Residents seek answers from Sequim School Board about superintendent

SEQUIM — A group of concerned community members gave the Sequim School Board an earful at their Tuesday night meeting, with several asking board directors to re-consider extending Superintendent Gary Neal’s contract and moving the district closer to a plan to upgrade its facilities.

Neal is under contract with the Sequim School District through June 30, 2020. Board members have in the past two years declined to extend his three-year “rolling” contract.

Several individuals spoke up in favor of the district extending the superintendent’s contract beyond 2020 and to seek school facility improvements.

John Coulson asked the board to extend Neal’s contract for the district to have “strong, consistent, progressive leadership.”

Coulson said Neal has established good rapport with the community, spotlighting Sequim’s High School’s participation in Project Lead the Way — a national program that helps high school students in developing strong backgrounds in engineering and science fields.

“We need consistency at this junction,” Coulson said, pointing out his concerns for failing district infrastructure, the growing number of classroom portables and student overcrowding all coming at a time when possible changes to the School Board — three directors are up for election this fall — are imminent.

“Losing our superintendent will inhibit our ability to move forward and [get a bond passed],” he said.

Susan Sorensen, a Sequim resident and former board director for the Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center, also questioned the board’s approach to Neal’s contract.

“He showed he cares for the community,” Sorensen said. “You do not meddle with the operations of the district; you need to stay out of his way.”

Lori Anderson, who has two students in the school district, said, “I believe our district is at a crossroad. As a community, we need to get aggressive and get a bond passed, or a levy.

“[Neal] has the knowledge and the experience to guide us through it.”

Shenna Younger asked the board for clarification about the directors’ decision to not extend Neal’s contract.

“What is your plan for our kids? … Why are we having all these meetings?” Younger asked.

“What is your issue with Gary Neal? What’s going on? The public has no idea. It’s not fair to parents or the students.”

Board member Robin Henrikson sought to answer this, noting “my lack of confidence in our superintendent to pass a bond,” but her comments were soon cut off by board President Brian Kuh at Neal’s prompting, who cited a School Board policy that doesn’t allow for such comments.

Board member Brandino Gibson said members of the board sometimes need to have conversations about employees behind closed doors to consider internal issues.

“We simply can’t share everything we are privy to,” Kuh said. “There’s a lot of passion in this district around next steps.”

In January, Kuh said Neal’s mid-year review was “favorable” and that the board seeks to create a more formal process to evaluate the superintendent position under a state evaluation framework.

Kuh told board directors March 18 he feels they’re on a “good trajectory” with their evaluation process and that he’s in favor of waiting until June 30 to discuss an extension.

“He has 16 months on his contract, and if at the end of June 30 the board agrees to extend his contract, he’ll have 24 months,” Kuh said in March.

At the mid-April meeting, some speakers directed frustration toward board members for no formalized progress toward addressing Sequim school facility improvements.

Board member Heather Short said, “It’s hard to listen to these comments. You elected us. You trust us. If you think we put [facility issues] on the back burner, that’s ridiculous. To question my resolve to passing the bond or acting in the best interest of our students, I take offense to that.”

Both Henrikson and Short — whose positions, along with director Jim Stoffer’s are up for election this fall — said prior to the meeting they do not plan to run for re-election.

“I’m not running again,” Short said Tuesday evening. “Go ahead, throw your hat in the ring.”

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Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at editor@sequimgazette.com.

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