Letter: Taxpayers deserve school board that follows the law

Editor,

I had planned to give input to the Coupeville School Board at its May 24 meeting regarding its handling of the investigation of Superintendent Steve King, but was unable to participate. Despite asking for an invitation to the virtual meeting, I was given the wrong login by the superintendent’s assistant and, when righted through email, was only given guest status and not allowed to speak.

The public speaking window was closed in the 5 minutes it took to inquire about a correct login for speaking and I was not allowed to comment. This felt in bad faith.

I’m now glad I didn’t get the chance to speak and was able to listen to the entirety of the meeting as their comments made clear that the majority of board is willfully going to continue to be unprofessional and act outside the law.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, each director gave a statement about the investigation; the last item on the agenda. Director Sherry Phay was unable to receive clarification regarding the purpose of this part of the agenda — despite asking President Kathleen Anderson for information. Phay was answered instead by Superintendent King, the subject of the investigation. It appeared that the other board members had pre-prepared and apparently coordinated statements.

Anderson confirmed that she and HR director/business manager Denise Peet on their own initiated the investigation of King after a February executive session regarding his performance. During that meeting, Phay brought up concerns from multiple teachers regarding the bias and fear of retaliation they reported experiencing from King. There was no board vote regarding an investigation, yet an investigation was initiated.

Surprisingly, no other directors commented on the inappropriateness of this action at Monday’s meeting or the singular use of district funds to pay for it. Rather, the board seemed keen to close ranks upon their fellow Director Sherry Phay, punishing the messenger and continuing to behave unprofessionally. Director Glenda Merwine, in her comments, disclosed information from the February executive session that violated the legal purpose of executive session.

Even I as a member of the public know better.

Phay then shared that she was not sure an investigation was warranted, but that once she found out Anderson had initiated one, she phoned Anderson and Peet to see what was happening. Phay inquired how to proceed given the teachers were fearful of retaliation. Phay was instructed by Anderson and Peet to call the investigating attorney for advice.

Phay reported the attorney advised her to share his contact information with teachers. Phay reported she then phoned both Peet and Anderson with the results of the conversation and was given the go-ahead to share the information. Phay’s email to union representatives and building principals included the attorney’s contact information as well as a description of why King was being investigated.

I watched board members Monday willfully ignore that Phay was proceeding at the direction of the board president and Peet. Instead, they focused on the distribution of the email to union leaders and principals. I am not sure how else teachers would be notified of an investigation or what it was about other than a communication to district leaders. I would suggest that, if Anderson and Peet were so concerned about how the letter should be worded and shared, one of them should have written it or, better yet, returned to executive session with the board to discuss next steps.

But they did not.

Making matters worse, Anderson then admitted to constructing a district press release with the district’s attorney regarding the investigation. As reported in the Whidbey News-Times, Anderson then illegally serially polled directors to approve the release. That release threw Phay under the bus for the communication with staff that she took on at the direction of Anderson and Peet.

No one on the board mentioned or held themselves accountable for their violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. Instead, the board doubled down on gaslighting Phay. They closed ranks instead of righting the ship.

It is important to note that Anderson single-handedly damned the objectivity of this investigation from its outset by initiating it without board approval and by including King in the matter. She did more harm to the district than anyone involved. She has served on school boards for 42 years and knows better. One wonders why she behaved in this manner and what there is to hide.

The classroom full of teachers who approached Phay were concerned about bias and retaliation in their workplace. It appears their fears were well-founded. The board publicly codified these concerns in its treatment of faculty concerns and Phay.

In this climate I don’t know who in the district would feel safe coming forward. There is now a hostile work environment writ large by the Coupeville School Board. This represents a huge legal liability to the district which, prior to the pandemic, was already suffering from a bond downgrade due to long-term financial mismanagement by many of these same directors.

Anderson wisely withdrew this week from seeking re-election. She needs to follow this up with her immediate resignation for her unlawful and unethical behavior to protect the district from further harm.

The remaining board members need to begin again with an outside and objective investigation of King and create an avenue for faculty and staff to safely report their concerns. The board should revisit King’s mid-contract approval after the results of a new investigation are completed. Only in this way can the district regain the trust of the public and move forward.

We the taxpayers and parents in the Coupeville School District need to elect directors that follow the law, protect the staff and children and shepherd the financial health of the district.

The current board is doing exactly the opposite.

Lori Taylor

Coupeville

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