My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:
Several weeks ago, I raised serious concerns regarding the capricious, unethical and arguably illegal process by which the West Bend School Board created, and then appointed, two high school principals. After receiving 444 pages of public documents from the school district, those concerns have been confirmed and heightened.
As a brief background, West Bend had two high schools with one principal. The district was working on hiring that principal when, in a matter of days and with virtually no public input, the school board split the administration into two principals — one for each high school. Then the school board appointed two existing district employees to those positions without posting the jobs, accepting applications, conducting interviews or engaging in anything that resembles a typical hiring process. The entire fiasco was government at its worst.
Now we get a look at the new principals the school board appointed, and there are some alarming red flags. Ralph Schlass was appointed principal for West High School. Schlass has been an administrator in the district since 1999 and has served in various roles — most recently as an assistant principal for West. His tenure and performance evaluations indicate that until recently, Schlass was a relatively pedestrian employee going about his job. Then, in 2015, his performance began to deteriorate.
In December 2015, Schlass was accused of threatening and intimidating teachers regarding a petition being circulated. He was accused of telling a group of teachers something akin to, “I am the person who does your performance evaluations. If I find your name on that petition, I won’t be happy. … I am telling you, don’t sign it.”
Schlass denied making that statement, but a statement to that effect was corroborated by several staff members. Schlass was suspended three days without pay in January 2016 and told to refrain from actions that “engages staff in a threatening or intimidating manner.”
In July 2016, Schlass was put on a one year Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). A PIP is a plan given to an employee who is underperforming. It is usually meant as a “shape up or ship out” employee performance tool. The PIP indicated that, among other things, Schlass, “has inconsistently demonstrate(ed) leadership for student learning,” “failed to consistently support staff development” and “failed to follow policies, rules, regulations and routines.”
Schlass was combative through the year and accused the process of being “discriminatory, arbitrary, and capricious.” After March, he stopped completing the documentation required by the PIP. At the end of June, the recommended outcome for Schlass after the PIP was to “remain on a Performance Improvement Plan.”
Three weeks after that recommendation, Schlass was promoted by the West Bend School Board to be the principal of West Bend West High School.
The new principal of West Bend East High School is Darci Vanadestine. Vanadestine joined the district as an assistant principal in 2014 and was promoted to director of teaching and learning a year later. Unlike Schlass, Vanadestine’s employment history is impeccable and reflects career of progressive growth and advancement.
Vanadestine is so well regarded that in June she applied to be the high school principal — when there was to be just one. After a rigorous interview process, indications were good for Vanadestine. On July 14, she was informed that the district was checking final references and the superintendent would follow up the following week. On July 20, Vanadestine found out “through a posting” that the school board was going to meet that evening to “hear public comments on the reconfiguration of the HS configuration.” Several hours later, the school board voted to have two principals instead of one and, as a consequence, eliminated Vanadestine’s job.
The next morning, July 21, Vanadestine was told by the superintendent that he recommended her for the job to be principal of both high schools on July 18. The superintendent then told Vanadestine that the board had split the position into two principals and instructed them to give her one of the jobs. On July 23, Schlass and Vanadestine were introduced as the new principals and their contracts were ratified Aug. 14.
Vanadestine writes, “This is not the job I originally applied for and knowing that my current job was eliminated due to the decision to have two principals I struggled greatly with the poor ethics and lack of process with the appointment.” Indeed. Any ethical person would.
Although it was necessary, the point of this narrative is not to dwell in the employment histories of either Schlass or Vanadestine. The point is that through their unscrupulous and erratic actions, the West Bend School Board has chosen to promote one male employee who had been suspended and flagged for poor performance and deprive a female employee of the larger job for which she was eminently qualified and had been recommended. Such actions are not only an incredible disservice to the children of the district who deserve the best possible leadership, but they erode employee morale, sow distrust with the citizens and expose the taxpayers to considerable legal liability.
School Board President Tiffany Larson did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the board’s actions.
In an effort to “show my work,” here are a few of the public documents that were mentioned in this column:
Here’s the letter where Schlass was suspended.
Whenever you do an open record’s request like this, the person involved is informed and allowed to include any commentary. Here is Schlass’ letter that he included. I would note that while he blames the former superintendent, he was suspended under the former superintendent, but put on a PIP under the current one.
Here is Sclass’ PIP conclusion.
Finally, I want to emphasize again what I said in the column. It isn’t really about Schlass or VanAdestine. They are both just district employees doing their work to the best of their abilities, I’m sure. But diving into their employment histories was necessary to show why the school board’s actions were so egregious. This new majority on the school board that ran on a platform of “transparency” and “running the district like a business” is running it like Enron. I truly hope that the board members reassess their actions and live up to the rhetoric they used to get elected.