Nome School Board faces recall vote

Kyle Hopkins

Voters in Nome are headed to the ballot booth Tuesday for a special, wall-to-wall recall election, with all five of the city School Board jobs at stake.

The vote has the potential to overhaul school leadership in the Northwest Alaska city of 3,500 people and has launched a bitter feud stretching from street corner campaign signs to newspaper letter pages to the Internet.

"This is one of the biggest upsets, one of the biggest things that this town has seen in a while," said Buford Sallaffie, 27. The recall was the topic of conversation at a going-away feast he attended for friends Sunday, where partygoers ate muktuk and talked school board politics.

"You can't walk down the block without at least seeing two signs," he said.

The dispute began in January when the board voted 3-2 to oust the principal and assistant principal at the Nome junior-senior high school. Petitioners called for an election to remove the school board members, saying they broke open-meeting rules and violated school board policy in their handling of the contracts.

The petitioners accuse the board of holding an illegal closed-door meeting just before voting on which school administrators would keep their jobs. Among the group's claims: Principal Janeen Sullivan wasn't properly notified of the closed meeting and the board talked about issues beyond the scope of the executive session -- such as budget and policy decisions.

School Board President Gloria Karmun voted to keep Sullivan as principal but says the board acted "within its legal and ethical bounds." A lawyer for the school district has reviewed the meeting and said the board did not break open meetings rules, board members say.

The debate comes with a mystery: Just what was said behind closed doors before the board voted on the principal's contract?

Board member Albert McComas, who voted against renewing the principal's contract, said he gets asked that all the time.

"People want to know specifics -- they want to know what was done in executive session and again, I can't say," McComas said. But as for why he voted against the contracts, McComas said he'd had concerns about Sullivan's performance as principal for years.

"Parent complaints concerning the treatment of their children. Employee complaints citing a lack of support," he said.

Marcy Merrill, a Nome parent, said in an e-mail that Sullivan and assistant principal Doug Boyer have reduced discipline problems at the school and received "excellent reviews by the superintendent, high parental support and student satisfaction."

In e-mails to the Daily News last week, recall petitioners said the board may have been influenced by a parent who once confronted Sullivan over his son's playing time on the basketball team.

Sullivan said Sunday that the man told her his son needed more time on the court, or that the parent "would go after her job." The parent couldn't be reached for comment Sunday, but McComas said basketball had nothing to do with his decision. "That's out of left field," he said.

As for the assistant principal -- the school simply doesn't need one on the public payroll, McComas said. One of three schools in the district, the combination junior-senior high school has about 250 students, the principal said.

Boyer, who came to work for the district in 2008, makes $70,558, according to Nome Public Schools.

Boyer said he was shocked when the school board didn't renew his contract. "I have a glowing evaluation," he said.

It's been hard to find an administrator job at another school because he hasn't been able to say why his current employer didn't keep him, he said.

While Sullivan said she still hasn't been told why she was removed as principal, Boyer said Nome schools Superintendent Jon Wehde gave him a letter on Friday saying the district decided not to keep him for budgetary reasons.

Still, Boyer said, the district continued to advertise for his job and the school board recently approved a budget for next year that includes spending for the position.

Sullivan, who began working for the district in 1992 and has served as a teacher and a counselor, became an administrator in 2007. She makes $85,968 a year, according to the district.

A Facebook page supporting the two administrators has gained more than 270 fans, while a Nome high school student won a $1,000 scholarship for an essay describing how students rallied behind Sullivan and Boyer, according to the Association of Alaska School Boards.

While two of the five Nome board members voted to keep the principal and assistant principal, all five are on the recall ballot. Board member Barb Nickels has tried to revisit the contract vote at school board meetings, but has been met with silence from fellow board members, according to the Nome Nugget.

School board recalls are rare but not unheard of in Alaska.

In 2000, the Anchorage city clerk's office denied an application to recall four school board members, saying the petitioners lacked grounds. In that case, the petitioners accused the board of holding illegal executive sessions.

In 2007, voters in the multi- village Chatham School District in Southeast ousted three of five board members, according to the Juneau Empire. The three were accused of incompetence and misconduct.

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