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News / Clark County News

Evergreen district pays Superintendent Mike Merlino to leave

Accused of misconduct, Merlino will leave with nearly $270,000

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 16, 2021, 3:40pm

The Evergreen Public Schools Board of Directors voted to pay Superintendent Mike Merlino a year’s salary to leave the district on Thursday. Merlino, accused of misconduct, has been on paid administrative leave since Dec. 8.

Despite the allegations against him, Merlino was fired without cause. Board vice president Ginny Gronwoldt argued Thursday that doing so would be a more fiscally responsible action for the district.

Merlino, 56, was terminated immediately. He will receive $269,038 for being fired without cause, under the provisions of his contract. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect amount.

An email obtained by The Columbian on Thursday revealed that an independent investigation found evidence that Merlino had attempted to commit multiple abuses of power and acts of retaliation against employees in the district office.

On Dec. 7, board member Rachael Rogers shared a confirmation of the list of complaints and results of the investigation via email from Rick Kaiser, a lawyer based in Bellevue who had been leading the investigation.

Merlino was placed on paid leave the following day.

The email was provided to The Columbian in response to a records request about Merlino. It detailed what the district had termed a preliminary investigation into his actions.

According to the document, an unnamed administrative employee in the district office spoke with the school board and filed complaints claiming that Merlino attempted to promote his girlfriend. The woman’s identity was not disclosed in the records.

Though the administrative employee apparently had a strong relationship with Merlino in years prior to the promotion incident, the investigation found evidence that Merlino treated this employee differently in the weeks that followed, according to the document.

“After this incident, the administrative employee described how she was disinvited/not invited to attend meetings where human resources matters were discussed, she was alienated, marginalized and unfairly blamed by (Merlino) for certain matters,” the document reads.

When the school board and the district’s legal counsel found that it would be “inappropriate for Merlino to promote his girlfriend,” the woman ended the relationship with Merlino “on the spot,” the document said.

In August 2020, Merlino allegedly went to the board on behalf of his girlfriend when she had been reprimanded by her supervisor for a minor mistake, which the investigator identified as an abuse of power.

In another incident, the district hired an investigator to look into a complaint against Merlino regarding a hire he had made within the district. Merlino allegedly attempted to terminate that investigator, and then sought independent counsel — not the district’s lawyer — to aid in terminating the investigator, the document said.

Complaints also allege that Merlino had threatened to fire multiple employees he personally deemed weren’t “team players,” including the aforementioned administrative employee.

Kaiser’s investigation also revealed that Merlino prepared an evaluation of the administrative employee for the period of December 2020, in which he allegedly gave the employee the lowest scores possible. It was described as a “hatchet job.”

The investigation showed that in summer of 2019, Merlino had identified that same administrative employee as well-deserving of a raise and among the best at her job in the state.

Rogers’ email to Kaiser notes that he concluded that this is a “decent case of a whistleblower being retaliated against,” in addition to an abuse of power.

In response to Rogers’ lengthy email to Kaiser, which sought to summarize and confirm the various results of the investigation, Kaiser replied with just one word: “correct.”

Merlino was interviewed twice for the investigation, and allegedly denied many of the complaints against him.

4-1 vote

The vote for no-cause termination was 4-1, with Rogers being the only member to vote no. She favored a for-cause termination.

“I firmly believe that when an employee — any employee — acts in the way that we have evidence showing the superintendent acted, that that employee has given their employer sufficient cause for termination on a for-cause basis and that employee should be terminated for cause and should not receive the benefit of a contract buyout,” Rogers said in Thursday’s meeting. “That is why I believe the right thing to do is to terminate Mike Merlino for cause.”

A statement from the district describing Rogers’ vote noted what it described as “Merlino’s egregious behavior uncovered during the preliminary investigation.”

Bill Beville, the president of the Evergreen Education Association, the union that represents the district’s teachers, said that though he believes the board made the right decision in parting ways with Merlino, he is proud that Rogers felt comfortable speaking out against the decision.

“I’m happy that (Rogers) offered dissent and was looking to say that if they could fire him for cause, then they should,” Beville said. Beville was not yet briefed on the reasons for Merlino’s departure or anything in Kaiser’s investigation.

Board member Rob Perkins argued that a clean break without cause and with payout would be better for the district than a more drawn-out battle that a for-cause termination might warrant.

“There’s a monetary cost to a no-cause dismissal. It is not small. But there’s also an emotional and social cost to the remaining employees in the district for a cause dismissal that an employee may challenge,” Perkins said.

Board President Victoria Bradford noted that longer cases that feature litigation and termination for cause prove to often be rather expensive endeavors, regardless of how troubling Merlino’s case.

“It’s always very disturbing to have a no-cause stipulation and pay out somebody when you feel like they shouldn’t be here, but we recognized this years ago that that can be very expensive,” Bradford said. “Trying to be fiscally responsible is something that we want to be, because we do have a fiduciary responsibility to our community and we want to protect that as much as we can.”

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Members of the board could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but Tyler Firkins, an attorney representing Merlino, released a prepared statement on his client’s behalf.

“Mr. Merlino is disappointed to receive notice of his termination with the district after 21 years of loyal service by reading about it in the newspaper,” Firkins wrote. “Mr. Merlino looks forward to proving the absolute falsity of the allegation that his conduct was ‘egregious,’ or inappropriate such that the district has cause to discharge him.”