Sour taste follows superintendent Bria's split with B.G. schools

School board faces challenge of regaining area's trust

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

Published:

 
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Timeline of Bria settlement

Feb. 12: A four-year, $103.3 million Battle Ground maintenance and operation levy fails on first attempt.

Unspecified date after the levy failed: School board quietly asks Superintendent Shonny Bria to leave district.

April 23: Levy passes on second attempt.

April 29: Bria announces what she describes as her “retirement” at a school board meeting.

April 29: Settlement agreement is signed by Bria and board president John Idsinga. The agreement is kept secret for two months.

May 22 and 29: The Columbian submits public records requests for documentation regarding any money the district is paying Bria for the two years remaining on her contract.

May 30: The district responds to public records request by saying: “There is no record or indication that Shonny Bria will be paid for the remainder of her contract.”

June 26: The school board releases to the news media the agreement with Bria, which includes pay and insurance benefits for two years and other payments totalling $401,715.

July 29: The district responds to The Columbian’s public records request for the school board’s last four performance evaluations of Bria with: “There are no written performance evaluations of Shonny Bria.”

July 29: The school board holds a special meeting which includes public comment for the first time since Bria’s buyout was announced.

July 29: In response to newspaper articles about the buyout, the district announces it contacted the state auditor’s office and requested an accountability audit as soon as possible.

Aug. 1: The state auditor’s office reports: “We’ve had a fair number of calls about Battle Ground.”

Comments of the split

WHAT BOARD MEMBERS SAY

John Idsinga, president: “I don’t think the board’s proud of what they’ve done. I think we should apologize to the public.”

Monty Anderson, vice president: “I think the process in general happened the way it should have happened up until April 29. Then that’s when mistakes started happening. … We knew there was an agreement. We should have said, ‘Yes, there’s an agreement, but we can’t talk about it.’”

Mavis Nickels on July 22: “Did we do anything wrong? No. Did John (Idsinga) do anything wrong? No. Did Shonny (Bria) do anything wrong? No.” At July 29 school board meeting: “Could we have done things better? Sure we could. That means we have to accept the responsibility.”

Steve Pagel: “Having passed the levy, the district is in a very good position right now, except for this incredibly damaging event. The position the board has put the district in is difficult. I apologize for it.”

Ken Root: “If we could do it all over again, I’d be completely transparent. The day it (the agreement with Bria) was signed would be the day it was released.”

WHAT DISTRICT LEADERS SAY

Duane Rose, acting superintendent: “There was speculation. We knew what everyone else knew. Our focus is to get things back in order. Restore the trust.”

Lynn Hicks, acting deputy superintendent: “We knew it would not be well received by the public. For Duane and I, we knew there would be steps to mend things.”

Gregg Herrington, communications director: “I didn’t know about it. I think that was probably the case … for just about everybody in this building (the district office).”

WHAT COMMUNITY MEMBERS SAY

Lisa Walters, mayor of Battle Ground: “How do you rebuild trust when you’ve done so much damage privately?”

Blaine Dohman, parent and captain at Clark County Fire & Rescue: “It makes you feel that there’s something being hidden. The number one thing they can do to rebuild trust is to have full disclosure.”

Vicki Sparks, Battle Ground Citizens for Better Schools: “Did they not think there was going to be a dustup, push back? … If they’re worried about regaining trust, that’s something that occurs with a pattern of behavior. It’s not going to happen between now and September, in my mind. I think they have to do the meetings. They do have to listen to people. But at the same time, they have to do the actions. Be transparent. Be honest. Be reliable. Be predictable. Be focused on education.”

Ted Schelvan, president of Battle Ground Education Association: “How much do we really believe now of what the school board and district say when it’s behind closed doors?”

WHAT PUBLIC RELATIONS EXPERTS SAY

Dianne Danowski Smith, Publix Northwest PR-PA, Portland: “Trust … can be lost in an instant or slowly erode over time. … People who choose to work in leadership positions need to really understand the concept of transparency. As the old saying goes: ‘Sunlight gets everywhere.’” Oftentimes, there is a louder human cry among people when it’s a taxpayer-financed entity. And those people in that community (Battle Ground) need to have their voices heard.”

