6/12/2019 1:41:00 PM School unions vote
'no confidence' in
Superintendent vows to help heal rift in school family
By Bill Reynolds
A school year that began in turmoil is ending in turmoil. But La Conner Schools Superintendent Dr. Whitney Meissner, the subject of stinging no-confidence votes issued by the two district employee unions Friday, remains optimistic that relationships can be rebuilt going forward. Meissner was hesitant Tuesday to respond directly to complaints of alleged ineffective leadership lodged by sweeping majorities of the La Conner Education Association (LEA) and Public School Employees (PSE) organizations, each of which charged that her management practices have negatively impacted staff. The lopsided votes came at the end of a year whose start was marred by sometimes contentious contract negotiations and more recently saw the announced departures of two admired campus leaders: La Conner Elementary Principal Bev Bowen and District Food Service Supervisor Georgia Johnson. Rather than take issue with points laid out by LEA and PSE leadership, Meissner instead addressed the present atmosphere at La Conner Schools, likening it to a rift within a family. “I was told when I came to La Conner,” said Meissner, who succeeded longtime Superintendent Dr. Tim Bruce in 2017, “that it was like a family here. But sometimes families have disagreements.” Good families, she noted – placing La Conner Schools squarely in that category – are able to gather themselves and work cooperatively to resolve problems. For her part, Meissner said she has reached out for counsel from colleagues at the Northwest Educational Services District office and Washington Association of School Administrators. Meissner indicated it was only natural that tensions could arise as staff adjusted to differences in leadership styles between herself and Bruce, for whom the district’s performing arts center is named, and where Meissner later Tuesday would host and speak to a large crowd attending the annual Skagit Valley Herald Sports Stars program. She also spent part of Tuesday finalizing details of the temporary removal on Wednesday of the 25-year-old La Conner Elementary totem pole. It will be refurbished this summer by master carver and La Conner staff member Kevin Paul, part of the 100th anniversary of public school integration linking La Conner campuses and the Swinomish Tribal Community. “It’s a special relationship,” Meissner said, “and the totem pole restoration helps bring it to the forefront.” Still, her thoughts on Tuesday didn’t stray far from the internal strife at La Conner Schools, where the LEA and PSE memberships place blame at her door for a “negative school culture and climate.” “I’ve given a lot of thought to what I want to say,” Meissner said. “Conflict and change are natural parts of leadership. Change can be very challenging. But I’m absolutely committed to working through this in a way that results in the best for everyone involved.”
The La Conner School District’s two unions each turned thumbs down on their boss, Superintendent Whitney Meissner, in “no confidence” votes at meetings each held Friday at the school campus. The La Conner Education Association, LEA, voted 35 to 9, with 44 of 48 members present. The support staff, Public School Employees, PSE, voted 22 to 6, with three abstentions, with 31 of 46 members present. The secret ballot votes were 80 and 79 percent yes, respectively. A joint press release believed to contain some of the same language as a letter emailed Friday to the District’s Board of Directors states: “During the past two years, Dr. Meissner has engaged in many damaging management practices that negatively impact staff, students and the community. Chief areas of complaint include negative school culture and climate, poor communication, weak interpersonal skills, ineffective leadership and the harassment, intimidation and bullying of staff members. “Union leadership and individual members have provided both written and verbal feedback to Dr. Meissner directly, completed mid-year feedback surveys issued by the superintendent and contacted board members with concerns in an effort to raise awareness of problem areas and improve relationships and working conditions. However, recent events and actions taken by the superintendent have escalated to the point that we are compelled to take stronger action.” The letter probably includes this concern: “The damage she has caused is significant and far-reaching, extending beyond the walls of the school into the larger community, as evidenced by several recent public meetings.” At the May Board meeting and a specially called June 4 Board meeting up, to 70 school staff, students and area residents attended. Food Services Director Georgia Johnson’s termination, first, then contract non-renewal, were on the agendas. Staff and citizens spoke in support of Georgia. Over 15 people spoke June 4. The letter asks for a meeting with the Directors “to discuss and resolve these serious concerns.” The request is prefaced with: “For the betterment of the La Conner School District, its staff, students and community,” The meetings were defined as having “careful thought and lengthy deliberation” in the press release. It also states: “The members of the LEA and PSE have lost confidence in Dr. Meissner’s ability to lead the La Conner School District with integrity. We understand and appreciate the gravity of the actions we have taken and did not enter into this decision lightly.” On Sunday, union leadership members told the Weekly News that both unions are standing together. They agree that it will be difficult for Meissner to resolve the issues voiced by their members. The Board’s response to their letter will inform the unions’ next steps. The PSE held two meetings to match the schedules of transportation staff. Several members were still unable to attend. The press release is signed by each union’s leadership: Alyse Sehlin and Lisa Thomas, LEA co-presidents and Randy Wills, PSE president and Laraine Drye, PSE vice president.