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Superintendent’s leadership ‘gossip’ splits New Plymouth, now some teachers look to leave

First Baptist Church Pastor Phil Pittman leads a prayer at a barbecue held at the church to support teachers and staff in the New Plymouth School District. Pittman was one of several residents, teachers and district staff to speak before a special meeting held in executive session of the school district’s board of trustees. Pittman is calling for Superintendent Kevin Barker to resign.
First Baptist Church Pastor Phil Pittman leads a prayer at a barbecue held at the church to support teachers and staff in the New Plymouth School District. Pittman was one of several residents, teachers and district staff to speak before a special meeting held in executive session of the school district’s board of trustees. Pittman is calling for Superintendent Kevin Barker to resign. clords@idahostatesman.com

Some went in alone.

Others filed through the door of the New Plymouth School District No. 372 Administrative Office in groups of two or three.

About half of the 14 people who stood before the school board during its Thursday night executive session were there to air their grievances concerning Superintendent Kevin Barker.

Some delivered the news that according to the New Plymouth Education Association, the district’s teachers union, 41 of 74 district employees surveyed are considering seeking or have already sought employment elsewhere because of Barker’s leadership. The association has called for Barker’s resignation, saying he has ceased communication with his objectors and has created a hostile work environment. They have called for his resignation.

The other half were there to show their support for the man they say has been unfairly targeted. Some questioned the education association’s survey.

Barker was not present, and the meeting was closed to the public because the issue is a personnel matter. Barker has maintained he has no intention of leaving and has said he is focused on providing a safe and steady education for the district.

About 50 people waited on the administration office’s lawn as the district’s board of trustees heard from those who applied, through the district’s policy, to speak. The board deliberated for about an hour and a half before announcing it would take no further action. Barker will keep his job.

When asked if any new information was presented or surprised the board, chairman Dave Brogan had a simple answer.

“No.”

Brogan said that the town is heavily divided by the issue. The board has no timeline for further public input or action, he said.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the board of trustees said those who are calling for Barker’s dismissal have not filed a formal grievance against him, and using that procedure would be the proper course of action if there are disputes. The board has considered the information presented to it and remains in full support of Barker, the statement said.

“Mr. Barker’s distractors have been unable to provide specific facts to support their complaints,” the statement said, calling the allegations against Barker “gossip.”

“Posting unfounded allegations on social media or doing surveys that do not provide the factual basis for the questions being asked is not a proper procedure to resolve problems,” the statement continued. “It only makes us all more divided and increases the level of rhetoric and decrease the opportunity to communicate and resolve problems.”

Many people standing in the small administrative office vocally expressed their disappointment at the lack of action, although several said they were not surprised.

Many teachers, residents and staff told the Statesman they wanted to allow the board time to gather information, but if the board doesn’t take action, they will take the next step: gathering signatures for a petition to recall school board members.

“The board can no longer say that they don’t know” that teachers are planning to leave the district and are frustrated by Barker’s leadership, said Pierrette Madrid Harris, the education association’s president and one of the people who spoke Thursday.

THE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION’S SURVEY

The survey includes 40 comments from district staff collected through an online survey. Some responses were brief.

“Bully,” one respondent wrote about Barker.

Others were more detailed.

“The atmosphere in the New Plymouth district has not been normal for more than a year,” another wrote. “As the leader of this district, I hold Mr. Barker responsible for the obvious decline in the morale of teachers and staff. We are trying so hard to stay positive for the students and serve them well but Mr. Barker’s seemingly vindictive behavior and decisions are making my and my colleague’s jobs unnecessarily difficult.”

Several responded with support for Barker, including one who said, “I have confidence in the administration under Mr. Barker.”

According to the education association’s news release, organizers of the survey took a week to “ensure that all employees were aware of and had the opportunity to participate.”

Information included in the release, which was also given to the school board, showed five questions asked of the respondents, including the first: “I am either considering or am already actively seeking employment outside of the New Plymouth School District.”

Respondents were given the six options of “Strongly Agree, Agree, Unsure at This Time, Disagree, Strongly Disagree and I Prefer Not to Complete” to respond to that question.

Follow-up questions were also provided. Fifty-six of the 74 people surveyed said they would be more likely to stay in the district “if Superintendent Barker were gone.”

“After hearing the issues and concerns of everyone who provided information to the Board, it is clear to the Board that everyone needs to get back to the focus of what their jobs are, educating the children of the District,” the board of trustees stated. “If there is a staff member who violates state law, board policy or the code of ethics those actions must be dealt with utilizing the District grievance policy which requires facts not assumptions and opinions.”

Roy Gasparotti, a longtime math teacher at the district’s middle school, spoke in favor of Barker and denounced the education association’s survey. Gasparotti served as president of the education association but stepped down because of the direction it was going, he said.

“Mr. Barker is doing a good job of administering the district,” Gasparotti said. “He is the boss. Groups of teachers don’t gang up on the superintendent and tell him what to do or what the school board needs to do. It works the other way.”

The town’s division reached a tipping point months ago when New Plymouth High Principal Clete Edmunson said he was pressured to resign by Barker and the district’s attorney and then rescinded that resignation.

The school board eventually put Edmunson on paid administrative leave, barring him from the school, until an investigation into a parent’s complaint could be completed.

The day the investigation was to take place, Edmunson resigned.

Two separate votes of no confidence in Barker’s ability to lead the district have been submitted to the school board.

ANONYMOUS DONOR OFFERS TO BUY OUT BARKER

First Baptist Church senior pastor Phil Pittman bowed his head and prayed for the strength of the schools and its students.

Before Thursday’s session, he and other organizers of the newly formed New Plymouth Community Cares group held a meet-and-greet barbecue at the church to support those who would be speaking to the board.

The church is directly across from the back door of the district’s administrative office, and as a former school board member and assistant high school basketball coach, Pittman has a long history in the town, the school district and the church.

Pittman said the Community Cares group began forming the day Edmunson initially resigned and students held a protest outside of the administration’s office. As the situation escalated, Pittman said a businessman in town, who wishes 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.

“That would bring peace to the community,” Pittman said.

According to the Idaho Press-Tribune, which first reported on the buyout, Barker said he will not take the offer or resign.

“I’m telling you, families are divided,” Pittman said. “We have wives on one side and husbands on the other. We have cousins fighting with cousins.”

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