In a secret letter to members of the Pasadena Board of Education, embattled Pasadena schools Superintendent Percy Clark asked to be placed on paid administrative leave from Nov. 15 through the end of his contract in July, and a bitterly divided board agreed during a heated closed session Tuesday night.

The seven board members also broke with tradition later that night and changed by default their top leadership position, with a clearly irritated board President Prentice Deadrick stepping aside from the largely ceremonial post and being replaced by former board Vice President Pete Soelter, a move that sparked outrage from Board member Esteban Lizardo.

Lizardo demanded that the board instead take a vote to replace Deadrick, calling Soelter “the least qualified member of this board to sit in that position.”

But other board members agreed with Deadrick, who said the board’s bylaws call for the vice president to assume the top position in the event of a vacancy.

The vice president’s position remains unfilled and will be discussed at the board’s next meeting on Sept. 26.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, both Deadrick and Soelter, according to two board members who asked not to be identified, threatened to quit the board altogether if the controversial Clark was removed from his position immediately, and not given until Nov. 15 to leave.

It was not immediately known how the vote in closed session broke down.

While not divulging how others acted, Board member Bill Bibbiani said he voted to have Clark leave sooner than November.

“I voted against the motion before us in closed session because I wanted to end his tenure sooner,” said Bibbiani. “I really feel that this administration and this board are dead in the water with respect to the changes that we are obligated to make. I don’t see the board members or the Percy administration in its waning days coming up with any ideas other than closing schools, which merely compounds our problems.”

Board members voted to replace Clark in May. By that time, it was learned that Clark had sought a new position as head of Cleveland schools, all the while Pasadena officials were trying to close a $6.5 million gap in its own budget. Soon after that, Clark was caught plagiarizing a portion of a column that appeared in this newspaper, which led to a vote of no-confidence against him by the United Teachers of Pasadena.

On top of the district’s budget woes, which have resulted in layoffs and school closures, Los Angeles County officials are now requiring the board to find the funds to maintain an emergency account that is required by state law.

City Council members, who for several months have expressed concern about the school district’s leadership issues and handling of finances, were troubled by Deadrick and Soelter’s behavior.

“To [threaten to] desert the people who elected you, I don’t think that’s ethical,” Councilman Sid Tyler, who is part of a committee currently auditing the district’s management structure, said Monday. “It sends the wrong signal to everybody: potential [superintendent] candidates, the electorate, the Pasadena community. It sort of says they are in total disarray. I’m sorry they’re even thinking about it.”

Councilman Paul Little, who has called for greater community involvement in the selection of a new superintendent, saw the threats to leave the board another way.

“Here we have a couple of people who are supposed to be providing leadership apparently having a temper tantrum because they’re not having their way over a policy issue,” said Little. “If that’s the case, maybe [Deadrick and Soelter] stepping aside is the best outcome for the community. Their behavior in this instance seems to undermine any credibility they have in a leadership role.”

Neither Deadrick nor Soelter have responded to several requests for comments.