until recently, that Baumgarten was actively leading the district during the late summer and early fall. The press release maintained that during Baumgarten’s stint as superintendent, the district’s schools were advantaged by his command of the district curriculum, the instructors, his constant assessment, his compassion and commitment to students, noting “His persistence during the COVID-19 pandemic also ensured that all of the students in our district would have access to computers to ensure their education continued.”
Word came in October that Baumgarten had been placed on administrative leave. Thereafter, closed door discussions with regard to Baumgarten’s status ensued. Confidentiality laws prevented any disclosure of what the issues were between the district and Baumgarten. On November 10, the board accepted Baumgarten’s resignation, in which he informed the board that he was departing “for personal reasons.”
Board President Hilary Slotta thanked Baumgarten “for his more than 33 years of exemplary service to the students and staff of Morongo Unified School District.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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