The Blaine County School District’s board of trustees stripped sitting Chairman Rob Clayton of his title and censured the former top trustee for “several” unspecified ethics violations following an extended closed session Tuesday night.
The board passed both measures 3-2 during a somber vote near midnight, following its regular monthly meeting on June 11. Clayton and Ryan Degn opposed both motions.
The board declined to detail the charges prior to taking the vote.
Trustee Ellen Mandeville, now the acting chairwoman, said she became aware of potential breaches dating back to late January of this year, and running through early May. Citing the confidentiality of executive session under Idaho law, Mandeville, who earlier this week announced that she intends to move out of her zone and won’t seek re-election later this year, declined to elaborate on specific violations, or enumerate how many occurred, in a pair of interviews with the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday.
“All of our conversations about it were in executive session—what happens there, stays there,” Mandeville said. “He knows why we voted the way we voted. Even though he’s violated my trust, I’m not going to throw him under the bus. Airing dirty laundry is ugly—that’s not my intention.
Earlier, Mandeville had said, “Voting to remove a trustee from the chairman position is a rare event. I did not take my vote lightly.”
Trustee Kevin Garrison also declined to detail violations.
“I can’t comment because of the rules of executive session, and because of linkages to ongoing legal activities within the district,” he said Thursday. “I just wish we never had to go there. It’s heartbreaking, because I feel like we were really working as an effective team.”
Prior to the vote, Clayton acknowledged wrongdoing but objected to the use of a vague number of charges included in the motion against him.
“Multiple is a generic term,” he said. “I’m not comfortable with the use of it with no basis. I’d like to have that quantified. … I’ve had maybe two, or one and a half. That does not equal multiple.”
In interviews with Idaho Mountain Express, Clayton said he “overstepped” on two occasions.
In January, he arrived unannounced to act as a second for Human Resources Director Shannon Maza at a performance evaluation with a principal and Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes. (That meeting was later listed as the inciting event in a February tort claim by Maza against the district alleging slanderous conduct by the superintendent toward Maza and Clayton; the district has not responded to the claim.)
“I didn’t know it was a performance evaluation,” Clayton said. “I wanted to witness the process. In hindsight, it was the wrong thing to do.”
In May, Clayton said he questioned a teacher over “concerns with district operations.” That might constitute an independent investigation outside established protocols, and a potential source of bias should the board adjudicate related matters in the future.
Clayton did not expand on the content of those conversations, though he said his intent was not to interrogate the teacher.
No formal complaints have been brought against trustees, including Clayton, by teachers and constituents so far this year, according to a public records request filed by the Idaho Mountain Express.
“I did not follow the chain of command,” Clayton told the paper. “And it broke the trust of the superintendent.”
Holmes waited out the almost two-hour executive session Tuesday, and was present for the board’s late-night vote.
“Chairman Clayton oversaw significant changes in Blaine County schools during his tenure on the board,” Holmes said in a prepared statement shortly after the roll call. “He has been a champion for balancing the budget and closing the achievement gap. His service on the board has been focused on what is best for all students. I am sure he will continue to be an advocate for all students at the board table and am looking forward to continuing to work with him.”
Clayton, who has served on the board since 2014, was re-elected last year; his current term expires in 2021.
“I’m kind of disappointed with the tone of the district’s statement,” Clayton said. “My tenure’s not over yet.”
The disciplinary action does not affect his position as a trustee, though the sessions leading up to it strained relationships within the five-person board.
Emails obtained by the Express outline a stormy back-and-forth between trustees growing out of the closed-door debates over Clayton’s future—including his first announcing his intention to resign his chair, only to reverse course less than two weeks later.
Before that, though, it was Trustee Kevin Garrison who considered resigning from the school board altogether over Clayton’s “inability to accept the board’s unanimous recommendation to step down as Chair” during an executive session on May 18, alleging unnamed violations of state law.
“I am even more disappointed by my peers’ unwillingness to take the same stand in public that they are willing to make in private executive session,” Garrison wrote to Mandeville, while carbon-copying the other trustees and Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes on May 23. “I guess ethics and morals only count behind closed doors.”
(Prompted by Mandeville and Clayton, Garrison apologized for including Holmes on the email, a possible breach of the confidentiality of executive session under Idaho open meeting law. Garrison informed the board that he had been told by David Brinkman, a consultant with the Idaho School Boards Association, that Holmes was already aware of “what had been asked of the Chair.”)
Despite finding Garrison’s email “ungenerous” to the rest of the board, Mandeville urged him to stay on. (On Thursday, Garrison told the Express that he intends to do just that, and is “90 percent sure” he will run again later this year.)
“I am sorry to hear that you are more disappointed by the patience and grace extended to Rob than you are by Rob’s violations of the Board Code of Ethics,” Mandeville replied 20 minutes after Garrison’s initial email. “I, too am quite frustrated at the long, long wait in hearing anything from Rob.”
Clayton responded less than 12 hours later, announcing his intention to step down as chairman during the June 11 board meeting.
“I heard from all of you last Saturday that this course of action would be in the best interest of the District,” Clayton wrote the board morning of May 24. “I have mixed feelings about that, but I will honor and respect your opinion.”
Clayton also rebuked Garrison’s claim that he had violated state law.
“I will own the fact that I have crossed two of the standards in our code of ethics which is why I came to the decision I have taken,” Clayton wrote. “I am troubled by the continued vociferous nature of [Garrison’s] communication.”
In a subsequent email, Mandeville told the board that she had informed Holmes and board Clerk Amanda LaChance of Clayton’s message.
But his intention to resign didn’t last.
Billed as a “special guest speaker,” Clayton addressed about 120 people at a June 3 town hall in Hailey billed as a “crisis meeting” to air issues surrounding district leadership.
“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.”
Just before 7 a.m. on June 4, Mandeville emailed the board to inform them of Clayton’s appearance on the program. By 7:30 a.m., Clayton had asked LaChance and Mandeville to strike items related to his resignation from the June 11 agenda, and informed the board of his intention to stay on as chairman.
“As a result of recent events, I have changed my mind regarding my stepping down as Board Chair,” Clayton wrote. “I do not feel that action would be in the best interest of the BCSD at this time. I have scheduled an executive session at the end of the meeting on June 11 to give Trustee Garrison the opportunity to bring his charges against me in a public forum if he wishes to do so.
“I will leave the decision of my future as board chair up to all of you.”
Some 15 minutes later, Mandeville replied.
“I thought you were a man of your world,” she wrote. “How unfortunate that you aren’t.”
The executive session Clayton scheduled stretched Tuesday night close to Wednesday morning.
Afterward, in a public vote, Mandeville and Trustee Kelly Green combined to make a motion of formal reprimand censuring Clayton.
Then, Garrison made a motion to remove Clayton as chairman, which Green seconded.
Mandeville, Garrison and Green voted to pass both motions.
“There is a lot at stake here and I believe working together to solve problems makes for the best solution,” Clayton said in a statement emailed to media on Wednesday. “The dysfunction and internal feuding of previous boards left a bad taste in the public’s mouth.
“We need to address the problems together and regain the respect and confidence of the community we serve: It cannot be done without every trustee’s participation and cooperation. We need to move forward together and restore the dignity and reputation of the BCSD board of trustees and show our community that we care deeply about our students and their public education.”