Investigation clears superintendent of bias, retaliation

An attorney’s investigation into the Coupeville school superintendent for alleged bias and retaliation largely exonerated him, according to the report on the inquiry.

An attorney’s investigation into the Coupeville school superintendent for alleged bias and retaliation largely exonerated him, according to the report on the inquiry.

Yet the Coupeville School Board may have violated the state Open Public Meetings Act when the majority took action on a press release outside of public meetings, according to three state experts on open government laws.

The school board’s press release strongly supports Superintendent Steve King and takes the unusual step of criticizing one of its own. It states that “the majority of the board also wishes to reiterate its disappointment with, and disavowal of, the manner in which this investigation and Superintendent King were characterized by Board Member (Sherry) Phay in her prior communication to district employees.”

The communication in question apparently is an email Phay sent to leaders of the teachers union in which she disclosed “the investigation into Steve King based on allegations of ‘creating a culture of fear of retaliation’ as evidenced by acts of misogyny, narcissism, gas-lighting and literal threats to employment status.”

Phay also wrote that she was tasked with offering staff and community members the opportunity to share applicable experiences with the attorney investigating the issue.

A group of staff members is planning on presenting the school board with a letter defending Phay and asking for improvements related to district leadership, according to a school employee.

The Whidbey News-Times obtained documents related to the allegation through a public records request. The names of those who made allegations were redacted as required by law. Phay did not return a call for comment.

The records show that the school board met in executive session on Feb. 22 to evaluate the performance of King, who has been superintendent for three years. During the closed-door session, Phay disclosed that numerous district employees had reported to her concerns about King being misogynistic and retaliating against employees who criticized his behavior.

In an interview, School Board President Kathleen Anderson said the board members were surprised by the allegations and decided to hire an outside attorney to investigate; Anderson emphasized that Phay never shared the names of those who made the complaints. Seattle attorney Jessie Harris was hired to do the work.

Anderson said the majority of board members were pleased by the report and agree that King is “an excellent superintendent.”

“We have absolute confidence in Steve to move us forward,” she said.

Harris explained in his report that he interviewed seven staff members, in addition to King and Phay.

“I am unable to conclude on a more probable than not basis that Mr. King engaged in conduct amounting to retaliation against any district employee for engaging in a protected activity,” Harris wrote. “Nor am I able to conclude that Mr. King engaged in prohibited discrimination against any district employee on the basis of gender, gender identity or race in violation of Coupeville School District Policy No. 3210 or state law.”

Some of the allegations that Harris highlighted in his report involved an equity committee that King, a white man, established with board agreement and made himself co-chairperson. Prior to the committee interviewing a candidate for a diversity and equity consultant position, King shared his impressions of the woman. He said the candidate corrected him when he mentioned the George Floyd “incident,” saying he should refer to it as “murder.”

The staff member recalled King saying “something to the effect that, in his position, he was not accustomed to being corrected by a woman, much less an African American woman,” the report states.

King, however, explained to the attorney that he was trying to convey how impressed he was with the consultant candidate, though he admitted to being “inartful.”

“He said he was attempting to convey that Ms. Lewin (the consultant) felt comfortable correcting him despite the fact that he was superintendent; and this was exactly the approach he felt was necessary,” the report states. “He acknowledged saying that, having grown up in a community without much diversity, he was not accustomed to being challenged and that he felt Ms. Lewin’s approach is exactly what they needed.”

Another person complained that in proposing the equity committee, King “presented it in a way that made it all about him and his experience,” and shared that his daughter was in a relationship with a Black man.

King explained to the attorney that he brought up his daughter’s boyfriend in an attempt “to convey how it was a new and eye-opening experience for him and his family.” King conceded he “over-shared his personal experiences while trying to illustrate a point,” the report states.

Finally, a staff member complained that King used the term “Gestapo” during a staff meeting in reference to how the county Public Health officials planned to enforce social distancing rules in the schools. King quickly apologized in an email to staff, saying it was an insensitive word to use.

“This is evidence that I need to work on equity as much as anyone,” he wrote.

Anderson said the decision to have the investigation was made outside of a public meeting in order to expedite the process instead of waiting for the next regular board meeting. In fact, the board wasn’t involved in the decision.

Anderson asked the human resources director to look into the issue and King supported the idea of hiring an attorney, according to King.

In reference to the press release, Anderson said she communicated with the majority of the board members and obtained agreement about the document prior to it being sent to staff and parents.

King offered a different version of how the press release came to be. Although the press release was from the school board, he claims the majority of the board did not approve it, but that it was merely “shared” with them after it was drafted by Anderson and legal counsel.

Three experts in the state’s open government meetings law agreed that the action described by Anderson violated the Open Public Meetings Act, which requires all actions and decisions by governmental board members to be made in public.

Attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard with Allied Law Group, a recognized expert in open government, explained that a decision to conduct an investigation and any decisions based on that investigation “presumably required a meeting.”

Two other experts specifically said the board’s actions constitute “serial meetings” or polling, which courts have ruled is prohibited under the law. The Municipal Research and Services Center explains that a serial meeting “occurs when a majority of members of a governing body have a series of smaller gatherings or communications that results in a majority of the body collectively taking action even if a majority is never part of any one communication.”

Fred Obee, director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, pointed out that board members don’t need to meet in person to have a serial meeting.

Toby Nixon, a leader with the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a Kirkland council member, agreed.

“I don’t think there’s any way they can explain away the fact that it was a serial meeting,” he said.