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Fairbanks educators rip school board's handling of suspended superintendent

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- Frustration over the continuing silence about the month-long suspension of Superintendent of Schools Pete Lewis prompted a rare confrontation Tuesday night in which seven school district managers criticized the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board.

A statement read by one of the managers charged that the board is so "terrified" of a lawsuit that it won't talk to anyone except its attorneys about what is happening. On April 7, the board placed Lewis on administrative leave, saying only that it was not a disciplinary action.

A week later, the board said the suspension took place in connection with the official handling of allegations against a tutor at Hutchison High School. The tutor, 34-year-old Claude Fowlkes III, was arrested in late March on seven counts of first-degree sexual abuse of a minor.

Other than a statement that liability questions needed to be reviewed, the board has said nothing else about why it took Lewis off the job or whether he will remain as the school chief.

During a school board meeting Tuesday night, one of the district directors, Gayle Pierce, the head of labor relations, spoke in favor of Lewis and delivered a harsh assessment of the board's handling of the situation. While she testified, six other district managers stood as a show of support.

"Lest our silence be mistaken for acceptance of the school board's removal of the superintendent, it is time to speak," Pierce said.

Pierce said Lewis is respected by the people who work for him and is an "excellent leader with boundless energy."

"Without his leadership, guiding hand and vision we are an organization idling in neutral, rather than moving ahead in drive," she said. "A month without him is a drag on the organization and the staff."

"As a board you have not addressed us. You only talk to outside attorneys. You've made it clear you have nothing to say to your administrators, directors, principals, teachers, classified staff and students," she said.

"You are apparently terrified of the possibility of a lawsuit, so only the attorneys have something worthwhile to offer. And meanwhile because of your actions and silence, your staff, representing 80 percent of the district budget, is getting the message that at best we don't matter, and at worst, we are not to be trusted," she said.

The actions of the board have communicated "dysfunction, distrust and disrespect" to district employees. The statement was from "some members of the management team," she said.

Board members responded that investigations are always kept confidential until they are completed and this is no different.

Sean Rice said "a lot of the stuff that we're going through is confidential" and that the decision to stay mum is not a sign of disrespect.

"I understand confidentiality," said Pierce. "What is not as easily comprehensible is the unprecedented action of removing the superintendent and saying nothing to the administration about it."

The employees who stood as a sign of support during her statement were: Bob Hadaway, head of special education; Heather Rauenhorst, director of grants and special projects; Janet Cobb, executive director of technology information systems; Thomas Hall, director of career and technical education; Scott McCrea, director of community and public relations; and Katherine Sanders, director of library media services.

Flora Roddy, a secretary in the district offices, said that she agreed with the administrators.

"I work on the same floor as the superintendent's office. I know nothing," she said, adding that district employees would like to know if Lewis is coming back or not.

"Lots of rumors are just flying, people don't know what's going on, so they're thinking the worst," she said.

Tim Doran, principal of Denali Elementary School, said a quick resolution is important.

Board member Sue Hull said that no one is more aware of the need to resolve the situation as soon as possible than members of the board.

"I think it's important for all of us to remember the boundaries of confidentiality when dealing with certain issues. And I think that's part of professionalism and I'm pleased that the board has been careful about deliberations," she said.

Board member Wendy Dominique said she would think that administrators should understand why the board won't talk.

"I just take reserve against being stated that we're just dillylogging along trying to prolong this process. That's not something that anyone of us would do. And I would think the administration would understand that."

"An investigation process isn't quick," said Board President Heidi Haas.

"There really isn't a statement that we can make directly to the administration or address you guys."

Karen Gaborik, the acting superintendent, said the "important thing in all this is just recognizing the stress that people are experiencing at every level."

She said that "once we do have more information, we will be able to move forward."


By DERMOT COLE
Alaska Dispatch