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Laster resigns his post

In an unanticipated morning move, South Whidbey schools Superintendent Martin Laster, along with his assistant superintendent and secretary, resigned early Tuesday morning.

The resignations come one week after Laster and the district’s business manager informed the South Whidbey Board of Education that the district’s cash account had gone into the red.

In a short telephone interview Tuesday morning, Laster said outside factors forced him to resign.

“We are very sorry it has come to this,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the environment created has caused all three of us to resign.”

News of the three resignations hit the district office in Langley Tuesday when personnel specialist Sue Terhar received Laster’s resignation by e-mail just before 7 a.m. It was also sent to board members at the same time.

Resignations from assistant superintendent Dan Blanton and district secretary Susan Nerison’s were e-mailed to Terhar and the board several hours later.

The three had apparently cleared their offices of all personal items the night before.

A written statement issued by board of education president Helen Price Johnson, hinted at her surprise.

“We regret the circumstances that have led to this development,” she said. “Dr. Laster’s resignation was not forced; it was unexpected, and the district doesn’t agree with Dr. Laster’s characterization of the circumstances leading to his departure.”

That characterization is summed up in Laster’s letter of resignation. He points to criticism brought on by a recent audit of the district’s financial practices, an acrimonious relationship with members of the board of education, news stories in The South Whidbey Record, and actions by district staff as his reasons for leaving. He noted in particular that the board did not recognize his accomplishments and withheld support.

“Within approximately the first six months of being here, a current board member commented that ‘I never had a chance,’ ” Laster wrote in his letter of resignation.

Laster, Blanton and Nerison have retained Seattle attorney Judith A. Lonnquist as their spokesperson.

Filling the gap left by the departure of the administrators Tuesday was Diane Watson, the district’s special services director and the only administrator left in the district office. She said she was shocked by the resignations.

“Never in my tenure have I seen anything like this happen.”

Gone in the night

Laster, Blanton and Nerison’s offices were cleared of their personal affects by the time anyone arrived at the school district office Tuesday. Laster’s door was locked. Blanton’s was open, but empty of any sign he had worked there the prior day. At Nerison’s desk, ever present family photos were gone. She posted a sign about attitude on her computer, which stated in part: “We cannot change the fact people will act a certain way... change the inevitable. I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react.”

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Nerison said she had a hard time leaving after 22 years with the school district.

“I feel sadness for the people I have left behind, sad for this district,” she said. “Unless people are willing to stand up and say we aren’t going to do this anymore, it will continue.”

In her letter of resignation, Nerison wrote that she could no longer tolerate the hostile work environment she said was created by the school board. She said the board under its current leadership undermined and discredited the superintendent and assistant superintendent.

District office staff were shocked by the events Tuesday. Several employees had tears in their eyes as they heard the news.

Terhar, the first person to read Laster’s e-mail said, “It feels like there has been a death.”

Rick Pitt, maintenance supervisor for the district, was similarly downcast.

“This is huge loss for our district,” he said.

The district’s financial staff, business manager Ben Thomas and clerks Donna Taylor and Freida Ellison payroll tried to work behind closed doors Tuesday. All three said they were having trouble focusing on their work.

Not everyone was surprised or disappointed over the resignations. Former school board president Ray Gabelein Jr., who left his post in December, said the signs were becoming clear that it was time for an administrative change.

“I think the writing was becoming more and more clear,”he said.

The news traveled quickly through the school district. By midmorning all the district’s principals had been notified and met with Price Johnson and Watson, after which the office staff was called into a meeting.

Loose ends remaining in the wake of the resignations include the naming of an interim superintendent, starting a search for a new superintendent, and one month to wait for the state Auditor’s Office to finish its audit of the district’s finances. Sadie Armijo, an audit supervisor in charge of the district’s audit, said the news of the resignations will make finishing up the audit report more difficult.

“That’s one of the issues,” she said.

Also at issue will be filling the superintendent’s position until the district can find a full-time superintendent. The board of education will consider that question tonight at a special meeting. The board will meet Jerry Jenkins, superintendent of Northwest Educational Service District 189, this morning.

Jenkins said Tuesday his office is available to help the board and the district with the situation.

“But we can provide temporary administrative services or help them find a interim superintendent.,” he said.

BREAKOUT

Who’s at the helm of the South Whidbey School District?

The resignation Tuesday of Superintendent Martin Laster, Assistant Superintendent Dan Blanton and Susan Nerison, administrative secretary sent the Board of Education scrambling to temporarily fill the top positions. The interim superintendent is Diane Watson, student services director. The Board of Education will hold a public meeting today at 5:00 p.m. at the Intermediate School. An executive session will be held prior to that at 3:30 p.m.

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