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Facing recall, school board accepts embattled superintendent's resignation

Members of the New Plymouth school board, as well as New Plymouth Superintendent Kevin Barker, far left, wait to go into closed-door session April 25, 2018, at a special meeting in the New Plymouth School district administrative office.
Members of the New Plymouth school board, as well as New Plymouth Superintendent Kevin Barker, far left, wait to go into closed-door session April 25, 2018, at a special meeting in the New Plymouth School district administrative office. clords@idahostatesman.com

New Plymouth Superintendent Kevin Barker has maintained time and time again that he had no intention of resigning from his position as controversy swirled for months about his leadership of the district. But after a three-hour executive session held by the district's school board of trustees Wednesday night, and as all five board members faced a potential recall election for their support of the superintendent, something changed.

Barker, who has worked in the district for 25 years in various roles as an agriculture science teacher, FFA adviser, high school principal and superintendent, accepted a settlement agreement to step down.

Details of the resignation and the settlement agreement, including whether the resignation was immediate, were not discussed by the board after the meeting was reopened from executive session. A copy of the settlement agreement would be made available through a public records request, the school board members said, and was not provided to the public at the meeting.

"I make a motion to move that the board accept the resignation of Kevin Barker from his appointment as superintendent and release him from his current contract and further move that the board accept the terms of the proposed arrangement relating to the release of Mr. Barker from the employment from the district," board chairman Dave Brogan read aloud.

The motion carried unanimously, and no other comments or discussion took place during the meeting. Brogan said the board would not comment on the resignation Wednesday night, but he said a statement will likely be made available soon.

Barker, who was present for parts the executive session, said in a statement that he was entering a "favorable agreement with the District Board."

"Because of his connection with the schools and students the decision to resign was difficult," said Julie Klein Fischer, Barker's attorney, in a statement. "Nonetheless, this change presents Mr. Barker with the ability to explore other opportunities and allows him much needed time to focus on family. As superintendent, Mr. Barker insisted on high ethical standards, accountability and strong leadership. Recent changes within the District tested these values and, although the situation has been challenging for District leaders, Mr. Barker appreciates the process and involvement of the staff students and community."

The small town of about 1,500 people has been through a lot in the last few months, said Pierrette Madrid-Harris, spokeswoman for the New Plymouth Education Association, in an email. The education association, or teachers union, held a vote of no confidence in Barker and has called for his resignation since January.

"It is now time that we all come together — educators, school board members, parents, and community stakeholders — to mend relationships and restore our school district to the excellent quality that we have come to expect here in New Plymouth," she stated in an email. "We still have a long way to go, but we are encouraged by the events of this evening and we look forward to working with the School Board to identify a strong leader for our district.”

The settlement agreement is the culmination of months of a growing divide within the town about how Barker has led the district, with Barker's supporters and objectors alike testifying before the school board on March 15 in executive session to air grievances about the opposing side.

"The (board) members are dedicated to providing the best educational opportunities for students and have given Mr. Barker the support needed to be successful during his tenure as superintendent," Fischer said in the statement.

After hearing those who signed up to testify that night, the school board released a statement in full support of keeping Barker as the superintendent.

That's when the New Plymouth Community Cares group, established in January when the controversy over Barker's leadership first boiled over into the public sphere, started a movement to recall all five members of the district's school board. That effort will now likely cease, according to the education association.

“The concern of NPEA has always been with Superintendent Barker," Madrid-Harris stated. "And while we have strongly questioned some of the School Board’s decisions regarding accountability, oversight, and transparency, we have never called into question the character of the current School Board members."

Barker's supporters have released a statement to the community saying issues within the district started before Barker took the helm. Some recent changes, including new policies relating to credit card use by employees within the district and a new insubordination policy for employees, were actually decisions made by the school board, not Barker himself, the supporters argued.

How did we get here?

First Baptist Church Pastor Phil Pittman previously told the Idaho Statesman that the Community Cares group began forming Jan. 17, the day New Plymouth High School principal Clete Edmunson initially resigned from the school and students held a protest outside of the administration’s office. Edmunson said Barker pressured him to resign over a personnel matter, a claim Barker denies, and Edmunson later rescinded that resignation. Edmunson eventually resigned again amid an unresolved investigation into the personnel matter and eventually took a superintendent and high school principal job for the Council School District, according to Idaho Education News.

As the situation escalated, Pittman said a businessman in town, who wished to remain anonymous, asked about the fund balance for the school district to see if it was large enough to buy out Barker. Then the anonymous business owner did something else, according to Pittman — he offered $300,000 of his own money, along with $100,00 from the district, to buy out Barker’s contract.

Barker said at the time he would not accept the buyout.

Barker's objectors testified before the school board that according to a survey conducted by the New Plymouth Education Association, 41 of 74 district employees surveyed are considering seeking or have already sought employment elsewhere because of Barker’s leadership style. The association called for Barker’s resignation, saying he has ceased communication with his objectors and has created a hostile work environment.

Christina Lords: 208-377-6435; @ChristinaLords
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