SMS teachers, staff speak out on possible staff leadership change

School board meeting brings a huge turnout on the controversial SMS principal.

The Sequim School Board met on June 3 to discuss a number of district issues, but the night was dominated by a long public comments period that required multiple time extensions from the board, as teachers and parents voiced their concerns about the potential removal of Sequim Middle School principal Vince Riccobene.

In March, the school district settled a 2018 federal lawsuit against the Sequim School District and three employees — including Riccobene, assistant principal Rhonda Kromm and student counselor Cathy Shea — over alleged discrimination involving Autumn St. George, middle school teacher and former athletic director at SMS.

On Monday, most of those who spoke were in support of Riccobene, urging the board and Sequim schools superintendent Gary Neal to leave the principal where he is. They spoke in praise of his leadership, his work in improving the school’s standing in multiple testing and analytical metrics, how much he represents and supports the Kids At Hope program in the school district, and how supportive he is of students and staff.

Science teacher Joe Landoni said that Riccobene’s “educational enthusiasm is centered around his undeniable vision for the success of his students,” while SMS language arts teacher Hillary Hornor called Riccobene “one of the finest school administrators I have worked for,” and urged the district to “listen to the right voices” when making their decision.

A number of the middle school teachers and staff in support of Riccobene were also very critical of board directors and of Neal for not spending time in the school to talk with staff. Middle school attendance official Sauni Holt said that without a “thorough and proper investigation” any decision made would be based on speculation alone.

Several teachers spoke out against Riccobene, however, calling for the district to hold all of those responsible in St. George’s lawsuit.

Teacher Tracy Barnes told the board that the school “works in spite of (Riccobene), not because of him,” and fellow teacher Shanon Paselk added that she was “no longer proud” to work for the district because of everything around the lawsuit.

“This was not just one mistake made in isolation,” Paselk told the board. “This was a pattern repeated over years.”

Staff on both sides of the issue spoke repeatedly of the middle school “needing to heal.” Science teacher Maria Germano — who spoke in support of Riccobene — said SMS is in need of “true mediation” with a notable divide between staff at the school.

“There’s no community here, just people pointing fingers,” Germano said. “Until we get mediation in here and start listening to each other again, there will be no healing.”

School Board President Brian Kuh thanked those who spoke and said that he was glad to give people the platform they needed to speak on issues like this, but reminded them that board directors do not have hiring and firing powers over district staff other than the superintendent.

“Any decision is in (Neal’s) hands,” Kuh said following the meeting, “and he’ll be keeping us updated either way.”

Neal did not comment to the public during the meeting and was unavailable for comment afterward.

Other business

After the issue of Superintendent Neal’s remaining vacation days was brought up in the May 20 board meeting, the school board voted unanimously to allow him to buy back up to all of his remaining vacation time at his discretion, pending legal approval. Neal has 41.5 vacation days accrued, but his contract allows him to buy back just 20 of those. In order to keep Neal in his position through the end of his contract on June 30 and ease the transition to an interim superintendent, the board sought to come to an agreement that worked for Neal.

With board Vice President Heather Short not running for reelection in this fall, board director Brandino Gibson was nominated and unanimously voted in to assume the position. Gibson and Kuh are the only two school board members not facing reelection this year.

Board Director Jim Stoffer returned from a recent Washington State School Directors Association legislative conference with positive news on several funding areas, including news that the state’s funding gap on special education is “closing.” He also mentioned that school funds from the state’s sale of timber harvest will continue despite some concern that the state would redirect those funds elsewhere, but he and Kuh both expressed concern that those funds are still “very much at risk.” Stoffer said that the Sequim School District has received around $600,000 from that funding over the last two years.

After hearing a proposal on the formal adoption of the Eureka Math curriculum at Sequim Middle School at the May 20 board meeting following a pilot program, the board unanimously voted to adopt the program.

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