School board's McCauley takes issue with Pflueger's 'More of the Story' | Guest Column

I have written this editorial as a single board member. 

Although I believe everything I have included has been discussed in public meetings, here it represents only my opinion. 

One could easily conclude from Mr. Pflueger’s recently published narrative that he has been a victim of an unfair system. I have been involved in each event he describes and know that to be untrue. 

Over the past two-plus years Gary has received direct, consistent, constructive feedback as to ways in which he needed to improve his skills and behaviors. This feedback has been based on a set of well understood and well-researched performance expectations for elementary school principals. 

Not only has he not acted on this feedback, he has openly disputed its validity. 

Gary claims to “sincerely believe no one person is more important than the education of the children in a community”.  If that is the case, then it is time for him to move on.

Mr. Pflueger’s reaction to this feedback including in our most recent meeting (discussed in detail below) has continued to convince me that he is not the right person to lead Friday Harbor Elementary. I have been disappointed by his refusal to take the steps necessary to allow the school and the community to heal. His latest attempt to return to his job more than two months after voluntarily resigning (which is now throwing our district into further turmoil) is placing his personal need and desires ahead of the best interest of the children and the district.  

Mr. Pfleuger first received feedback about the need to improve his skills the day he was offered the Friday Harbor Elementary Principal position.  Then Superintendent Michael Soltman communicated his reservations to Mr. Pfleuger about his hiring.  He was told that there were concerns about his lack of demonstrated educational leadership. At that time superintendent (Michael) Soltman received a commitment from Mr. Pfleuger that he would make a concerted effort to build his knowledge and skills in these areas.  

“Educational leadership” is not a code word for some esoteric set of administrative duties. It is at the core understanding and identifying what is needed to provide a better education for the students, communicating a vision and charting the path to make those improvements, proposing and aligning plans and funding within the district, the staff, and the community, and guiding the implementation of those plans through to a set of measurable objectives. Studies have shown conclusively that while teachers and community play hugely important roles in our schools, it is the quality of the educational leadership provided by the principals and superintendents which most directly determines overall student achievement.

In his first-year performance review with Mr. Soltman, Mr. Pfleuger was found to be deficient in areas of educational leadership and building administration. He had shown little or no effort to make improvements in these areas. While Mr. Soltman gave acceptable review scores, the review narrative describes this significant need for improvement.  

In the following year, Interim Superintendent Walt Wegener expressed serious concern with Mr. Pfleuger’s ability to perform his job and his unwillingness to respond to feedback. It was only at the insistence of the Board that he be given more time to improve that Mr. Wegener refrained from putting Mr. Pfleuger on a plan of improvement at mid-year. 

At the end of this year, Mr. Pflueger’s performance review clearly communicated to him that his performance in educational leadership and building administration remained unacceptable and that despite the feedback he was receiving he was neither showing effort nor making progress toward the goals which had been identified for him. Mr. Pfleuger wrote a letter rejecting the conclusions in Mr. Wegener’s review and asked that it be placed in his file.

In October 2010, new Superintendent Rick Thompson expressed concerns to the board and to Mr. Pflueger about his performance in these same key areas.  

He began a series of regular meetings with Mr. Pflueger in which he expressed his concerns to him and suggested concrete steps for making improvements. Again, Mr. Thompson was met with resistance. 

Most significantly, Mr. Pflueger, without consultation, resigned from a state training program which Mr. Thompson had identified as being critical to his career growth. To a third superintendent it became clear that Mr. Pfleuger had a very different belief about what is important in elementary school administration, and was unwilling to take feedback to the contrary. This was presented to him in another substandard performance evaluation for which he again wrote a letter of disagreement.

Mr. Pflueger was then given three choices: a structured plan of improvement in which Mr. Thompson would work directly with him in the needed areas, an alternate administrative role in the district, or resignation. 

Mr. Pflueger chose to resign. There was no coercion in this process. 

Plans of improvement have many safeguards and appeals procedures. They are designed with many legal safeguards to give the employee every opportunity to succeed. The administrative option was a valid job offer and would have allowed Mr. Pflueger to continue to contribute to the district with a generous salary and benefits. 

After he submitted his resignation letter, Mr. Thompson and I met with Mr. Pflueger to discuss how he would like it to be communicated. As with many resignations of this sort there were two options: either openly discuss the issues which led up to the parting of ways, or to allow Mr. Pflueger to say that this was a personal decision and to begin looking for a new job with as little of a cloud over his head as possible. 

Clearly we would not lie for him, but also would not offer more information than necessary. Mr. Pfleuger expressed a strong desire for the latter, to communicate that this resignation was his choice. We agreed to this strategy, which unfortunately I now regret.

Throughout this entire process the fundamental issue has not changed: 

Mr. Pfleuger professes that if he provides a safe, civil and productive climate for the staff and students, and does little more, the students will thrive educationally. We have great teachers at Friday Harbor Elementary. They are continuing to initiate and implement wonderful enhancements to our educational programs. 

But, this alone is not enough. We are a small district with three individuals tasked with the primary responsibility of designing and leading in the implementation of our district-wide curriculum: the two principals and the superintendent. They must all be active participants in this process for it to succeed. There is room for our district to do substantially better for our children than it is doing today. It can only do this with the right leadership. 

Three superintendents, a district consultant, the superintendent of our regional schools district, and the (school district) board of directors have felt that it is necessary for Mr. Pflueger to step up to contribute as an educational leader, and believe that, not only has he not done so, he has consistently refused to even acknowledge this as a valid requirement. 

Recently the board met with Mr. Pflueger for three hours to discuss his proposal to rescind his resignation. At this time we explored in depth whether there was any change of heart on Mr. Pflueger’s part to accept and work toward the leadership the state standards require of a principal and the past three superintendents have asked of him. His answer was no, he would not.

Now, Mr. Pflueger has publicly stated his desire to return as the elementary principal and there are those who continue to persecute the district trying to get it to accept this offer. This is a very difficult and unpleasant situation.

While I fully realize how popular Mr. Pflueger has been with the children, the staff and the community, I believe that I was elected foremost to help provide the best education for the children of our community. It is my opinion that a decision to bring Mr. Pflueger back as elementary principal, would be to refute decades of well-accepted research into school leadership, and while obviously popular with many in the near-term, would be selling our schools and the children of our community short.  

Sincerely,David McCauley

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


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