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Superintendent’s contract extended to 2005

Fred O’Neal, standing at right, a former director for the South Whidbey Board of Education, reads a letter from eight other past board members offering assistance to the present board in dealing with the controversy surrounding it and urging support of the  present administration.  - Gayle Saran/staff photo
Fred O’Neal, standing at right, a former director for the South Whidbey Board of Education, reads a letter from eight other past board members offering assistance to the present board in dealing with the controversy surrounding it and urging support of the present administration.
— image credit: Gayle Saran/staff photo

By GAYLE SARAN

Staff reporter

The South Whidbey Board of Education meeting Monday night felt more like a sporting event than a business meeting. It came complete with applause, cheering and the tension of not knowing what the final outcome would be.

Bringing this excitement was whether the South Whidbey Board of Education would extend Superintendent Martin Laster’s contract. As it turned out, the board did, but not before going into double overtime.

Although the discussion of the contract was the last item on a lengthy agenda, the majority of the audience waited for the final tally at 11 p.m. to find out if the board would terminate Laster’s contract in June 2004.

For those rooting for Laster, the final score was satisfying — 2 to 2 and 1 abstention — enough to extend the contract to June 2005.

The contest started with a motion to terminate Laster’s contract, something that was presumably discussed that night in a closed-door executive session with the district’s attorney, Mike Hogey. If the motion passed, Laster would have been out in 2004. With its failure, his contract is automatically extended until 2005.

Before voting, school board Director Bob Riggs characterized the vote as “a defining line for the board.”

He called for a roll call vote by director district, which added to the tension in the room. Board directors Ray Gabelein Jr. and Barbara Schneeman voted to end Laster’s contract. Riggs and Director Helen Price-Johnson voted against the motion. Director Jim Adsley provided the rubber vote by abstaining.

Some people in the audience at the meeting didn’t hear Adsley’s vote and called for him to repeat it. When he did, there was applause from Laster’s supporters.

A night of tension

Prior to the vote, tension mounted as a number of school district employees waited the decision.

When the motion to terminate Laster’s contract was made, Assistant Superintendent Dan Blanton — who dodged being dismissed by the district last month — left his front row seat and walked to the back of the room.

Before voting, Riggs and Price-Johnson apologized to Laster for agreeing to a clause added to his contract last year that allowed the board to rescind the third year of his contract, the year that would keep him on through 2005.

Schneeman’s made the motion to invoke that clause and was seconded by Gabelein.

The board vote was primed by a public discussion hours earlier. At the mid point of the night’s agenda, six former school board members — John Cardy, Fred O’Neal, Steve Scoles, Greg Gilles, Paul Samuelson, Skip Demuth, and Karen Anderson — spoke in support of Laster. They urged the board to approve his contract and voiced concerns about the community’s perception of the present board and its actions.

“You have a wonderful superintendent, a super star before he was here and with support he would be a super star here,” said O’Neal.

Laster’s supporters applauded after former board members spoke.

Scoles got the only laugh out of the tense room when he said, “superintendents are scarce ... they aren’t running out of the bushes like rabbits...”

There were also words of support for the school board. Kathy Mclaughlin said the board is keeping the district out of financial trouble.

“We are fortunate to not to be in that situation because our school board requests accountability,” she said. “We have a fiscally responsible board.”

Patty Sievers, a former teacher, echoed McLaughlin by reminding those at the meeting of the financial condition of the district six years ago.

“The high school’s ASB was in the hole, the reserve fund was down,” she said. “At that time the board and administration were not concerned.”

“We talked to board candidates Barb Schneeman, Ray Gabelein and Jim Adsley about our concerns. They listened ... they are always doing what we asked them to do — be good stewards of our tax money. What some people call difficult, I call diligent.”

Before the vote, the board got a reminder of its past assessments of the superintendent. Reading from a June 2002 school board meeting transcript, Langley resident Jim Simpson quoted Director Gabelein.

“The board is united in wanting Dr. Laster here not only for the three years of this contract but for many years beyond that. That is our sincere belief as a group ... Dr Laster is capable of leading the district.”

Prior to the vote, Director Adsley commented on his reasoning for his abstention.

“I hear from some district employees that they are afraid to speak up,” he said. “Dr. Laster is very competent ... I feel he was the right choice, but I am concerned about things I am hearing from district employees. These things are troubling, parents and teachers speak to me about concerns, that need to be addressed.”

Gayle Saran/staff photo

Fred O’Neal, former director for the South Whidbey Board of Education reads a letter from eight other past board members offering assistance to the present board in dealing with the controversy surrounding it and urging support of the present administration.

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