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The Great Divide: Community, school board clash over principal's resignation

Friday Harbor
Friday Harbor's Jean Staben and Steven Ryan, and daughter Anne Marie, take their support for principal Gary Plfeuger, and frustrations with the San Juan Island School Board, to the streets.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

Battle lines were drawn last week as the San Juan Island School Board remained resolute in its decision to accept Principal Gary Pflueger's resignation.

Despite numerous calls for reconsideration, and a heavy dose of criticism from a standing-room-only crowd of parents, teachers and disgruntled islanders -- the second in two weeks -- not a single member of the five-person panel showed any willingness to reexamine the decision at a Jan. 26 board meeting that spanned five hours.

In fact, school board Chairman David McCauley said the principal's pending departure -- Pflueger will be at the helm of Friday Harbor Elementary School until the end of the school year -- is in the best interest of all.

"My job is to do what I believe is in the best interest of our children," McCauley said of the role of an elected official and of his decision to uphold the resignation. He added that while many may want the board to reverse its decision, Pflueger resigned of his own accord and intends to seek employment elsewhere.

"I believe it's in Gary's best interest and the district's best interest to honor Gary's wishes," McCauley said.

Now in his third year at Friday Harbor elementary, Pflueger tendered his resignation Jan. 5.

He was accompanied two days later by Superintendent Rick Thompson in announcing his resignation to the faculty and school staff.

In addition to saying he intended to seek employment elsewhere, Pflueger, in an interview with the Journal Jan. 10, cited a "difference of opinion" with the board over "instructional leadership" as a factor in his decision.

Members of the school board, citing confidentiality laws on personnel matters, have consistently declined to take part in a public discussion about Pflueger's performance, his leadership, or about their reasons for parting ways with a principal who's proven to exceeding popular among the faculty and community.

That void has been filled by frustration and, according to Meghan Hoffman, with confusion as well.

Hoffman said that the board appears to "lack understanding", as it's well on its way in preparing to hire a new principal while parents are still "mourning" the loss of a beloved principal.

"We're not there yet," she said. "We're not getting much help with that. We're still trying to figure this out."

Thompson last week unveiled a preliminary plan outlining the process and a timeline by which the district intends to hire a new principal.

It calls for formation of a 12-person "search committee" -- by Feb. 7 -- that includes four faculty or staff, and four parents or community members. It relies on input, via the district website, from the community on its preferred qualifications of a principal, as well as similar input from faculty and staff.

Members of the board suggested that hiring a facilitator may help it to establish better lines of communication with the public and perhaps resolve some of the frustration that's followed in the wake of Pflueger's resignation.

The board's Brent Snow said the process could have been better handled even though he supports the end result.

"How we went about it has been ineffective," he said.

Ineffective perhaps, and, according to Laura Jo Severson, a public educator for more than 30 years, only temporary.

Severson said she saw many administrators come and go in her 33 years in public education. Whoever follows in Pfleuger's footsteps won't last for long, she said.

"The person who comes in after a popular principal leaves never lasts," she said. "They're not going to stay no matter what. You've created a untenable situation for whoever comes next."

For attorney Nick Power, who's spearheading the movement to undo the board decision, there's reason to believe Pflueger will still be at elementary school when the next school year rolls around,

"We're going to pursue all available options," Power said.

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