How much, too much?: SFSD investigation into board communications enters second phase

January 2020 Posted in News, School

By Brenna Wiegand

Silver Falls School District is conducting further investigation into allegations brought against school board member in a Nov. 25 complaint from 112 petitioners.

The complaint asserts that board members Shelly Nealon, Jennifer Traeger, Jonathan Edmonds, Janet Allanach and Lori McLaughlin violated board policies, the Board/Superintendent Working Agreement, prior Superintendent Andy Bellando’s employment contract, the Hiring Confidentiality Covenant and the Oregon Public Meetings Law regarding executive sessions.

The district hired Portland attorney Jollee Patterson for an initial review of the complaint and its accompanying evidence, largely emails. Out of the 17 allegations examined, Patterson singled out eight that “could support a violation” of the referenced policies or agreements and about which “the district may want to engage in additional steps.”

Her report cites several other instances where policy language “sets forth important aspirational goals but (are) not specific enough to support a finding of a violation.”

Of the 11 allegations regarding Nealon, six were deemed possible policy violations. Of the four against Traeger, one was found to fall under this category, as did one of two allegations brought against Edmonds.

Complaints regarding McLaughlin and Allanach were dismissed because they had not yet taken office at the time of the alleged offenses.

Patterson’s review was presented to the board at a two-hour work session Dec. 30 with discussion centering around whether the district should pursue a conclusive investigation by a second attorney.

“I feel strongly we need to have a further investigation,” board member Tom Buchholz said. “We’re in the process of trying to hire a new superintendent and if we don’t take this seriously; if executive session and hiring procedures around our new superintendent and admin are kind of ‘loosey goosey,’ who’s going to want to work here?”

“Isn’t there a difference between exploring policies that you’ve identified as areas of training; where we make sure we understand our responsibilities, and an additional investigation of these complaints to figure out which parts of which policy was being violated?” McLaughlin asked. “That’s a whole lot of digging into these specific areas and I’m not sure how that serves us.”

“My concern is I feel like our boat of transparency has been sunk,” board member Irv Stadeli said. “How do we navigate to get this ship back sailing? After reading the report I felt like there was almost more ambiguity than there was clarity.

“…I look at it like the speed limit is 55, and if you go 60 you’re not going to get a ticket, right? But if you push that to 70 you’re going to get written up,” Stadeli said.

“It’s about trust and that’s why I want some more steps to drill down what these violations meant and what they were,” Buchholz said. “It might be painful for some; a little bit of penance, so to speak, but that’s how you regain the trust so that quality people will want to work here and I’m for that, whatever that may look like.”

“When do we get to work?” Allanach said. “When do we get to start serving the students of this district and doing the work that we were elected to do to assure excellence in education; to support our superintendent and get on with hiring one? We need to be very aware of what this costs us.”

“I want to set everybody’s mind at ease that we have very talented people working on our Student Success Act application; we’ve got a good roadmap and I have 100 percent confidence that we’re going to have a solid plan that’s going to do the right work for the right kids in the right way,” Silver Falls School District Interim Superintendent Paul Peterson said. “My two cents here is that the most important work for the board is this, right now.”

At one point during the meeting Nealon threatened legal action if the board went forward with the follow-up investigation.

“I’m fine giving over information but I’m not going to continue to be put in a position where other people aren’t going to be held accountable for their actions as well,” Nealon said. “A lot of things need to come to light; there’ll be a new records request and it’s not going to be a good thing for this district.

“This is the last straw for me,” Nealon said. “…if you do go forward with this, you’re going to have a very long legal battle.”

“How does this look different two months from now?” Allanach asked. “Even if it comes back that some of us violated some of these policies for some reason, OK, so we’re going to do training and learn about the policies – only now we’ve spent $20,000 to $30,000.…What are we gaining?”

Nealon said more effective would be the opportunity to prove that change has been made through future behavior.

“The direction I want to go is to show the modified behavior, and if it doesn’t change, you take action,” she said.

“This is huge for me,” Buchholz said. “Are we going to be a board that violates working agreements and contracts with the superintendent? I don’t want to be that board.”

The results of the first legal review came on the heels of a general letter of support for the school board listing more than 150 names. The letter cites transparency, community engagement and rebuilding trust with educators among other actions and attributes, as reason for support.

“A group of us were frustrated with the baseless complaint against the board by Dandy Parsons, Ken Hector and their friends who don’t all live in the district,” longtime district resident Chuck Sheketoff said, calling the complainants ‘Negative Nellies unwilling to acknowledge all the good work the new board that began July 1 has accomplished.’

Sheketoff was an active participant in the email exchanges submitted as part of the Nov. 25 complaint.

“The board should be focused on training and the recruitment of a new superintendent and getting to ‘yes’ on a contract with teachers,” he said. “They are wasting time and taxpayer dollars continuing to investigate a complaint that has no merit.”

To questions of the district’s ability to pay for the investigation – cost of the preliminary review was not known at press time; the second phase is estimated at $10,000-$15,000 – Peterson said there is sufficient money in the general fund “to support the work that needs to be done.”

“Even if we have to do an interfund transfer where we appropriate some funds from contingency; that’s why we have those; to appropriate for unusual circumstances, which this certainly is,” Peterson said.

“I would never choose to do this to any one of you, but now that it’s happened, I feel like it’s our responsibility to respond,” board member Irv Stadeli said. “It’s not easy, but now we have to do it. If we don’t, the ‘what-ifs’ are way bigger.”

In urging the board to move beyond the investigation phase, Nealon noted board members are encouraged to reach out to the community for input. Saying she harbors no hard feelings toward the complainants, she added, “I get it. You care about your schools and you want to see them and your kids thrive.”

The motion to proceed passed on a 4 – 3 vote, with Nealon, Allanach and McLaughlin dissenting. On Jan. 7 the district engaged Rebekah Jacobson, an experienced Salem attorney. Process dictates conclusion by the end of February. The meeting can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=ELnXSB-Bz_k&t=0s.

Peterson said the board is committed to supporting a prompt, thorough, transparent investigation and plans to keep the community informed as the process concludes.

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