—Susan Parrish

When the Battle Ground school board announced its secretive $401,715 buyout of Shonny Bria, the district's superintendent for the past 15 years, the battle lines were drawn in the north Clark County community.

On one side stand the five school board members who orchestrated the buyout with Bria after asking her to leave with two years remaining on her contract. On the other side are those who were left in the dark: outraged parents, community members and even the district's own employees.

Emotions were still high at last week's school board meeting, the first opportunity for public comment since the buyout was announced.

"The public wants the details," Walt Elliott, a retired Amboy resident said at the meeting. "I can't believe you've led us down the road of untruths."

The Battle Ground district has an uneasy relationship with its voters, but two Portland public relations professionals experienced in reputation and crisis management say there is still hope for the Battle Ground school board to regain the public's trust and move ahead.

That process entails being transparent, owning up to the discretion, apologizing, repairing the damage and communicating with the public, they said.

But the first step is for the school board members to acknowledge there's a even problem to be resolved.

Some school board members have acknowledged a problem, but only for the secretive way the deal was handled, not that the buyout was done at all.

"We could have handled it better," said John Idsinga, board president. "The board should have had a little more patience, a little more discussion and we would have come out with a better solution."

"I do think we made a mistake in the way it was presented to the public," Monty Anderson, board vice president, said.

District officials have promised to hold public meetings so community members can voice their concerns. But as of yet, no meeting dates have been set, said Duane Rose, the district's acting superintendent who was appointed to lead the district while the school board searches for Bria's replacement.

Deal kept secret

Sometime after voters rejected a school levy on Feb. 23, school board members met with Bria, 65, and asked her to leave the district two years before her contract expired.

The board and Bria reached an agreement, signed by both Idsinga and Bria and dated April 29, that spelled out generous terms for the departing superintendent: $300,000 for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years; two full years of medical coverage for Bria and her husband, worth $45,360; vacation cash-out of $41,149 for 38 days and payment of $15,206 into a health savings account for unused sick leave. The total is $401,715.

The agreement was signed on April 29, but the school board and Bria kept the agreement a secret from the district's staff, voters and the media for two months -- even denying its existence in response to written public records requests from the media.

It appears the school board may have violated state laws regarding open meetings and public records.

After Bria announced what she described as her "retirement" during an April 29 school board meeting, persistent rumors circulated throughout the district about a possible buyout of Bria's contract.

Bria refused to talk with The Columbian. Idsinga, the school board chairman, repeatedly said that Bria would not receive any compensation for those two years.

On June 26, a week after the school year ended and with only four days left before Bria's departure, the school board released the agreement -- complete with the $401,715 buyout --to the public.

Public outrage

Battle Ground district residents and district employees interviewed about the situation expressed less concern about the size of Bria's buyout than the secretive way the school board handled the deal. Many are talking about how the school board broke the public's trust and wonder how the board can regain that trust.

"They do something underhanded like this buyout," said Sheri Gomulkiewicz, whose grandchildren attend district schools. "I think 'betrayed' is the best word."

Battle Ground Mayor Lisa Walters said, "Anytime you do anything in a back room deal and it becomes public, you can't backpedal on that. How can you say you're sorry when it seems deliberate?"

Stephanie Etulain, a teacher at Tukes Valley Middle School, voiced the opinion of many district residents when she said it would have been better if the board had made the separation agreement public immediately after it was signed rather than hiding it and waiting two months to release it after school had ended.

Ted Schelvan, president of the Battle Ground Education Association, said it won't be easy for the school board to rebuild the public's trust.

"We tell our kids, 'We can believe you, but as soon as you break our trust, it takes a long time to gain it back,'" he said.

Audit plans stepped up

The state open records ombudsman, Tim Ford, and the state's auditor's office have been notified about the school board's secretive handling of Bria's buyout.

