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Tacoma Schools manager appeals firing following high lead levels found in school water

Ken Wilson, Tacoma Public Schools’ former safety and environmental health manager
Ken Wilson, Tacoma Public Schools’ former safety and environmental health manager Courtesy

A manager accused by Tacoma Public Schools of failing to act on reports of lead in school water is contesting his firing, alleging in part that he was overworked.

The Tacoma School Board fired Ken Wilson, the district’s safety and environmental health manager, in a 3-1 vote May 12.

That followed the district’s discovery in April that water testing done a year before had shown high lead levels in some schools that had not been addressed.

Wilson appealed his firing Friday in Pierce County Superior Court.

“Everybody deserves to know the charges against them and to have a hearing before something drastic happens to them, and that is what’s missing in this picture,” his attorney, Mary Ruth Mann, said Monday. “I’ve never seen a termination action done so quickly without some kind of hearing.”

She said Wilson’s bid to regain his job means he will eventually have a hearing in front of a judge, and that the district has 20 days to provide the court with its record of why he was fired.

The appeal alleges he was let go amid “stigmatizing publicity” by the school district.

The district’s attorney, Shannon McMinimee, said Tacoma Public Schools did not release anything to the media about Wilson, except through the public records process.

He was given notice that would happen, she said, and did not take advantage of the opportunity he had to seek a court order to prevent the records that identified him from being released.

As for the appeal, she said the district “will be responding in due course in court.”

The appeal alleges that Wilson, who held the job since 2006 and had been with the district since 2002, was required to do work previously done by other positions.

The district overloaded him with work, “minimizing the time he had to perform environmental quality work,” the appeal states.

It also cites positive performance reviews from multiple supervisors, including McMinimee, that praise Wilson in part for handling increasing responsibilities. The district paid Wilson a base salary of $102,776 during the 2014-15 school year.

Mann has said Wilson didn’t initially see the results from May 2015 that showed high lead levels, because they were not in email reports from the lab that analyzed the water tests. Instead, she said they were in paper records sent with the lab’s invoice.

He found the results almost a year after the tests, at the end of April, and immediately talked to supervisors about them, she said.

One of the tests showed a fixture at Reed Elementary had more than 150 times the federal threshold for lead.

The district eventually found high lead levels in more than a dozen schools and recently tested more than 6,000 fixtures at all its schools. It replaced more than 300 found to be faulty and contributing to lead problems.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell

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