Coupeville School Board discusses investigation that went awry

Sherry Phay stated she had the board president’s permission to send her controversial email.

Coupeville school board members acknowledged in their board meeting May 24 that procedure was abandoned during a recent investigation into allegations against Superintendent Steve King.

They couldn’t, however, agree upon what should have happened instead, or who was to blame for derailing the process.

In February, board member Sherry Phay informed the board in executive session of complaints she had heard from staff members that King had threatened some employees’ job status and otherwise sown fear of retaliation among district employees. After an investigation was launched, Phay sent an email to some staff members containing some of the allegations along with the investigator’s contact information. The investigation found no policy violations on King’s part. Once those results were returned, the school board approved a press release exonerating King and berating Phay for publicizing the investigation.

In the May 24 meeting, Human Resources Director Denise Peet listed several ways in which this investigation departed from district policy. First, there were no formal written complaints filed against King. Second, Phay’s email breached the typical privacy standards maintained during this type of investigation.

Phay said in the meeting that she had obtained permission from the investigator to share his contact information, and that Peet and board president Kathleen Anderson gave her the all-clear to send her email.

“It would not have been my choice to go through with the investigation, but since it was already underway, I just asked Kathleen, ‘Who do I contact? What do I do?’” Phay said.

Board vice president Venessa Matros said she understands why Phay felt responsible for sharing the investigator’s contact information after speaking with Peet and Anderson.

“What I don’t understand and I can’t wrap my mind around is how it was perceived as acceptable to publicly allege such strong acts without evidence to support them,” Matros added.

Other board members were critical of Phay for being vague and inconsistent about the number of complainants and the specifics of their allegations.

“It is difficult to conduct a thorough investigation and come to a resolution without any facts,” Peet said. “To this day, we do not know what the specific allegations are, or what other issues are out there, so we can make changes or take action. We are at a standstill to make any forward positive progress with staff relations.”

While criticizing Phay, the board maintained that all of its actions were legal. The board came under scrutiny this month for launching an investigation and approving a press release outside a public meeting.

The Open Public Meetings Act prohibits governmental boards from making decisions or taking action in private.

Peet stated that she consulted with an attorney and initiated the investigation after hearing about the allegations from board members, but the board itself did not launch the investigation.

Board member Christie Sears also said the press release was written by the district’s legal counsel, not the school board, and finalized by Peet. The press release, which said it was from the school board, was distributed to staff and the community.

Anderson previously told the Whidbey News-Times, however, that the investigation was her decision, and that the majority of board members approved the press release. Even if the press release wasn’t written by the board, obtaining the approval of a majority of board members constitutes “a serial meeting,” which is a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.

What the board agreed upon was a need to improve communication about, and adherence to, district policy surrounding investigations and filing complaints.

“I think it’s a learning experience for all of us to make sure that we know what that process is and that we’re able to follow it,” Matros said.

King was present for the board meeting but did not comment on the discussion of the investigation.

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