FHES principal Gary Pflueger speaks out: 'More of the Story' | Guest Column

Friday Harbor Elementary School Principal Gary Pflueger will leave his position at the end of the school year.  - Journal file photo
Friday Harbor Elementary School Principal Gary Pflueger will leave his position at the end of the school year.
— image credit: Journal file photo

I have been very hesitant to open conversation on my resignation from Friday Harbor Elementary School.

I have a great respect for the public school system, which I have enjoyed for many years, and I do not want to distract from its mission. I sincerely believe no one person is more important than the education of the children in a community.

Over the last month my thoughts have been torn between: "what’s best for my family and career, what’s best for FHES & the community, and what is best for the district". 

The answers to these questions are now at odds. My professional life and personal life has become deeply and irreparably intertwined. 

I have always prided myself on maintaining honest and open communication with my students, staff and community. With this said, I do want to make public that I have not supported the recall petition of the School Board. This action is community based and I have repeatedly declined input.

But since the Board Meeting on Feb. 23 my credibility has been in doubt. There are people questioning my ability to effectively lead an elementary school.

I have been under pressure by both sides —-- the Board/Superintendent and the Teachers/Parents -- to do what is right.

Because of this I feel a need to tell my side of the story. As I tell my students, there is a difference between standing up for your rights and tattling on others.

How we got here deserves clarity for this has been the result of a ‘perfect storm’. First a little background. 

For the first three years a school principal is hired as a provisional employee, basically, with an "at will' status. The district may choose to go in another direction within these three years. 

Over these three years we have experienced great challenges. The district has cut approximately $1 million from the budget and each year hired a new superintendent. It has not been business as usual. 

In any profession, the measure of employee performance is written in an annual evaluation by the immediate supervisor. In the principals’ case, this is the superintendent. As the board pointed out Wednesday, Feb. 23, last year I received a less than average evaluation from our interim superintendent despite an increase in academic scores and overwhelming staff and parental support. 

This was the first such evaluation placed in my file in the 22 years I have served as principal. 

The Professional Certification class is required by all Washington school administrators. You must complete two years of successful administrative duty and then have three years to complete the course. It is very intensive, time consuming course which requires travel to the mainland. 

In October, superintendent Thompson informed me that I did not have board support. As a result of this conversation I decided to postpone the Pro Cert class knowing I had an additional two years to complete the course. 

The superintendent and I continued conversations over the next few months. We briefly discussed the option of implementing a plan of improvement. 

Based on the opinion of the Washington Association of School Principals and my own experience, I declined this option. 

Plan of improvements are often used to remove employees and is usually the first question in an interview. I knew I could not go there. 

In December, I was told by the superintendent that on Jan. 4 I would receive a negative evaluation and would have the option to accept a subordinate position within the district (not at the elementary school) or resign my position effective at the end of the school year. The subordinate position would be a new job created by the district. 

In this time of budget cuts, forming a new position would create a hardship on the district. Accepting a subordinate position would also not help further my professional career nor was it equitable or affordable.  

Resignation was my only choice. 

I turned in my resignation to Mr. Thompson and Mr. McCauley on Jan. 5 and was told to announce "this was my choice". By doing this I would be given a positive recommendation for seeking new employment. 

As I stated at my interview two and a half years ago, it was my intent to retire from this principal position at Friday Harbor after 8-10 years. This being said, sticking to “this was my choice” was not entirely true.

The hidden items in this course of events are the two evaluations of my performance at FHES, one by the interim superintendent, Mr. Wegener, at the end of last year, and the second by Mr. Thompson in January. 

Evaluations can be subjective and in this case none of my objective achievements were noted or recognized. Maintaining a positive school climate and overseeing student safety were both marked ‘below standard’; an area which I pride myself. I strongly disagreed with the overall nature of the evaluative reports and stated so by an attached rebuttal on both. Differences of opinion do occur, but in this case the difference terminated my employment.

So what is “Educational Leadership” at an elementary school? 

In my opinion it is the ability to make connections with others based on honesty and trust; to create a bond. It is providing a service to educate children in the basic skills (and then some) so that they can make informed decisions. It is the ability to assist teachers in this process and provide professional development to become better at this service. 

Educational leadership is looking at measures that show progress toward a goal; it is changing techniques if this is not happening. Educational leadership is not placing data over dialog but using it to improve instruction. Positive instruction is occurring at FHES. The staff is incredibility professional and thorough. San Juan Island is fortunate. The children are fortunate! 

On Feb. 9, in light of the vast community support, I sent a letter to Mr. Thompson and the School Board offering to rescind my resignation. Yes, for those who don’t know yet, given the choice I would stay at FHES. I felt if we could work through the difference of opinion of educational leadership and a solution could be found.

The board scheduled a special meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 22, allowing three teachers, a counselor and myself to discuss my offer with the board and Mr. Thompson. The teachers were allowed to review my evaluations. I was encouraged that a resolution may be reached. 

On Wednesday, Feb. 23, at the regular board meeting, it was made very clear that there would be no resolution. 

The School Board and superintendent have made a decision to move in a new direction. Their decision was legal, but obviously in my opinion, the teaching staff and many in the community not what was best for the school. Here in lies the huge difference of opinion. 

Both sides on this issue feel their view is correct. I place no blame on the decision. Blaming others is a lost opportunity for personal growth. I did make the choice to resign. I understood this as a binding choice. I will take up the challenge of selling my house and finding another principal position.

Recently, on a late-start snow day, I had the opportunity to address the staff of FHES. This situation has created a rift in our community; people are passionate to support the teachers or the board. This has created conflict within the school. 

My message to the staff (was) clear and firm: the school is “Sacred Ground”. Differences need to stay out of the school and away from the students.

While at school we have one unified purpose, that is teaching and learning. I will ask the community to do the same. The school is for the students and not the place to make a political stand. 

Annie and I sincerely thank the community of San Juan Island for the overwhelming support. If possible, we would like to continue contributing to this community. 

I am proud of my accomplishments at Friday Harbor Elementary School. I stand by my expansive and exceptional administrative experience and abilities. I strongly encourage all community members to continue supporting the students, teachers and San Juan Island School District. 

Editor's note: This opinion piece was submitted to the Journal by Mr. Plfueger on March 14.  



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