Last week, Tina Watkins of the state auditor's office said, "We've had a fair number of calls about Battle Ground."

Although the state office was not scheduled to conduct an accountability audit of the district until late 2014, Duane Rose, the district's acting superintendent, and Lynn Hicks, acting deputy superintendent, contacted Watkins and requested an accountability audit as soon as possible. The audit is expected to be performed as early as mid-September, Watkins said.

Board's response

School board members have said little about the separation agreement with Bria, which was worked out in executive session, which is closed to the public.

In an interview on July 22, board member Mavis Nickels was unapologetic.

"Did we do anything wrong? No. Did John (Idsinga) do anything wrong? No. Did Shonny (Bria) do anything wrong? No," Nickels said.

That position had moderated at the July 29 school board meeting.

"Could we have done things better? Sure we could," Nickels said. "That means we have to accept the responsibility."

When asked whether the school board should apologize to the community, Idsinga said, "You bet. Why not? Does it always help? I don't know. I don't think the board's proud of what they've done. I think we should apologize to the public."

Several community members have contacted Idsinga to express their opinions, he said. "Some are upset about the settlement. Some are upset that Shonny is gone. It's from every angle. That includes the way it was handled."

Expert perspective

"Can an entity regain its public's trust?" posed Dianne Danowski Smith, a Portland public relations professional experienced in crisis management. "Absolutely, and it should, as soon as that trust is impacted or begins to erode."

"Where we see issues getting worse is when you've left people in the dark or have covered something up," added Darcie Meihoff, a public relations professional experienced in reputation management.

"Number one is own up to the mistake," Meihoff said. "There may have been good reason for the action to be taken. Even if it's an unpopular action, it still needs to be explained.

"Commit to telling the public how you're going to fix the problem and how you're going to prevent this from happening again, how you're going to take specific steps," said Meihoff, vice president at CMD, a Portland public relations agency.

"Secrecy and closing ranks are the antitheses of a transparent relationship with the public," Danowski Smith said. "For the school board right now, they're facing a huge distraction, and possibly for their success in going forward as a school board."

District residents also have weighed in on what the board and district can do to regain the public's trust.

"Both the school board and the district are going to have to overhaul how they communicate with the public," said Blaine Dohman, whose children attend district schools. "Transparency is going to be a glaring issue."

Dohman, a captain with Clark County Fire & Rescue, said the public agency he works for conducts its business in a transparent fashion. He said the school district need to be just as transparent.

Schelvan, president of the teacher's union, said he hoped the school board would apologize publicly. He also said he'd like to see the board change their afternoon meetings to evenings to allow working people to attend.

Moving forward

As the district moves forward, rebuilding trust will be in the hands of the temporary management team: Duane Rose, acting superintendent, and Lynn Hicks, acting deputy superintendent. Both are experienced Battle Ground administrators.

The school board is hiring a headhunter firm to find qualified candidates to replace Bria.

"We put a lot of faith in our superintendent," said Patty Alway, a 20-year teaching veteran at Prairie High School. "They need to do a good job in finding the next superintendent. They need to do a really good job of hiring a leader who is going to be for the community, and not for themselves."

"We want a clear definition of monitoring the new superintendent," said Cathy Golik of Battle Ground Citizens for Better Schools. "Then a clear definition of what happens in case of termination. It's really not rocket science."

"I'm hoping the public will continue to be part of the conversation," added Schelvan, president of the teachers' union. "They'll have an opportunity to elect two new school board members in the fall."

Idsinga's school board term expires at the end of the year. He is not running for re-election. Neither is Steve Pagel. Monty Anderson, whose term also expires this year, is running again. Ken Root and Mavis Nickels' terms on the board expire in 2015.

"I would encourage the school board to listen to their constituents," Schelvan said.

"I ask the board to operate in the light of day," said Stehanie Etulain. "Keeping secrets, in my opinion, is no longer allowed in the Battle Ground district."

Susan Parrish: 360-735-4515; http://twitter.com/Col_Schools; susan.parrish@columbian.com