Politics & Government

Leader of state board fired after complaints of ‘toxic’ work environment

The headquarters for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia. The Professional Educator Standards Board works out of the OSPI headquarters.
The headquarters for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia. The Professional Educator Standards Board works out of the OSPI headquarters. Staff photographer

The director of a state board focusing on K-12 teaching standards was fired quietly in late September following a chaotic year at the department marked by staff turnover, workplace conflict and accusations of unprofessional behavior that hampered state work.

The Professional Educator Standards Board dismissed Jennifer Wallace after a Sept. 29 session that was closed to the public. In an open meeting afterward, the board offered no comment on why Wallace was fired. She was the PESB’s first and only executive director since the department was created by the Legislature in 2000. She made $115,900 last year, according to a state database.

A small department with 17 staffers and 12 appointed board members, the PESB is responsible for overseeing the credentialing of prospective teachers and paraeducators. The PESB also administers the nine-member Washington Paraeducator Board, which was created in 2017.

As part of its duties, the PESB tussles with complex issues such as how to hire and retain high-quality teachers during the current statewide shortage. Lawmakers and the governor also lean on the board for advice when weighing policy changes regarding teaching.

The board is currently recruiting a permanent executive director.

News releases from the board’s leadership and responses to repeated questions from The News Tribune and The Olympian shed little light on why Wallace was dismissed.

Interim director Alexandra Manuel said in an email that “privacy considerations” precluded the department from commenting on the change in leadership. She did write the PESB wanted “a new vision that will highlight growth opportunities and help (the board) more effectively respond to the evolving needs of educators in Washington state.”

Documents obtained by the news outlets through a public-records request, including performance evaluations of Wallace from autumn of 2017, paint a different picture. Some employees asked to fill out the evaluations signed their names to them, others did not. The News Tribune and The Olympian have decided not to publish any of their names at this time.

The documents show a workplace with low morale that had struggled to cope with bitter internal divides and a lack of trust in leadership. Some employees alleged Wallace withheld information from the board or screamed at workers.

In an interview with The News Tribune and The Olympian, Wallace agreed there was an “unhealthy” office environment for a time, but she denied withholding information or yelling at anyone.

Volatile office dynamics played a part in significant staff turnover and a loss of key institutional knowledge, according to records.

Nine members of the PESB’s 17 employees left for other jobs in roughly the last year, according to the board. That includes an influential top manager, Joe Koski, who was pushed out in November 2016. He was the director of data and research.

One former employee called Wallace a “dedicated public servant” in her evaluation of the director and said she “really enjoyed working with (Wallace) for almost my entire tenure at PESB.”

But the woman described the overall environment at the PESB as “toxic” by the time she left the agency in February.

“I wanted more opportunities to grow, learn and refine my skill set,” she wrote about why she left. “And I’d hit a wall at PESB because so much energy was being paid to managing the dysfunction.”

Employee turnover deeply concerned some board members, who said in autumn 2017 evaluations of Wallace that the turmoil affected the department’s work.

One board member, who did not leave a name, wrote staff departures “adversely impacted multiple initiatives that have benefited from the skill and continuity of the leadership they provided.”

Wallace admitted the department went through a rough patch. Some of the staff departures were because of workplace conflicts and other issues she could have solved better or prevented, she said.

But she said the organization made strides in recent months after concerted efforts to heal issues and boost morale. Some of the staff turnover was routine, Wallace said. For example, an employee left the department to attend to family issues, she said.

Wallace said she had a track record of success and good performance reviews and didn’t expect to be fired. Some board members and staff left positive remarks in the 2017 performance evaluations, saying the department had climbed past the turbulent era and was doing better.

Wallace continues to work on policy analysis for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction on a contract that ends in January, she said.

“To go from glowing to this, I was just in shock,” Wallace said, referencing past work evaluations.

Conflict at the office

Records show PESB staffers struggled with infighting for a significant amount of time before Wallace was fired. The schism mainly appeared to be between two teams in the office, one run by Koski, the other by Manuel.

There were personality conflicts and staffers talked about each other behind their backs, Wallace said.

Wallace said some of the problems could have been avoided if she had jettisoned Koski earlier, although she did take much of the blame for the situation.

“I believe the buck always stops with the leader,” Wallace said. “I own it all.”

Koski, in a statement, said he had “many difficult discussions with Jennifer over the years about her inappropriate behavior towards staff and the effect on staff moral.”

He said state Human Resources officials assessed the office culture in fall 2016. A summary of that assessment was obtained by The News Tribune and The Olympian by a public records request. It contains criticisms of Koski and Wallace that echoed much of the 2017 staff evaluations.

Koski said Wallace “chose to bury the findings and ask for my resignation” rather than address the situation properly.

Koski’s departure did not appear to smooth things over.

He had many allies in the department, according to the evaluations.

The former staffer who called Wallace a “dedicated public servant” also said in her evaluation that Koski was pushed out with little warning, which “terrified” remaining staff at the PESB concerned about job security. Koski’s abrupt departure also left employees scrambling to pick up work he would have performed.

Education groups that routinely work with the PESB “went crazy, asking staff lots of questions that we couldn’t answer,” the woman wrote in the evaluation.

Others had similar concerns.

Fear of retaliation for disagreeing with Wallace or defending Koski was a running theme in some of the evaluations.

Half of the department’s employees said they felt they were unable to “speak or share with others about work or the environment at work,” according to the summary of staff interviews done by Human Resources in 2016.

Other concerns

General frustration over workplace roles also was a common complaint in the evaluations. At one point, only four staff members had a good understanding of their role at the department, according to the HR interviews.

In one evaluation of Wallace, another former staffer said she didn’t have a job description for roughly 11 months, prompting Koski to suggest she look for work elsewhere rather than continue being stuck in limbo.

“The climate of the office and (Wallace’s) role in creating it is the primary reason I left,” the woman wrote.

At least four employees and one unnamed board member also accused Wallace of withholding information from the board that was necessary to decision making in the aim of controlling policy decisions.

A third former staffer wrote in her evaluation that employees who questioned Wallace for “withholding information” were disciplined and “had key projects removed from their work plans.”

Wallace denied withholding information but said she would keep some proposals or ideas from the board if they were illegal or not consistent with the board’s “strategic plan.”

In the board’s performance evaluation of Wallace, some of the members took issue with her relationships with outside organizations, such as school districts.

The unnamed board member concerned about turnover wrote in the Wallace evaluation that the community “most strongly impacted” by the work at the PESB “largely perceives the board initiatives in an adversarial fashion.”

Still, Wallace said she believes the board fired her mainly because of complaints in the staff evaluations — even though she thinks most of the problems were eventually overcome under her leadership. Some staff and board evaluations say just that.

Ongoing efforts to bring cohesion and transparency “greatly improved” staff morale and accountability “over the last several months,” wrote one department employee.

Yet at least some on the board were clearly worried about how the dour internal mood at the office had affected the department’s performance.

“The morale of the organization does not appear to be high,” wrote the unnamed board member.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein