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Doubting Thomas

Disagreement over management program precedes D-11 superintendents firing


Sharon Thomas, hired as D-11 superintendent a year - ago, was dismissed last week. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Sharon Thomas, hired as D-11 superintendent a year ago, was dismissed last week.

After one year in the position, School District 11 superintendent Sharon Thomas was fired last week by board members who, some say, might have been pushing for her failure since she was hired.

"I am realistic enough to say that there were people who were very keen on accusing her of incompetence and lying before she was even given a chance," says board President John Gudvangen.

In a 4 to 3 vote at a special meeting last Thursday, the board terminated Thomas' three-year contract despite protests from district staff and community members who supported her short-lived efforts.

"She stepped into a situation where she could have walked on water and not have impressed or satisfied certain members of the board," says board member Sandra Mann.

Three of the four members who voted to oust Thomas Eric Christen, Willie Breazell and Craig Cox voiced opposition to her hiring before she took office last year.

Today, Christen says Thomas did not communicate with the board, calling her "a woman who really has a tin ear when it comes to what the board is saying."

Thomas declined to be interviewed for this story.

The night before Thomas was fired, the board held its regular Wednesday meeting, where the superintendent vocalized her opposition to an initiative that her biggest detractors have been promoting for the past two years.

Cox, Christen and Breazell have touted site-based management, a program that would decentralize district money and give more administrative control to individual principals and schools, as the key to improving student achievement. Sandy Shakes, the fourth board member to vote for Thomas' removal, also has promoted the idea.

At the Wednesday meeting, Thomas said she "failed to see" how the initiative would improve achievement, warning against a "flavor-of-the-year approach" to fixing D-11's performance problems. Despite Thomas' misgivings, the board voted 6 to 1 to take steps toward researching a site-based management system in D-11.

Thomas did say that if board members formally approved exploring the idea, she would accede to their wishes. But Christen says Thomas' comments were "indicative of her just not being on the same page as the board" one reason he gave for voting her out.

Board vice president Tami Hasling says Thomas was not given time to move forward on the initiative before she was fired. Thomas' detractors, she says, wanted her to mobilize on the site-based management program long before Wednesday's vote, and long before the program had the support of the board.

"[Detractors] are going to use that as an excuse to fire her," Hasling says. "They will say, "She stopped us from going to site-based and railroaded everything we are doing.'"

Hasling was the only board member who did not vote to initiate research into a site-based system. She sees potential harm in the program and believes it could force low-performing schools to close when parents opt to send their children elsewhere.

"I think their plan for site-based would make it easier for school consolidation," she says, adding that "consolidation" is the term Christen and the other site-based proponents use for shutting down schools.

According to Gudvangen, a site-based management program in D-11 won't necessarily play out as Christen or anyone else sees it. The board's decision to proceed is "an opportunity for us to have the debate," he says.

Meanwhile, the board is scheduled to discuss an interim superintendent at its June 14 meeting.

Christen says he hopes to avoid choosing an interim superintendent and plans to recommend state Rep. Keith King or Steve Schuck, a local real-estate developer, as superintendent, effective immediately. Schuck financed the 2003 school board campaigns of Christen, Breazell, Cox and Shakes.

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