What a mess they’ve got in Gardner.
The school superintendent and his two top lieutenants are fired in a closed-door meeting for reasons never fully explained by a faction of new school board members bent on reform.
Some in the community cheer the end of what they see as a tyrannical regime at the acclaimed Gardner Edgerton School District. Others claim a great injustice has been done to the very officials who insisted on that academic excellence.
Then come new developments. FBI agents have paid visits to current and former top district officials in recent weeks with questions unrelated to the firing.
Throw in accusations of sexual harassment against two board members, and that’s a whole lot of controversy for Gardner Edgerton, fifth largest out of six public school systems in Johnson County.
And coming on the heels of the turmoil that racked Gardner City Hall a few years ago, with two council members ousted in a recall election and another charged with battery for physically attacking a colleague, the question arises:
Just what’s up with Gardner, anyway?
Growing pains, some say.
“We’re not dysfunctional, it’s that more people are paying attention to the issues now,” said Ryan Beasley, one of the leaders of that earlier recall effort who later co-founded the Facebook page that became a forum for those seeking reforms at the school district.
More people are paying attention partly because Gardner has a lot more people to pay attention these days.
Twenty years ago, fewer than 3,500 people lived in this town some 30 miles southwest of downtown Kansas City. Back then it was a bedroom community known mostly for being the home of the Johnson County Fair and the site of a former Naval base.
But now with a population in excess of 20,000 and a new rail intermodal hub expected to spur even more growth, Gardner is not the place it once was.
“We’re kind of in a transition period,” said state Rep. Bill Sutton, a Gardner Republican. The mentality of local government is no longer “small town, close-knit, nobody cares what we’re doing.”
It’s now a town of newcomers where people are more apt to speak up — which they did in the two years leading up to the school district firings last month.
And as the results of the 2013 school board election seemed to indicate, more than a few people were unhappy with the management of the school district.
“The citizens of Gardner wanted a change,” board member Brad Chandler told The Star.High standards
When Bill Gilhaus was hired in 2004 to run Gardner Edgerton, he got clear instructions. Take what he’d learned as an administrator at another fast-growing school system, DeSoto’s, and apply it in his new job.
“I was asked to ensure we had an outstanding school district,” he said in an hourlong interview this week at his attorney’s office. “
‘We want excellence’ is what was shared with me from the board back in 2004.”
Over the next decade, the district and its reputation grew as Gilhaus attempted to reach that goal.
As the number of students grew from 3,400 to 5,400 students, Gilhaus convinced the community to pass two bond issues totaling $120 million to build new schools, upgrade existing ones and add modern technology. He added teachers and administrators to boost test scores.
He warned the board that hired him that this would cause friction. Employees who didn’t measure up would be pushed out.
“I told them there would be a cost involved,” he said, “in that true excellence comes from your personnel, and that might require some changes.”
Last year, U.S. News World Report ranked Gardner Edgerton High School sixth best among the 369 public, charter and magnet high schools in Kansas.
But some of the changes still sting.
“We’ve lost so many good teachers and principals and staff,” said Chandler, the only member of the anti-Gilhaus faction who responded to The Star’s interview request.
Several former district employees who spoke with the newspaper both on and off the record described a culture of fear and intimidation.
“It kind of festered and kind of grew,” said former finance director Eric Hansen, who worked at Gardner Edgerton for 18 years until leaving in 2012. “After a couple of years of seeing your colleagues fall, you came to work wondering whether today was going to be the day that the shoe was going to drop on you.”
The stress led to former operations manager Bill Miller’s resignation in 2011, also after 18 years.
“That culture was not good for me anymore, and so I left,” he said.
Some employees even suspected their emails were being read, their phone calls listened to, their offices bugged.
Gilhaus denies that he ordered surveillance of employee communications, but the fact that teachers, administrators and staff felt they were being watched says something about the atmosphere, Miller and others said.
The day after Gilhaus and his two top aides were dismissed Feb. 27, “my phone rang off the hook,” Miller said. “Anybody calling me was calling to rejoice.”Crumbling support
On the other hand, the only member of the pro-Gilhaus faction to respond said he heard nothing but sorrow after the dismissals.
