An independent investigation has found that a member of the Board of Education engaged in improper conversations with a district employee.
According to the investigation findings presented to the board at its July 10 meeting by attorney Mick Waldspurger, school board member Sandy Gehrke broke district policy when she directly questioned a district employee about personnel matters.
Waldspurger presented the following allegations:
- Gehrke directly contacted an employee about a personnel matter.
- Gehrke indicated to the employee that she was acting as a board member, so that the employee believed she was required to answer Gehrke's questions.
- Gehrke told the employee that she was working to determine whether the administration had told her the truth or had lied to her.
- Gehrke made false statements to the employee in a manner that made it appear as though the administration had lied to the employee.
- Gehrke made statements that compromised and undermined the district administration.
- Gehrke implied that the employee should not report any of their conversation to her immediate supervisor.
- The conversation was so upsetting to the employee that she lost a significant amount of sleep.
Waldspurger presented the following findings:
- Gehrke did contact the employee directly.
- Gehrke did identify herself as a board member when she spoke with the employee.
- Gehrke acknowledged making a statement that a lot of people had called her about issues with the administration.
- Gehrke said she would be happy to take on the employee's cause if she felt that she had been treated unfairly.
- Gehrke acknowledged telling the employee she was looking into whether the administration had told her the truth about a personnel matter.
- Gehrke falsely stated to the employee that she didn't know who would be performing a job function because the administration had not given her that information.
- Gerhke falsely stated to the employee that she was not aware that the district was completing a comparability study on wages.
- Gehrke told the employee that she would keep their conversation in confidence and that the district would not be happy with the employee if it found out they had spoken.
Waldspurger presented the following conclusions:
- Gehrke violated three provisions of Policy #2200 involving the board-superintendent relationship.
- Gehrke violated a provision of Policy #2300 involving board-staff communications.
- Gehrke violated a provision of Policy #7800 involving school board expectations and ethics.
- Gehrke acted in excess of her lawful authority as a board member.
- Gehrke disregarded training and legal advice provided to the board by Waldspurger, including six items on a list of seven things a board member should never do in response to a complaint or concern expressed by a citizen.
"Such conduct is very troubling and shows, in my opinion, disregard for the district's interests and the interests of its employees," Waldspurger said. "... This is extremely unusual conduct. ... I believe that she's intelligent and I believe that she knows her policies. When I met with her she brought a policy book with her, she was clear and had underlined policies. She's sharp and she's familiar with the policies of the district. And given that, I believe she willfully violated those policies. ... When I look at those factors, in totality of the circumstances, one could readily conclude that Ms. Gehrke's actions were part of an intentional course of action designed to undermine the administration."
Waldspurger presented the following courses of action available to the board:
- Express disapproval through board member statements
- Review and revise existing policies at a future board meeting
- Censure Gehrke at a future board meeting
- Disavow Gehrke at a future board meeting
Waldspurger told the board that removing Gehrke from the board was the most harsh action it could take, but he didn't believe Gehrke's actions warranted removal. He recommended the board address the issue with changes in policy and expressing disapproval.
"I think you have the power to do more, but sometimes wisdom is not exercising power," Waldspurger said.
He said censuring or disavowing Gehrke would drag the issue on further and take the board's focus away from student learning.
Gehrke acknowledged that she had made a mistakes in talking with the district employee*, but she vehemently denied making any false statements.
"I did not intentionally lie to this person," Gehrke said in her defense after Waldspurger's 15-minute report about her actions.
"I did not know this was going to happen tonight," Gehrke said. "I just met with Mr. Waldspurger yesterday morning. This is very quick in hanging me out to dry here."
Gehrke objected to the proceedings on grounds of open meeting laws that dictate information discussed in public meetings be noticed at least 24 hours before the meeting takes place.
"With such a general notice in the agenda, nobody in the public would know that this item was going to be discussed tonight," Gehrke said. "I object to discussion of it and believe it's a violation of open meeting law."
Gehrke also questioned whether Tom Holland, as board president, had the power to order the investigation in the first place.
"I was elected to the board to represent the public, to ask questions to try to create some transparency, and that's what I'm doing," Gehrke said.
After the meeting, Gehrke told Patch, "It's all a bunch of crap. I didn't lie to this person about one single thing. [Waldspurger] twisted everything that happened to make it sound like I did."
Holland Ordered Investigation
The investigation was ordered by board president Tom Holland, who said he felt the matter deserved swift action and transparency.
"The violation is a serious violation, and we had a complaint from a staff member," Holland told Patch after the meeting. "In order for us to protect that staff member and Sandy, we needed to investigate it. ... We'd rather be doing it behind closed doors, but when we do that behind closed doors the public is not aware of what action we are taking and therefore rumor mills can spread."
Superintendent Urges Moving On
After the meeting Superintendent Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten told Patch that she wants the board to put this matter behind it to focus on student learning.
"I made a comment to Sandy, and I said, 'I hope that in the future we can build her trust in the administration,'" Bowen-Eggebraaten said. "I'd like to meet with her and talk about that."
* An earlier version of this post stated that Gehrke acknowledge multiple mistakes. She acknowledges only one, according to the following statement she sent to Patch via email on Tuesday, July 17, 2012:
"This will inform you that you have reported incorrect information in the Patch relative to Tuesday night's board meeting. I believe you state that I admitted to 'multiple' transgressions. I do not know where you got your information, but it is not correct. This will inform you that I admitted to only one thing, and that is it may have been a mistake to call an acquaintance who is also an employee of the school district. This email will correct the record."
Some items in this post above may be corrected when exact wording of school district policies is obtained and a full transcript of the meeting becomes available.