Orting residents picking sides in battle for school leadership

Teachers and parents in the Orting School District are at odds with members of the school board over the future of the district and its superintendent.

Members of the small East Pierce community spoke out during an emotional school board meeting last week, asking board members to declare their support for Marci Shepard. She became superintendent in April after Michelle Curry resigned the superintendent’s job she had held since 2009.

The board stopped short of issuing a public endorsement of Shepard last week. Instead, board members have scheduled a public forum for Thursday night (Nov. 12) to hear further concerns.

Shepard was assistant superintendent under Curry, but district employees and others worry that relations between her and the board have since soured.

Shepard — who said little during last week’s discussion about her superintendency — could not be reached for further comment this week.

“There is speculation that the board is moving toward dismissal of Dr. Shepard,” Orting High School Principal Diane Fox told the board last week. She said she was speaking for the district’s three other principals as well.

“The administrative team supports Dr. Shepard as our superintendent,” Fox said. “Our staff support Dr. Shepard as our superintendent. Our students and their families support Dr. Shepard as superintendent.”

Fox said educators in the district of more than 2,400 students want to see Shepard’s strong focus on instruction continue. She said speculation over Shepard’s fate was fueled by recent board executive sessions discussing employee performance — sessions she said Shepard did not attend.

Board President Iris Lilley cautioned against jumping to dire conclusions.

“Just because an executive session is about performance — don’t automatically assume somebody’s going to be terminated,” she told the estimated 45 people in the audience Nov. 5.

Board member Kay Lynn Smartt said she has attended two executive sessions since May, when she was appointed to fill a board vacancy.

“There was one time Dr. Shepard was not involved,” Smartt said.

Shepard’s supporters say they’re worried that if the board forces her out, the district could find itself searching for another leader for the second time in under a year. They also fear that if Shepard leaves, other members of the district administrative team and teachers will follow.

“We need stability in our district leadership to leverage long-term student growth,” Fox told the board.

The current climate stands in contrast to the board’s statement when it named Shepard superintendent in May, and agreed to pay her a salary of $125,000, plus a stipend of $2,500 for her doctoral degree.

“We have observed her leadership over the last five years, and she has successfully served as interim superintendent for the last two months,” board members wrote in a May message to the community. “With so many changes in education, we want to provide stability in our system.”

Several people say the turmoil that’s surrounded Shepard’s appointment has its roots in Curry’s departure.

In January, Curry was a finalist for a superintendent’s job in Longview, but withdrew, citing illness in her family. Curry told the Orting community she resigned to care for her ailing father. But many believe she was pressured out by a board unhappy with some of her decisions about programs. They say the friction carried over to Shepard, who has been criticized by board members for a lack of timely communication.

The dissension has played out not only at board meetings, but on social media as well.

After one October Facebook post speculated about what might have happened at a special board meeting, board member Laura Oriolt replied that the board needed to hire an attorney for advice on discussions with the city about district property.

She posted: “This town needs to stop with the speculation and rumors. ... There are no ‘secret meetings,’ nothing shady going on with the board, I promise you all. ... Enough with the social media bashing. Come ask questions and stop the rumors.”

There’s also an underlying conflict between the board and the teachers union, the Orting Education Association.

After the OEA held an election candidates’ forum at the school district Performing Arts Center, board President Lilley filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission alleging campaign violations. The complaint claims the forum violated laws that prohibit the use of school district facilities for political campaigns. The complaint also alleges that district internal email was used to send union members information about the forum.

Board member Jim Winkle — appointed to his seat in June and now locked in a close race against former city councilman Stanley Holland to retain it — said he didn’t attend the forum for “legal reasons.”

Oliver Chadwick, co-president of OEA, said the meeting with candidates was not for the purpose of making formal endorsements. OEA doesn’t endorse candidates, he said. Rather, he said, it was intended as a forum where candidates could answer questions from teachers.

He said he was surprised when the board president filed a complaint about the gathering, and he expressed confidence that the PDC will eventually rule in the union’s favor.

In the meantime, the OEA has made a public records request asking for emails and texts between board members and the superintendent.

The union isn’t the only one making records requests. Bonnie Walkup, who ran unsuccessfully against Lilley in the Nov. 3 election, has asked for copies of employment contracts and severance packages, communications from board members regarding the superintendent’s employment and other documents. Others have requested copies of district purchase orders and expense reports submitted by board members for attendance at conferences.

Still other complaints from the public have centered on special board meetings being called at inconvenient times, such as a weekday afternoon.

And some are critical of board members who have begun accepting stipends for attending meetings. Under state law, school board members can be paid up to $50 a meeting, but no more than $4,800 in a year.

Until recently, say the critics, it’s been the practice in Orting for most board members to forgo the stipend.

Amy Lalone, parent of three Orting students, said the recent turbulence in the district has already swept through administrative staff.

“Multiple people have left the district office,” she said. She fears that teachers will be next.

Chadwick is worried about the wider effect on the district. He’s hoping that the Thursday night public forum will help to clear the air.

“I don’t like all the ugliness,” he said. “My goal is to move forward, to build some communication and trust between everybody and the board.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

Public forum in Orting

The Orting School Board has scheduled a public forum to hear comments from the community and school district staff members.

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 12)

Where: Orting High School Performing Arts Center