Top Trustee Rob Clayton apologized for “a poor job of leadership” as parents, teachers and taxpayers ripped the upper levels of the Blaine County School District during a town hall meeting Monday night near Hailey.
Some 120 people—including a smattering of state and local elected officials—spent nearly two hours hearing criticism of district leadership as speakers sought support for a petition to fire Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes with cause, and, failing that, retribution against the school board that employs her at the polls this November.
“So often, we take the time to air issues, and—poof—they disappear,” said Hailey parent Will Gardenswartz, who spearheaded the event for the opposition group I-Care under the false online persona of a Bellevue woman named Cynthia Cignero. “GCH is a master of using legalism, archaic policy and flat made-up regulations to gain the upper hand … she’s an unkind person who will do anything to protect her position.”
Gardenswartz opened the meeting by revealing that he has been behind Cignero—“the Black Swan,” roughly derived from Italian—since the Facebook profile of the single mother from Uruapan, Mexico appeared in February of 2018. Gardenswartz, who has a son at Wood River High School, said he feared retribution for speaking out against Holmes, and used Cignero as chief provocateur to oppose last year’s division of the taxpayer-funded plant facilities levy, and investigate district practices.
Cignero is at least the second online persona adopted by Gardenswartz; last week, he told the Idaho Mountain Express that he also created Randall Stevens, a fictitious student at Wood River High School named for the character invented to free protagonist Andy Dufresne from prison in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Gardenswartz said that he worked with a group of Wood River juniors and seniors to create Stevens, also out of fear of retribution. As Stevens, Gardenswartz helped create a suite of online petitions to reprimand Holmes, and provide monetary support for a free-speech lawsuit filed against the district by a pair of former students.
“This is not one group or another,” Gardenswartz said. “This is people. That I did my part on social media to whip it up a little bit? Fantastic.”
The results were plain to see during the lively rally, which switched to a larger venue late last week to accommodate the expected rush. Good thing, too—even in the larger Education Barn at Mountain Humane west of Hailey, organizers ran out of chairs.
“It feels like I’m kept in a shroud,” Clayton told the crowd of his position as board chairman. “As I begin to peek out from under it, I question how much information I’ve been missing.”
Billed as an unnamed “surprise speaker,” Clayton was the only elected official scheduled to talk. Others, including Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin, state Rep. Muffy Davis, and County Commissioner Angenie McCleary and school board Trustee Ryan Degn, said they were only there to listen.
Degn, though, was moved to speak during a public comment portion of the program.
“I do honor what you have to say, I do listen to you,” he told the crowd. “I do honor all voters, all taxpayers. … I don’t have evil intent in this. I am not the lapdog of the school superintendent. I don’t do her bidding. I have my own opinions, and I rely on the information I gather from you to form them.”
That followed a spate of information from other speakers, including three teachers: one current, one who resigned effective at the end of this year, and one whose contract was not renewed by the district.
“I am tired of being silent. I’m here to try to show you how demoralized our district is,” said Melanie Shrader, a Gifted and Talented Facilitator at Wood River Middle School. “[Holmes] has worked slowly in her time as superintendent to create a despotic form of governance in which she is nearly untouchable … and her grip on the board is tight.”
Schrader, who plans to continue on at Wood River, outlined decaying morale among teachers dating back to the previous superintendent, but accelerating under the current administration.
“Our voice has been taken away,” she said. “We feel our professional opinions are not being valued. There is a lack of trust. There is fear of speaking out—I haven’t said anything in four years—and I’m a leadership teacher.”
One common refrain nested in the allegations: that district policies make grievances difficult and ineffective, especially those lodged against superiors.
The process drove outgoing Orchestra Director Rebecca Martin and her husband, former Communications Specialist Kelly Martin, to resign this year. For certified staff including teachers, the three-step grievance process outlined in contracts requires submitting a grievance to one’s immediate supervisor first; on appeal, the claim goes to the superintendent for consideration; finally, if the employee is not satisfied with the outcome, it goes to a panel convened by the board of trustees.
“The district has policies in place, but the policies are being abused by people in power,” Martin said, speaking through tears. “Our family has been through two years of pettiness and disrespect. Even though it is our choice to resign, and not tolerate this behavior any longer, I went through the proper channels, and was ignored.”
In a Tuesday interview, district Communications Director Heather Croker defended the district’s practices—and the morale of its teachers.
“Policies are put in place by the board—the superintendent doesn’t vote on policy,” said Crocker, who told the Idaho Mountain Express that she was discouraged from attending by event organizers on Facebook. “That’s the board’s purview, not hers.”
Crocker emphasized that policies are first formulated by a committee of teachers, staff community members and trustees before going to a full board vote. Per policy, advisory committees—including the Policy Committee itself—are “organized and facilitated by the superintendent or designee,” with the superintendent acting as chair.
“Those meetings are always noticed and open to the public,” Crocker said. “If there are policies in place that are harming staff, the Policy Committee can revisit those. Retaliation is not allowed. Period. … If there’s evidence of retaliation, our staff need to let their supervisors know.
“In our schools, I’m seeing so much positivity. I’m getting so many genuine responses from teachers—it’s encouraging to hear. It shocks me that, in this day and age, people don’t take accountability for information … and that a fake persona can create so much ill-will.”
Monday’s speeches led to the evening’s call to action: an online vote-of-no-confidence petition urging the school board to fire Holmes with cause for “financial mismanagement” related to legal fees and administrative costs, as well as alleged “questionable ethics” surrounding investigations and internal complaints.
“There is growing evidence that Holmes is completely disconnected from the community,” said Barbara Browning of Ketchum, an outspoken critic of the district and author of the petition. “She has established a ‘Holmes Culture’ of secrecy and control.”
Gardenswartz said there is no timeline for presenting the petition to the board. Even then, it isn’t binding; several similar petitions have already circulated against Holmes in recent months.
As of noon Tuesday, Browning’s petition had garnered around 275 signatures.
Gardenswartz hopes it gains more traction by the next regular school board meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, June 11, at 6 p.m. in the Minnie Moore Room of the Community Campus.
“This is not the end,” he said Monday night. “This is the beginning of the end. We can’t stop now.”