Gardner Edgerton school board under fire

03/11/2014 12:04 PM

03/11/2014 2:52 PM

The abrupt firing of longtime Superintendent William Gilhaus at last month’s special board meeting dominated Monday night’s regular meeting of the Gardner Edgerton school district board.

After a two-hour closed-door executive session, board members emerged to authorize the release of a written statement by board President Mark Grannell “clarifying” the Feb. 27 dismissal of Gilhaus and two of his deputy administrators.

However, on Tuesday that statement was still being reviewed by an attorney for the board and had not been released to the public.

The board on Monday night also authorized Interim Superintendent Pam Stranathan to seek out legal counsel and bring a proposed contract with that attorney to the April board meeting.

Joseph Hatley of the Spencer Fane Britt & Browne law firm, who had been representing the board, was not at Monday’s meeting. Reached Tuesday, he said “right now I am” the board’s attorney and would not comment further.

Rather, attorney David Cooper of the Fisher Patterson Sayler & Smith firm was in attendance, and board secretary Lisa Berg said it was Cooper who was reviewing the statement about Gilhaus’ firing on Tuesday morning. Cooper’s services are being provided by the board’s insurance carrier, Berg said.

Hatley’s actions at the February board meeting had been controversial, as he questioned the legality of the special meeting and Gilhaus’ firing.

The Gilhaus situation has drawn the attention of state lawmakers, too. State Sen. Pat Apple, a Republican from Louisburg, questioned the board’s action in May 2013 to allow Gilhaus to retire, collect pension benefits and then be rehired 60 days later at a lower salary.

Republican state Rep. Bill Sutton of Gardner questioned Hatley’s actions, saying that Hatley was “verbally combative” toward the school board members who voted to fire Gilhaus and that Hatley appeared to be more intent on representing the former superintendent than the board.

James Repshire, one of the three board members who voted to retain Gilhaus at the Feb. 27 meeting, praised the former superintendent during the open portion of Monday night’s meeting.

“A lot of good things happened during his 10 years,” Repshire said. “We passed two bond issues, several new facilities were built, facilities were improved all across the district, and academics and athletics thrived.”

That brought a retort from Brad Chandler, one of the four board members who voted to fire Gilhaus and the others Feb. 27.

Chandler said Gilhaus had “lost” staff members, and he spoke of a “divide” Gilhaus had created within the district. After the meeting, Chandler declined to elaborate.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, former school board president Steve Hale criticized the way in which Gilhaus’ firing was handled.

Hale, who served on the board from 2000 to 2007, was board president when Gilhaus was hired. Hale also served on the Gardner City Council from 2009 to 2011.

Hale called Gilhaus’ service to the district exemplary and said he disagreed with the decision to fire him. Further, he criticized “the manner in which this decision was made.”

The school board “by all appearances orchestrated outside the public domain the ouster of three administrators and the selection of an interim superintendent,” Hale said. “You might say otherwise, but to the community at large what you did was unexpected, puzzling and unsettling.

“You voted Dr. Gilhaus out,” he said. “OK. But why in a manner to risk the potential for legal recourse and inevitable attorneys’ fees? Your actions have reinforced the perception that here in Gardner, contentious political theater is par for the course.”

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