“It was wrong, absolutely wrong,” board member James Repshire said.
For much of his tenure at Gardner Edgerton, Gilhaus had the support of all seven members of the school board.
“This district achieved success at all levels … without exception,” said former board President Ron Ragan.
But Gilhaus’ 7-0 board came to an end last year when Ragan and two other longtime members chose not to see re-election.
The vacancies were filled by a slate of candidates promising change.
“Judging from the election results, it would appear that the majority of residents agreed with that assessment,” said Bill Boillot, chairman of the Gardner Edgerton Republican Party, which supported the reform slate in the nonpartisan election.
Helping build this climate for change was criticism aimed at the district administration by a local blogger, Facebook posts on the Citizens for the Future of Gardner page, as well as coverage and searing editorials by the local weekly newspaper, the Gardner News.
“They tried to identify problems for a year previous to the election,” Gilhaus said. “But there was nothing they could find.”
However, they did find a few things to question, one being the district’s perceived lack of openness. Both blogger Walter Hermreck and the newspaper complained that Gilhaus made it difficult and expensive to get access to what were clearly public records.
Critics also said the superintendent’s $174,000-a-year salary was too generous.
Gilhaus and the previous board also came under criticism for the three-year contract he was given in the months between the election and when the three new board members took office last July.
It was approved during the same meeting last May that Gilhaus, now 57, announced his “retirement,” with the understanding he would be rehired in the fall so he could receive a reduced salary and his state pension simultaneously. Although the practice is legal, a state senator has since questioned whether it was done properly in this case.Dumbfounded
Questions of propriety also figure in the firings last month of Gilhaus and two aides, Executive Director of Educational Services Christy Ziegler and Executive Director of Administrative Services Lana Gerber.
Gerber was out of town this week and unavailable to comment. But in a joint interview Thursday, Ziegler and Gilhaus said they were dumbfounded by the board’s action and called it both illegal and a violation of their contracts.
“The district has gotten itself into a big mess,” said their attorney, Dennis Egan.
Less than three weeks before the 4-3 vote, Gilhaus had received a positive job evaluation from the board, which Chandler confirmed.
Ziegler said she also had received glowing reviews. But something changed sometime between Gilhaus’ evaluation on Feb. 10 and Feb. 25, when board members Rob Shippy, Tresa Boden and Mary Nelson asked to have a special closed-door meeting of the full board. The precise purpose of the meeting was not disclosed.
But on the day of the meeting, board members were informed that Ziegler and Gerber had filed formal complaints against Shippy and Chandler for “continuous verbal/nonverbal harassment and uncivil intimidation tactics” tied to their gender.
“There had been some increasing discomfort over several months,” Ziegler said in the interview.
Chandler said he’s seen no specific accusation and contends the harassment complaints were merely a ploy to stop the board from ousting Gilhaus and the two aides.
“My personal opinion, it was to intimidate us,” he said.
Whatever the rationale, the board now finds itself having to defend the manner in which the firings took place. The district’s attorney, who has since resigned, said the meeting was illegal. Egan said the district is liable not only for paying out the remainder of his clients’ contracts, but also for paying some damages and putting out a statement removing any cloud of doubt over their reputations.
Chandler says he, too, believes the board is obliged to pay out the contracts and hold a hearing to make clear that the three were fired not because of wrongdoing but over management style.
But the cloud over the district will continue for a while.
The log at the district’s administration office shows FBI agents visited the offices last week. Hansen and Miller say they have met with agents (Miller way back last fall) about financial contracts between the district and firms connected to former board members.
The two former administrators said agents seemed especially interested in Repshire’s company, J.R. Electric, which received $61,779 between 2008 and 2010 for work that didn’t require bidding or a vote of the board, according to district audits.
“Quite frankly, I have nothing to hide,” Repshire said.
Gilhaus said he had nothing to do with such contracts and that the FBI hasn’t visited him.