A separation agreement between the Ketchikan School District and former Superintendent Robert Boyle has raised questions about proper procedure and open meetings.
Dan Bockhorst is the former Ketchikan Gateway Borough Manager, who retired in 2016. He said he’s observed some transgressions over the past few years related to public notifications of school board meetings.
While those are problematic, he said, the lack of transparency surrounding the separation agreement is a bigger concern.
“The board recently crossed a bright line, in my opinion, when it entered into a secret agreement with a former superintendent regarding his resignation,” he said. “That action was taken behind closed doors. I think it was willful and flagrant.”
Boyle resigned in mid-December following a contentious year for the school district. His resignation took effect immediately, a move agreed to by the board and Boyle.
Board President Matt Eisenhower said that when Boyle told the board he intended to resign, “There was conversation in executive session with the school board as to how to proceed moving forward. I was given direction to negotiate with Mr. Boyle the separation agreement, which is pretty standard.”
Eisenhower said the board wanted Boyle’s resignation to take effect right away, which is why the district came up with the separation agreement.
“And, as is pretty standard, when you ask an employee to leave immediately, you would enter an agreement with them, a separation agreement,” he said. “So, I was given authority to work with staff to make sure that there was a reasonable compensation period.
Personnel matters are allowed to be discussed in closed, executive session, but must be clearly listed on the publicly noticed agenda.
On the Dec. 12 meeting agenda, the items listed for discussion in executive session were union contract negotiations and the final report from an investigation into the district’s actions related to a teacher arrested for sexual assault of a student. Boyle’s resignation was announced the Monday following that meeting.
The board voted on Jan. 9 to accept Boyle’s resignation. The separation agreement, which provides a $53,000 payment to Boyle, was not part of the motion. The board voted on the payment in mid-February.
The agreement as a whole has not been formally approved by the board, and Bockhorst said until it is, he believes the board is in violation of open-meetings and open-records regulations.
“Lawfully, the remedy is for the school board to go back and ratify the agreement,” he said. “It must do this in open session. It should make the agreement available to the public beforehand and, again, I think the school board owes an apology to the citizens of Ketchikan.”
Eisenhower said the board did not intentionally hide anything.
“Early on, I think there was a recognition of balancing some values between the privacy of an employee as well as our need (as) a district to be public,” he said. “We were given some legal guidance that, in hindsight, we probably would do differently in the future.”
Eisenhower said he believes the February vote disclosing the payment to Boyle made up for any transparency issues surrounding the separation agreement. The initial thought, he said, was that the separation agreement was between Boyle and the district – a staff action – and could be separate from the board’s fiscal responsibility.
“Upon reflection, we recognize that the separation agreement itself is indeed a public contract and I would agree with that,” he said. “Probably the best course of action would have been to bring that together — to have the separation agreement as well as the fiscal expenditure together. And if we were to do it again, we would do it that way. But again, there was no intent to keep anything from the public.”
Eisenhower said the separation agreement is available to any member of the public who asks to see it.
Regarding legal notices of meetings, Eisenhower said there have been times when the notice wasn’t proper. In those instances, he said, the board cancelled and rescheduled the meetings.
“Although I respect some of the complaints, we have addressed them, we have looked at them, and to my knowledge we have not broken any law, nor does our legal counsel believe that’s the case either,” he said.
Eisenhower added that the board and district were in turmoil much of last year, and the current board is made up of almost all new members. He said he’s proud of the work they and current district staff have accomplished.
In addition to the sexual assault investigation last year, the district also faced contentious teacher-contract negotiations that at one point appeared to be headed toward a strike. Additionally, there was a citizen-led effort to recall then-board-president Trevor Shaw, who resigned before the October recall vote.
Update: Eisenhower said in a follow-up email that the board will vote on the entire separation agreement during an upcoming meeting.
Below is a PDF of the separation agreement between the district and Mr. Boyle.