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Fairbanks school board moves to fire superintendent for 'incompetence'

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- Superintendent of Schools Pete Lewis should be fired because he "exhibited a total failure of leadership leading up to the sexual abuse of a student on school property," the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board said Monday night in a unanimous decision.

As it took the first step toward removing Lewis, the board also released information that a 34-year-old high school tutor arrested in March, Claude Fowlkes III, had been in trouble for years because of his dealings with students and that serious allegations had been given short shrift by district managers. The board said the district mishandled the investigations.

"This culminated in an employee, who had repeatedly demonstrated a refusal to comply with district policy regarding appropriate student interaction, receiving a glowing evaluation followed by district placement of that employee in a school with no warning, instructions or procedures designed to ensure the safety of students," the board said. "Instead the principal was completely blindsided when an arrest was made at the school."

A letter signed by the seven school board members charged that Lewis has "demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to perform the duties expected of a superintendent, which has resulted in potential liability to the district, a derogation of the public faith and confidence in the district and the board's loss of trust and confidence in you."

Lewis may not be the only one to be forced out, as the board also said that additional "personnel actions" are likely.

Under his $155,540-per-year contract, Lewis has five days to request a hearing. He is suspended with pay pending the outcome of that hearing. If he decides not to seek a hearing, he will be terminated next Monday, the board said.

The contract says it can be terminated for several reasons, one of which is incompetence, the reason cited by the board. It defines incompetence as "the inability or unintentional or intentional failure to perform the employee's duties under this agreement."

The board had suspended Lewis April 7 in connections with how the administration responded to sex abuse allegations against Fowlkes, a Hutchison High School tutor.

Until Monday, the board had declined to make any public statement about the case, saying only that an investigation was taking place.

Fowlkes, 34, was arrested in late March on seven counts of first-degree sexual abuse of a 15-year-old male student.

Lewis is in the first year of a three-year contract with the district, which was unanimously extended by the board last August until 2016. At the time of the contract extension, board members said Lewis was doing a good job. He was superintendent of schools in the Clarkston School District in Washington from 2003 until coming to Fairbanks in July 2010.

The firing comes six days after seven school district managers endorsed a letter defending Lewis and his leadership of the district. Gayle Pierce, the head of labor relations, testified last week that Lewis is respected by the people who work for him and is an "excellent leader with boundless energy."

In the termination letter to Lewis, the board said he did not have an "effective working relationship" with the elected officials and complained about other administrative staff as well.

"Not only have you demonstrated disrespect for the board's role as your employer and the legislative body of the district, your attitude has permeated through to your staff resulting in a climate of disrespect toward the board," the board said.

The board cited the details of Fowlkes' employment history as evidence of the need for a "significant cultural shift" in the handling of complaints against employees so that the district "errs on the side of student safety."

Fowlkes began work as an aide at Tanana Middle School in 2006. In 2008, he was arrested for driving under the influence and driving without a license. In addition, police found a small amount of marijuana on him, the board said. He entered a guilty plea to the DUI charge in April 2008, while the others were dropped.

Four months later he took a new position as the "Graduation Success/Drop Out Coach" at the middle school.

On Feb. 3, 2009, the guardian of a male student at Lathrop High School filed a complaint against Fowlkes, but no disciplinary action was taken after an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity officer.

From 2011-2013, Fowlkes became the "Career Guide Specialist" and then a "Student Support Specialist" at Tanana.

A complaint on March 9, 2012 about Fowlkes' behavior with "the male client of a separate employer" led to an investigation by the Tanana principal and other district employees.

Fowlkes was placed on administrative leave for 11 days and then returned to his job at Tanana working with students.

Five months later, Fowlkes faced another complaint, this one investigated by the labor relations office, and he was placed on administrative leave for 10 days.

For the 2012-2013 school year, Fowlkes was supposed to be working at both Tanana Middle School and Lathrop High School.

The written complaint in August 2012 came from parents of a male Lathrop student.

"Findings included that he had engaged in Facebook exchanges with a student whom he had worked with at Tanana; the language was 'vulgar and sophomoric' and promoted an inappropriate relationship with a student; he brought food to this student at the student's home; and he was not truthful during the investigatory interview," the summary found.

He was ordered not to have contact with the student, but two months later Lathrop staff filed written reports saying he had violated that condition of his employment and another investigation took place.

"There is no record of discipline for this conduct," the board said.

In late 2012, he returned to work full time at Tanana. In a few months, Fowlkes received a positive evaluation from the principal. The principal said Fowlkes "exceeds standards" in terms of student contact, as someone who "always observes appropriate boundaries."

Last fall Fowlkes landed a job at Hutchison High School to work with female students who have children.

"The principal at Hutchison who made the hiring decision indicates he was not informed of past complaints or disciplinary action," the board said. There was a report last fall that he was seen getting into the car of a student, but this was "informally handled by staff at Hutchison."

He had been provisionally cleared for school employment by a state background check in 2013, as he had been cleared by a background check in 2006 when he was first hired. The formal approval on his latest background investigation came on Feb. 4. He was arrested March 24.

In its preliminary findings, the board questioned the system in place for handling employee evaluations, hiring decisions and allegations of sexual abuse. The board said it expects to take "additional personnel actions" to deal with these concerns.

The documents released Monday include an email from Fairbanks attorney Mike Kramer, who is representing the family of the 15-year-old.

He said the family has reason to believe that the district "failed to take action that could have prevented harm to the family."


By DERMOT COLE
dermot@alaskadispatch.com