Ontario School District Superintendent Nikki Albisu. (File photo)
ONTARIO – Ontario School District Superintendent Nikki Albisu on Monday offered a fiery rebuttal to a public evaluation of her work on which school board members gave her several low scores.
Albisu, who became the district’s top administrator in 2013, offered a sweeping critique of the conduct and competence of the Ontario School Board.
She characterized as “abuse” the behavior towards her by board directors Derrick Draper, Eric Evans and Craig Geddes. She noted the other boards members, Chair Renae Corn and Blanca Rodriguez, had rated her work significantly differently.
She argued that by questioning the work her staff had done to keep Ontario on the rails during the pandemic, the board had effectively insulted and undermined the district’s roughly 500 employees.
She made her remarks at a special meeting Monday afternoon, responding in detail to public criticisms leveled at her in a meeting last week. The sessions were part of the required annual review of the superintendent by the board, which is her boss.
After Albisu's presentation, board members revisited their evaluation, adjusting initial scores to make them more positive. The document will undergo editing before it is presented to the superintendent at a future meeting.
Last week, Corn addressed the tensions.
“Disrespect has become an unwelcome visitor in meetings between board members and Superintendent Albisu,” Corn said. “With so much contention and accusations it has been difficult to focus on the work that needs to happen.”
Albisu addressed many of the accusations, noting that she had not received constructive criticism from Draper, Evans and Geddes.
“I have been publicly ridiculed, shouted at, called a liar, directed not to speak, and reminded of who I work for,” she said.
She said that “at least four different attorneys” had recommended mediation between her and the board but Evans and Draper “have adamantly refused on multiple occasions.”
In particular, Albisu cited the comportment of the directors at a tense meeting last week that presaged Monday’s encounter.
“I thought I would be safer and experience less abuse, especially with an audience of nearly 100 people watching. I was wrong,” she said. “Multiple members of this board offered up what I consider a retaliatory, defamatory, and biased review of my performance with little to no evidence to support their rhetoric.”
Beyond the board’s treatment, Albisu suggested that the directors weren’t accurately using key data about the school district.
“Director Draper alleged that people were leaving the district in droves. Yet, he has offered no evidence to support this claim,” Albisu said. “Despite the impact of this pandemic, our high school enrollment has increased by approximately 30 students this school year alone.”
Albisu also said that a policy she implemented to rotate the location of school board meetings had tripled public attendance, defying the board’s claim that the change was done to “elude” community participation.
In response to assertions that public perception of the school district is negative, Albisu said, “To publicly announce that your circle of friends or colleagues represent the majority of this community is both irresponsible and unreasonable. At this point I’m unaware of any data source that proves the authenticity of these claims.”
In contrast to her harsh words for the board, Albisu had nothing but praise for her staff. The board’s criticism of her, she said, had unduly involved other administrators, and she vigorously defended them.
“Our teachers did not rely on platforms to teach kids like the majority of districts; they taught their kids each and every day. Our cooks, custodians, maintenance crew, and bus drivers worked in person, every single day, despite the stay at home order. Our counselors were aggressive in preparing social emotional lessons and strategies to monitor our students mental health, and our students thrived. Our technology department worked around the clock to support all of our technology needs and even procured over 800 Chromebook devices and hotspots/ internet support for students and families, as well as staff, and it was a huge success,” said Albisu. “By saying that they did just an okay job is offensive to us all.”
This pushback came after last week’s extraordinary meeting where Draper, Evans and Geddes voiced a litany of criticisms of Albisu.
In contrast, Chair Renae Corn and Director Blanca Rodriguez credited Albisu with increasing contacts with parents and the community during the pandemic and investing in technology to help families become more connected with the district.
The superintendent’s leadership in pioneering new instructional techniques during the pandemic won praise from all board members.
Two complaints about the superintendent’s management of media relations dominated board discussion of how to score her “visionary leadership.”
Geddes brought up a letter signed by the superintendents of Vale, Adrian, Four Rivers Community School, and the Malheur Education Service District which was published recently in the Enterprise. The letter praised Malheur County residents for their diligence in adhering to Covid restrictions, and encouraged them to keep up the good work so the county’s Covid factors would be low enough for schools to open.
“I was saddened to not see the superintendent's name as an author to the article,” said Geddes.
