The Hesperia Unified School District school board operates too often behind closed doors, according to one of its newest members.


Before Chris Bentley was elected to the school board in November 2008, he came to prominence taking on the HUSD administration and previous school board members. He accused them of operating too often behind closed doors and of being disconnected from the concerns of parents.


According to Bentley, not enough has changed in that regard.


"These are unprecedented economic times that nobody has any seemingly reasonable answers to," Bentley said at Monday's school board meeting. "The same number of students are going to keep showing up at our doors, expecting the same things from us," even as the state's economic crisis means major cuts in HUSD staffing and services. "It's very important for us, especially in these difficult times, to have an open and honest process."


California's budget deficit is estimated to reach $41.6 billion over the next 18 months. Seventy-three percent of the HUSD's operating budget is paid for by state revenue and budget cuts in the district are underway. Up to 70 elementary school teacher positions currently subsidized by the state's Class Size Reduction payments will be cut in the 2009-2010 school year, should the state reduce or cut CSR payments, with additional teacher cuts likely by March 15, the legal deadline to tell teachers their services will not be required in the coming school year.


"When I learned that the O'Reilly Public Relations firm had some input in the [January 5 board budget cut vote], I was concerned," Bentley said.


The Riverside-based public relations firm was hired in a consent agenda item shortly after the election, without a public presentation by PR firms vying for the district contract. On January 5, the board voted to cut $4.2 million from the 2009-2010 budget, following meetings that an O'Reilly representative had been kept informed of, according to Bentley.


"Like Mr. Bentley, I was not aware that our public relations firm had anything to do with this," fellow board member Lee Rogers said.


"They were not part of this meeting whatsoever, or any meeting involved in this," said Superintendent Mark McKinney. "They simply were sent [a PowerPoint presentation on the proposed cuts]. ... 'It's done, how do we present it?'"


Both Bentley and Rogers attacked the process the board used to select the O'Reilly firm. Bentley alleged the board's two-at-a-time meetings with O'Reilly representatives constituted an illegal "serial meeting," in violation of the state's open government law.


Rogers asked why the board did not follow its own policies for publicly requesting bids from would-be contractors, which the board agreed on following criticism over how they originally awarded the contract to build Oak Hills High School in 2007.


"We as a team have put together a process to be above-board," Rogers said. "And we have not done that."


"I understand," said board president Robert Kirk. "There are other instances we haven't followed this as well."


The board agreed with Rogers, voting unanimously to terminate the contract with the O'Reilly Public Relations firm and to review the board's policies for awarding contracts.


The next meeting of the Hesperia Unified School District school board will be held on Monday, February 9 at 6 p.m. at the HUSD Administration and Educational Support Center Annex, 15576 Main Street.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.