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Tug-of-war over superintendent's paper, principal's resignation turns toxic

The San Juan Island School Board last week reaffirmed its decision to accept the resignation of elementary school principal Gary Pflueger and agreed that it would decide at a later date whether the district's superintendent deserves to be disciplined. 

Citing a lack of expertise with the terms and credentials of academia, the school board voted without dissent Feb. 23 to wait for a written opinion from the Office of Professional Practices, a branch of the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, before determining whether Superintendent Rick Thompson should be sanctioned for referring to a research paper -- authored 22 years ago while obtaining his master's degree -- as a "thesis". 

The decision to delay didn't sit well with many in attendance at the board's most recent meeting, which followed an annual review of the superintendent's performance that took place behind closed doors. 

"I'm sorry Rick, you don't belong here, you don't know where you are," C.J. Wavra said of the superintendent. "There is no glossing over this." 

Wavra, a fifth-grade teacher at the elementary school, maintains Thompson told the school's faculty and staff in mid-December that there was no immediate action pending involving Pflueger and his future with the district only weeks before he turned in his resignation. She said the paper's misrepresentation only adds to an increasing distrust. 

"You lied to us not just once, but two times," she said. 

The tug-of-war over the research paper capped another tumultuous week for the school district's embattled board of directors. Just hours before its Feb. 23 meeting, all five board members attended a hearing in Superior Court in which a petition for a recall election was -- for now -- withdrawn.  

The day before, board members met behind closed doors with Pflueger and representatives of the local teacher's union for another look at the performance of the ill-fated principal and its decision to accept his resignation. Based on that meeting, Pflueger said he believed that there was opportunity for reconciliation. 

The board, however, remained steadfast and openly discussed some of the principal's shortcomings and the reasons for its decision at last week's meeting.  

Chairman David McCauley noted that Pflueger received mixed reviews from three different superintendents during his 2-plus year tenure and failed to show improvement in the bureaucratic end of running the school, such as managing data and tracking school resources. Board member Brent Snow echoed the points raised by McCauley. 

"In my judgement there's a fundamental difference between Gary's assessment of his performance and that of the superintendent's and the board," Snow said. 

The controversy over the superintendent's research paper prompted a heated exchange between the board and several members of the audience. 

Several contend the superintendent only recently had sought to correct and to apologize for mislabeling the research paper, and that he did so only after being informed by the state's regional office of public instruction, the Northwest Educational Service District 189, that it received an inquiry about the paper and its mislabeling as a possible violation of professional codes of conduct.  

According to Dr. Jerry Jenkins, superintendent of NWESD 189, the Office of Professional Practices office determined no such violation occurred. Jenkins, who attended last week's board meeting, said a written opinion from OPP is expected later this week and that document will be available as a public record. 

Though referring to the paper as a thesis is inaccurate, Jenkins said the issue for the school board is to decide whether Thompson tried to deceive it by misrepresenting the paper two years ago when he applied for the position or whether it was an oversight and an honest mistake.  

"In my experience, I would not conclude there was a gross misrepresentation," he said. 

Snow added that he found no reference to the paper as a thesis following a recent and "detailed" review of Thompson's application and the paperwork he submitted during the hiring process. He said the word "thesis" appears only in an "auto-biographical" piece circulated by the board in introducing the top candidates for that position to the community.  

Neither Jenkins nor Snow's points gained traction with much of the audience. 
In fact, Barbara Starr, who authored a thesis 30 years ago in earning a master's degree, bristled at what she called the board's "vigorous defense" of Thompson and the paper.

She said the superintendent either embellished the significance of the paper on his own accord or allowed it to be misrepresented. In either case, she said, the leadership of the school district and its integrity are in question. 

"What we're talking about is a transgression by someone who should know better," she said. 

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