Tacoma schools manager fired after lead found in water was reinstated, paid $250,000

A Tacoma Public Schools health official who was fired in 2016 for failing to act on reports of high lead levels in school water was reinstated a year later and paid $250,000.

Ken Wilson was paid $100,000 in wages and $150,00 to a trust for illness, emotional distress and attorneys fees by the district, according to a 2017 settlement.

The former safety and environmental health manager was designated as on leave without pay or benefits from May 2016 through June 2017, according to settlement documents. His “retroactive” resignation was effective July 1, 2017.

The agreement was kept quiet for years, not requiring a public vote because it was lower than the $300,000 threshold set by district policy.

The settlement came to light after it was first reported in July by former News Tribune reporter Sean Robinson on Channel 253.

“As for this settlement, the district made a business decision to resolve the case based on the likely costs involved and because Mr. Wilson did not get to fully tell his side of the story before he was terminated,” district spokesperson Dan Voelpel said in an email.

In 2016, more than a dozen schools in Tacoma were reported to have high levels of lead in their water, prompting district-wide water testing and investigations into the source of the contamination.

The district faulted Wilson for not catching the reports, and the school board voted to fire him at a public meeting on May 12, 2016.

At the time, Wilson’s attorney Mary Ruth Mann told The News Tribune’s Debbie Cafazzo that Wilson had not seen the results at first but found them later.

“It was a wrongful termination,” Mann told The News Tribune by phone Wednesday. “(Wilson) was carrying an unreasonable load.”

Lisa Nolan, assistant superintendent for human resources, signed a letter of recommendation for Wilson dated June 30, 2017, the day his leave ended.

“The District acknowledges that Mr. Wilson did not get an opportunity to participate in the investigation surrounding water quality and that Mr. Wilson may have been able to provide mitigating information if he had been allowed to participate,” the letter read.

Since the incident, the district has changed the process for termination of administrative employees, by adding a review step for administrative terminations involving General Counsel and the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, Voelpel said.

“It shows how important it is that employees get fair treatment,” Mann told The News Tribune.