A group of concerned community members gave the Sequim School Board an earful at its April 16 meeting, with several asking board directors to re-consider extending superintendent Gary Neal’s contract and moving the district closer to a plan to upgrade its facilities.
Neal is under contract with the Sequim School District through June 30, 2020. Board members have in the past two years declined to extend his three-year “rolling” contract.
Several individuals spoke up in favor of the district extending the superintendent’s contract beyond 2020 and to seek school facility improvements.
John Coulson asked the board to extend Neal’s contract for the district to have “strong, consistent, progressive leadership.”
Coulson said Neal has established good rapport with the community, spotlighting Sequim’s High School’s participation in Project Lead the Way — a national program that helps high school students in developing strong backgrounds in engineering and science fields.
“We need consistency at this junction,” Coulson said, pointing out his concerns for failing district infrastructure, the growing number of classroom portables and student overcrowding all coming at a time when possible changes to the school board — three directors are up for election this fall — are imminent.
“Losing our superintendent will inhibit our ability to move forward and (get a bond passed),” he said.
Susan Sorensen, a Sequim resident and former board director for the Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center, also questioned the board’s approach to Neal’s contract.
“He showed he cares for the community,” Sorensen said. “You do not meddle with the operations of the district; you need to stay out of his way.”
Lori Anderson, who has two students in the school district, said, “I believe our district is at a crossroad. As a community, we need to get aggressive and get a bond passed, or a levy.
(Neal) has the knowledge and the experience to guide us through it.”
Shenna Younger asked the board for clarification about the directors’ decision to not extend Neal’s contract.
“What is your plan for our kids? … Why are we having all these meetings?” Younger asked.
“What is your issue with Gary Neal? What’s going on? The public has no idea. It’s not fair to parents or the students.”
Board director Robin Henrikson sought to answer this, noting, “my lack of confidence in our superintendent to pass a bond,” but her comments were soon cut off by board president Brian Kuh at Neal’s prompting, who cited a school board policy doesn’t allow for such comments.
Board director Brandino Gibson said board directors sometimes need to have conversations about employees behind closed doors to consider internal issues.
“We simply can’t share everything we are privy to,” Kuh said. “There’s a lot of passion in this district around next steps.”
In January, Kuh said Neal’s mid-year review was “favorable” and that the board seeks to create a more formal process to evaluate the superintendent position under a state evaluation framework.
Kuh told board directors on March 18 he feels they’re on a “good trajectory” with their evaluation process and that he’s in favor of waiting until June 30 to discuss an extension.
“He has 16 months on his contract, and if at the end of June 30 the board agrees to extend his contract, he’ll have 24 months,” Kuh said in March.
In a later interview Kuh said, “The clear message that has come forward from this group is a sense that they feel the board is saying one thing and doing something different,” but reiterated director Gibson’s comment that those community members are not privy to all discussions regarding the superintendent.
“We are appreciative of (people) asking questions voicing their support,” Kuh said. “Compliments about the superintendent are well deserved. That’s the positive side of this current narrative.”
And while the optics of not extending the superintendent’s contract may look negative, Kuh said, “A vote to maintain the contract is a vote to maintain the contract.”
Now, with a little more than a year remaining on Neal’s contract, Kuh said the board is not actively looking for a new superintendent. Neal interviewed for a superintendent position in the Hockinson School District earlier this year.
Board changes coming
At the April 16 meeting, some speakers directed frustration toward board directors at no formalized progress toward addressing Sequim school facility improvements.
Board director Heather Short said, “It’s hard to listen to these comments. You elected us. You trust us. If you think we put (facility issues) on the back burner, that’s ridiculous. To question my resolve to passing the bond or acting in the best interest of our students, I take offense to that.”
Both Henrikson and Short — whose positions, along with director Jim Stoffer’s are up for election this fall — said prior to the meeting they do not plan to run for re-election. (Stoffer later announced he is seeking re-election.)
“I’m not running again,” Short said at last week’s meeting. “Go ahead, throw your hat in the ring.”
Greywolf teacher Aaron Reno asked Sequim School Board directors and staff to reconsider a plan that would trim nearly four full-time teaching positions at Sequim High School.
“Consider adjusting the budget to (make cuts) that do not directly affect student learning,” he said.
Neal noted that Sequim High School is, by state models, over-staffed.
“Our focus is not to get rid of anybody,” Neal said.
“We have to follow the funding model so we don’t wind up like some of these other (school districts).”
Neal noted that school districts often can see an enrollment “bubble,” where a class is particularly larger than the one previous. That can lead to staffing issues as a class progresses through the system, and because teachers are certified in specific areas and not in others they can’t simply be shifted to fill gaps from school to school.
“We don’t have a lot of overhead,” Neal said. “We’re looking at every entity, the district office included.”
Sequim adds snow days
Thanks to some significant snowfall earlier this year, students in Sequim schools are seeing their school year extended.
Board directors approved a letter requesting a two-day waiver from the state but Sequim schools need to make up the equivalent of four school days, so directors also approved a change to the calendar that adds June 14, 17, 18 and 19 to the 2018-2019 academic year.
Sequim students missed six days because of winter storms — with Gov. Jay Inslee declaring several of those in a state of emergency. Like other school districts, Neal said, Sequim needed to make sure they provide to students 1,027 hours of instructional time.
“The obligation falls to the district to provide those hours,” Kuh said.
Other board action
Board directors voted to approve the Sequim Administrators Association contract that provides a 9.1 percent increase from the 2017-2018 contract, similar to other bargaining groups.
The agreement is the seventh and final collective bargaining group contract for the school year.
Randy Hill, director of human resources for the Sequim district, said staff plans on starting negotiations with that group and others before the end of April.
Filling open fields
A delay in the West Fir Street Rehabilitation Project has allowed Sequim High School’s softball team to finish its 2019 home schedule unimpeded, Neal noted.
The Sequim superintendent noted that Interwest Construction, Inc. of Carlsborg, the lead agency in the rehab project, is looking to store some of its heavy equipment on an open field where the now demolished Sequim Community School once stood, and that the district may be able to trade in-kind services for providing the land.
In the long-term, Neal said, the district is looking at adding vegetation to the former school site between Fir and Alder streets, allowing for pedestrian access there while discouraging vehicle use.
Other board action
In other school board motions on April 16, directors unanimously approved a number of items, including:
• Offering contracts to David Lyke for the McKinney Vento Homeless Liaison position, and bus aide position to David Freed;
• Resignations from repair technician Abraham Hernandez and paraeducator Melissa Karapostoles;
• Supplemental contracts for four assistant coaches and 10 volunteer coach contracts for Sequim High School spring athletic teams;
• Supplemental contracts for SHS Robotics coaches Stuart Marcy and Brad Moore, and,
• Student travel for SHS Robotics and FFA team members for out-of-district competitions and events.