Vashon school board must challenge superintendent

Vashon deserves better — both from the board and the district superintendent.

With the recent discovery of a third secret legal settlement agreement signed by Vashon Island School District Superintendent Slade McSheehy, any remaining trust in McSheehy and the existing school board is unwarranted.

Since late August 2022, as reported in The Beachcomber, McSheehy has secretly signed three separate settlement agreements with teachers credibly accused of misconduct with students. Unlike the many well-respected educators who retired during this period without any severance pay, McSheehy gave the three teachers accused of malfeasance over $160,000 of taxpayer money. It was not his to give.

In Tuesday’s election, we will have the chance to fix the school board by installing new candidates — especially Angela Marshall, Juniper Rogneby, and Kaycie Alanis — who are determined to restore trust, accountability and transparency to the school district.

But McSheehy remains a problem that the new board will need to resolve. He appears to have little or no regard for the public processes required by Washington law, much less respect for the views of the school board who supervise him or the public that board represents.

The public has a right to have its business conducted in public. McSheehy’s comments in last week’s paper suggest little or no regard for the Open Public Meetings Act or other necessary public processes.

Rather than addressing the settlements in public meetings, McSheehy freely admits that he had “fully informed school board members, in weekly one-on-one meetings with regular board members and/or two-on-one meetings with the board’s chair and vice-chair.”

Indeed, it has long been his “regular practice” to avoid controversy in public meetings by meeting with board members ahead of time to corral any dissent. Rather than acknowledge the board’s supervisory role over him, McSheehy characterizes elected board members as “volunteers” who lack a “keen understanding of important district issues.” His claim that the school district’s attorney would advise him not to hold a public meeting to finalize the legal settlements strains credulity.

Of course, current board members can’t escape their own responsibility for allowing McSheehy to put them in a corner. Most current board members have willingly met with McSheehy weekly to avoid honest discussion of district issues in open public meetings and actions based on that discussion. These board members, who have all completed state open meetings trainings, should know better.

During meetings, the board has arbitrarily cut off public comment, typically refused to address concerns expressed in public comments, and even cut public meetings down to once per month (calling the second meeting a “work session”) in order to avoid public scrutiny. They acknowledge using personal devices to send and receive district-related text messages, including one text between two board members that sets up a private phone call to discuss one of the teachers accused of misconduct, far outside the view of a public meeting.

Ultimately, our current school board has failed in its duty and responsibility to reign in McSheehy’s dictatorial tendencies and mandate open government practices.

The next board needs to take a hard look at policies and practices that have allowed this situation to fester. McSheehy needs to better understand his role and his obligations for public transparency.

A school district superintendent has no authority to unilaterally enter into controversial legal settlements or spend district monies to fund those settlements absent specific board approval of the settlement itself in a public meeting. How many teaching positions and student services will be cut in the next budget to backfill McSheehy’s unauthorized expenditure of school district funds?

These are matters for our publicly elected board to decide, not a superintendent employee with an incentive to cover up the misdeeds of teachers he ultimately supervises.

Vashon deserves better — both from the board and the district superintendent.

David Hackett is a lawyer who has lived on Vashon since 1992. He practices municipal law.