O’Neal returns to South Whidbey School Board

Fred O’Neal is back on the South Whidbey School Board.

O’Neal, a 76-year-old Bayview resident with over a decade of previous experience on the board, was appointed to fill the District 5 at-large seat over Molly MacLeod-Roberts of Langley on Wednesday night. The appointment was decided in a 3-1 vote at the school board’s regular monthly meeting in South Whidbey Elementary School’s community room. The lone vote for MacLeod-Roberts came from board Director Shawn Nowlin.

Both candidates were vying to fill the position vacated by Rocco Gianni, who resigned in December due to health and stress related reasons.

O’Neal, who resigned from his District 2 seat in 2014, will finish out the remainder of Gianni’s term, which expires in November. O’Neal said he was happy to be rejoining the board.

“I’m pleased,” O’Neal said. “Some of this stuff that is going on right now is a really big deal. It can make or break the district.”

“…I’m willing to step up for a few months,” he added.

MacLeod-Roberts, who is the Port of South Whidbey’s clerk, accountant and public records officer, said she was not disappointed by the outcome.

“I have every bit of confidence that he will make his decisions based on fact and in the best interests of the district,” MacLeod-Roberts said. “He was eminently qualified.”

It also appears O’Neal was recruited into applying for the vacant seat by some members of the board.

According to O’Neal, a “couple” of school board directors asked him at a Dec. 7 community meeting to consider applying for the vacant seat, which was nearly a month before the position opened up to the public.

O’Neal also spoke to Gianni at around this time, who told O’Neal that he “couldn’t hang in there much longer.”

“They knew more than I did,” O’Neal said. “I didn’t realize Rocco’s physical problems were that bad.”

O’Neal said he could not recall which board members asked him to apply.

“If I don’t have a clear recollection, I’m reluctant to name names in case I get it wrong,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal and MacLeod-Roberts were interviewed publicly by the board directors for roughly 15 minutes each prior to the business meeting. The board directors then convened for a 30-minute executive session where the qualifications of the candidates were discussed. At the start of the business meeting, the board directors cast their votes.

Questions asked during the interview process were varied, including what special attributes the candidates possessed that would make the board a more effective team, and whether the candidates had thick skin and could handle being in a public position.

Director Damian Greene referenced MacLeod-Roberts’ past history as an outspoken critic of the board and the South Whidbey School District as part of one of his questions revolving around Langley Middle School.

In 2011, the school board reversed its decision to close the middle school. MacLeod-Roberts threatened to sue members of the board in the event of an earthquake that harmed children and if there was evidence that showed the board should have taken action. Greene asked if MacLeod-Roberts still held the same belief that the building was unsafe, to which MacLeod said she is unsure due to a lack of public information on the subject.

In a follow-up question, Greene asked how MacLeod-Roberts would handle the situation if she were a board director and was faced with a similar situation.

“I can’t imagine that I would be in the position that I would be the one that would not do something,” MacLeod-Roberts said.

It was the most time-consuming question asked by any of the board directors during MacLeod-Roberts’ interview.

Greene said in a phone interview Thursday that he did not vote for MacLeod-Roberts because he was concerned with possible conflicts of interests associated with MacLeod-Roberts’ work with the port and how it might impact her decision-making down the road.

Board Chairwoman Linda Racicot said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon that because the board was familiar with the candidates’ history and backgrounds, the interviews were less of a deal-breaker and more about finding anything else that could help in their decision-making process.

“I was really happy to have two very qualified candidates,” Racicot said. “It’s a wonderful thing for them to step up. Of course, it makes our decision harder.”

Racicot said the biggest factor in the decision was the candidates’ ability to step into the role “most easily.” In Racicot’s mind, O’Neal was that person.

“He has experience with the board and brings a lot to the table that way,” Racicot said.