Draper accused the superintendent of breaking two board policies by allowing Lisa Longoria, Ontario Middle School principal, to give a statement to the Argus Observer that Draper interpreted as critical of the board.
She was quoted as saying there was direction but no discussion by the board on when to return students to school.
“We discussed this very issue for three hours, 16 minutes and 11 seconds with all of the administrators privy to the discussion and conversation,” said Draper. “The poorly executed revised plan at the middle school is blamed on the board for taking and implementing the superintendent’s own recommendations.”
Geddes and Evans returned to Draper’s complaint at various points in the meeting, pointing out that Albisu had not sought a correction of the published account.
Evans also blamed Albisu for what he said was an “abysmal” public perception of the district.
“I really do think that we need to develop a way to change that perception,” Evans said. “Accountability is a big piece of this board, and ensuring that the superintendent is following our directives for her, and we’ve done a really poor job as a board,” he said.
Albisu’s gestures came into play as well.
“Something that I observed tonight is, as we were getting up to go on a break, (the) superintendent looked at her staff member and just rolled her eyes,” said Evans. “And that’s the kind of disrespect that she gives to the board, and she portrays that to her staff as well, so that’s an example of the toxic culture I see.”
During discussion of the relationship, Draper cited clauses from the superintendent’s contract which laid out circumstances in which her employment could be terminated by the board without her approval.
He said Longoria’s published remark could trigger a contract clause allowing termination for
“‘conduct which is seriously prejudicial to the district and which substantially affects the fundamental mission of the district’ is a breach in the agreement.”
He cited contract clauses that allowed for termination of Albisu if the board found “continuing or repeated problems with superintendent’s performance or conduct, or superintendent’s inattention to duties.”
For those reasons, he said, he found Longoria’s quoted remark “a big thing.”
At that point in the meeting, lawyer Christine Mosier-Crysler cautioned the board against going beyond the scope of the planned discussion, which was not a disciplinary proceeding. Draper did not reference the superintendent’s contract again.
The next Ontario School Board meeting will be held via Zoom on Thursday, March 18.
WHAT'S IN THE CONTRACT?
Nikki Albisu and the Ontario School Board signed a two-year contract on July 20, 2020, for her to serve as superintendent. The contract spells out how the contract can be terminated. An excerpt from the contract:
Termination without superintendent’s concurrence.
The district shall have the right to terminate the employment of superintendent at any time for cause. Cause for termination shall include, but not be limited to, the following: (1) Conduct which is seriously prejudicial to the district and which substantially affects the fundamental mission of the district, (2) any material breach of superintendent's obligation under this Agreement, (3) failure to maintain in good standing a valid and appropriate certificate to act as a superintendent of schools as required by the State of Oregon, (4) any form of dishonesty, criminal conduct or conduct involving moral turpitude connected with the employment of superintendent or which otherwise reflects adversely on the district 's reputation or operations, or (5) continuing or repeated problems with superintendent 's performance or conduct or superintendent's inattention to duties. Cause for purposes of this contract does not require "just cause" for termination.
In the event the district intends to act to terminate this Employment Agreement prior to its termination date with cause and without the superintendent's written concurrence, the superintendent shall be entitled to a due process hearing before the Board prior to the occurrence of any purported act of termination. Due process shall include at least a written notice of the reasons why the district is considering termination of this Employment Agreement, the right to appear before the Board in closed executive meeting or public hearing, at the option of the superintendent, the right to be represented at the hearing by a representative of the superintendent's choice, and the right to a written decision describing the results of the hearing. The district shall give the superintendent no less than ten (10) days written notice in advance of termination. This provision does not constitute a waiver of any rights the district or the superintendent may have to enforce this Employment Agreement in the courts under the Agreement or other applicable law. Upon termination, the district shall have no further obligation to pay salary or benefits under this Employment Agreement.
No cause termination of Agreement.
By district without cause: If the district desires to terminate without cause, at least twelve (12) months' notice will be given to the superintendent.
Termination at the request of the superintendent.
Superintendent shall immediately notify the Board of her intent to seek other employment. Superintendent may terminate this Agreement to take other employment by providing district no less than sixty (60) days prior to written notice. The superintendent will be paid for days actually worked and holidays that occur prior to Agreement termination.
News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.
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