Battle Ground school district may have violated state law

Officials denied deal signed with Bria existed

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

Published:

 

Battle Ground Public Schools appears to have violated the state's Public Records Act by withholding a severance agreement with its embattled former superintendent.

The school board members signed an agreement with Superintendent Shonny Bria on April 29, withheld the document for almost two months, and when The Columbian and The Reflector made specific public records requests about Bria's compensation, the district denied that such a record existed.

"When it's signed by both parties, it then becomes a public document," said Matt Miller, deputy state auditor of the Washington State Auditor's Office.

Miller said he will be looking at the Battle Ground case.

The school board's agreement with Bria "is on my radar," said Tina Watkins of the state auditor's office. Watkins noted that she's read the newspaper articles about the Bria agreement and has kept copies in the district's file.

The state's Timothy Ford said, "They are required to provide full disclosure unless it's exempt under state law. This seems to be an intentional misstatement that there wasn't an agreement when there was."

Ford is the state's open government ombudsman.

"From what you've told me," Ford said, "yes, it seems intentional."

Sometime in the spring, Bria was asked to leave the district with two years remaining on her contract. The district had failed its first levy attempt on Feb. 12 and was running a second attempt on April 23. Whether the levy passed, Bria was no longer wanted at the helm of the third-largest school district in Clark County, said Monty Anderson, school board vice president.

'No win'

"This whole deal has been a no-win situation for all concerned," John Idsinga, school board president, said Thursday afternoon.

Idsinga has been tight-lipped about negotiations with Bria and why the school board decided it was better to pay off Bria's contract — to the tune of $300,000 in a cash buyout plus a generous medical benefits package for Bria and her husband for two years. The total value of her departure compensation is $401,715.

Because the negotiations with Bria were made during executive sessions of the school board, Idsinga is checking with the district's attorney to find out what he can talk about publicly.

In a statement released on June 25, the board offered its explanation for withholding the signed contract for almost two months: Bria had applied for superintendent positions in other districts.

"The Board and Dr. Bria agreed to hold the settlement in abeyance pending the outcome of the positions for which she had applied," the statement said.

It added that Bria had agreed "to void any economic provisions if she obtained a superintendent position prior to June 30, 2013. Given the fiscal importance to the district, all were in agreement."

The Columbian started by sending the district a public records request on May 29 asking: "Is Shonny Bria being paid any money beyond her 2012-13 contract? A year ago she signed a three-year contract. She has fulfilled only one year of her contract (2012-2013). Is she being paid any money for the unfulfilled 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years? If so, how much is she being paid?"

The next day, Trudy Storey, the district's paralegal, replied with a letter that included: "There is no record or indication that Shonny Bria will be paid for the remainder of her contract."

This week, Storey told The Columbian she was sorry that she had been given incorrect information. She said she didn't know about the agreement with Bria because it hadn't been filed with the district until it became public on June 26.

Evaluations

The Columbian did another public records request on Monday asking for Bria's performance evaluations to determine why Bria was offered a three-year contract in the spring of 2012, but a year later, the school board was so dissatisfied with Bria that it bought out Bria's remaining two years on her contract and asked her to leave the district.

On Thursday, The Columbian learned that the board had conducted no formal performance evaluations of Bria, at least since 2009. Instead, Bria made a list of goals for herself and presented to the school board how she'd met the goals, according to Anderson, school board vice president.

Anderson was elected to the school board in 2009. He is the controller for Tapani Underground in Battle Ground.

No confidence

Many constituents approached Anderson and told him it was time for change, and that buying out Bria's contract would be worth it.

About a week after the Battle Ground levy failed on Feb. 12, hundreds of district residents packed into a public school board meeting at Battle Ground High School where voters voiced their concerns about the district. The meeting lasted seven hours.

After the first levy failure, Anderson said he kept hearing, "It's time for a change." He said he met with constituents around the district to find out why people voted against the levy.

"The majority said they lost trust and confidence in the administration of the district," Anderson said.

Surprise announcement

Anderson said the April 29 school board meeting didn't go as it had been planned. The board had planned to include Bria's settlement agreement in the consent agenda. The board votes on consent agenda items as a block, with no discussion. But that's not the way it played out.

After a list of retiring and resigning employees was read, Bria got up from her place next to the board members, sat down at the public comment table facing them, and asked that the board consider adding her retirement to the list of other district personnel retiring. The board members weren't expecting Bria to announce her "retirement" openly during the meeting, Anderson said.

After the public portion of that meeting, the board adjourned to executive session and signed the agreement with Bria.

At the next board meeting, Duane Rose, a retired district administrator, was hired as the liaison between Bria and the school board.

"We didn't want her (Bria) to make decisions that would jeopardize the district," Anderson said.

The terms of board members Idsinga and Steve Pagel expire at the end of 2013. Neither are running for re-election.

"We'll have two new board members and a new superintendent next year," Anderson said. "A new team. We can expect more changes in the next year than the past 31/2 years I've been on the board. I think everybody's going to come together with the same goal. No more fear. But change."

The board of directors will next meet on July 29.

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