Aberdeen teachers vote ‘no confidence’ in superintendent

By Doug Barker

Grays Harbor News Group

The Aberdeen Education Association on Monday overwhelmingly passed a vote of “no confidence” in Aberdeen School Superintendent Alicia Henderson, calling for her immediate resignation or termination.

At Tuesday night’s online School Board meeting, all five directors read portions of a joint statement in support of Henderson.

“The Aberdeen School District Board of Directors would like to acknowledge the frustration of the community during these uncertain times. We thank you for sharing your concerns and assure you they are all heard and considered as we navigate this unfamiliar territory. As we work closely with Superintendent Henderson, we have witnessed her dedication to our district and believe she is acting proficiently and in good faith. For this, we would like to reaffirm our confidence in her this evening.” the statement began.

Teacher Cathleen Wilder, president of the teachers union, cited “a complete lack of transparency, needless layoffs resulting in the loss of valuable veteran teachers who have left the district, and upending teaching teams, creating unnecessary chaos around the district due to irrational and unreasonable transfers in addition to numerous layoffs.”

Henderson’s annual evaluation was on the agenda at Tuesday night’s meeting. They are typically done in executive sessions.

Tuesday afternoon, before the meeting, School Board President Sandra Bielski emphasized that it’s the board’s job to evaluate the superintendent.

“We have guidelines for the evaluation. Her evaluations have always been good,” Bielski said. “We certainly listen to the community and the employees, but the bottom line is it’s the board’s responsibility to guide and direct the the superintendent.”

Bielski also noted that Henderson doesn’t make such major decisions as layoffs all on her own.

“Every superintendent I’ve ever worked with has always sought guidance from the school board, but develops their plans with the help of their leadership. Alicia has never acted all on her own, especially in these big decisions lately,” said Bielski. “She’s sought guidance from our finance director who came from the (state) Educational Service District and is is continually sought after by other districts and from the HR manager. She has never acted alone.”

More than 40 Aberdeen teachers were were not invited back for next school year, and some veteran instructors will have to teach new subjects because of those layoffs. This action was taken after the school board accepted a budget outlook built on the premise that revenue would be reduced by double digits because of dropping enrollment — and the possibility that school funding will be reduced next year because the state treasury will be strained with COVID-19 expenses.

Henderson has been the one to present the conservative budget picture, and most of the resulting criticism has been directed at her.

“I understand there is a lot of pain with the reductions in our district,” Henderson said. “I don’t think there is any superintendent who would risk this wrath without the belief that it’s necessary because of their fiduciary responsibility to keep the district solvent.”

An online “vote of no confidence” petition was signed by about 1,000 people before the AEA took its vote.

“We can no longer stand by while this superintendent drives our students, our schools and our morale into the ground,” said Wilder. “We have lost faith and simply don’t have the time nor the wherewithal to continue trying to work with someone who has a complete lack of regard for students, staff, our schools and our community.”

She said the union was still tabulating votes Tuesday afternoon, but 76% of the membership participated in a video meeting and 99% of those supported the “no confidence” vote.

Wilder said other districts don’t seem to be reacting the way Aberdeen is in terms of deep cuts.

“We understand that in the financial situation, with a global pandemic, there is going to be a need for cuts,” she said. “It’s the volume of the cuts — and then, once you take that into consideration, how it was initiated, how people got the message in a very uncaring way.”

Teachers were notified by certified mail of the layoffs, but should have at least received a phone call, Wilder said. “Combine all of that and the lack of transparency with the budget and the funds.…”

She said Henderson talked about receiving gloomy revenue forecasts from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for 2020-21, but that isn’t what the union heard from OSPI. Wilder claims Henderson wasn’t transparent about where her information was coming from.

Henderson said she heard it from budget experts at OSPI, the Educational Service District and the Washington State School Directors Association, and that she had spoken with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. The message was consistent, she said, to plan for the worst.

“Not all districts need to be as prudent as we are,” she added, “but the future of our district is not as secure. In Aberdeen, we have unique circumstances and we’re not as secure as our neighbors.”

As for notification of teachers whose contracts weren’t being renewed, Henderson said there was a similar situation last year, and district officials met face to face with the teachers being laid off. That wasn’t possible this year because of the pandemic, she said.

Henderson said district officials talked to the AEA about how teachers would be notified, which was by email and certified mail. And while the reductions were being determined, she met weekly with the union, she said.

Bielski said Henderson has “continually met with union leadership and had conversations with them, and will come back and report to us. If she has concerns with things the union asked of her, she will ask our opinions on it.”

The joint statement from board members said Henderson has already told them she doesn’t plan to stay beyond her current contract.

“Please know that we value and encourage staff and community input. As we work toward common goals, it is essential that all parties demonstrate the same level of respect and courteousness. Staff members who have concerns about the direction of our district are encouraged to reach out to the board as well as their union leadership. Union leaders have the ability to bring staff issues to the district for discussion,” the statement read.

“Later tonight, we will uphold our obligation to review the goals that were set for the year, and conduct the annual evaluation of the superintendent. Dr. Henderson shared with us last year that she will not be asking for an extension, but is willing to honor the remaining two years of her contract.

“We encourage everyone to stay engaged by attending our meetings, reading district publications, and reaching out to individual board members. Remember that our children are watching us and looking to us for guidance. During this historical time, let’s show them how to respectfully engage in truthful conversations to enhance understanding and collaboratively solve problems.”

Wilder said union members didn’t take the no confidence vote lightly. “Our school community deserves a strong and trusted leader during these uncertain times,” Wilder says, “We expect the School Board to take action at their July meeting so we can focus on our students.”