On December 8th, 2022, in a letter to the community from the Snoqualmie Valley School District (SVSD), valley families learned that Superintendent Dr. Lance Gibbon had reached a separation agreement with the District after being on administrative leave since mid-September of this year.
According to Board President Melissa Johnson, Gibbon was chosen as Superintendent in March 2021 after the SVSD board contracted with national search firms to help recruit and vet candidates who applied for the position.
The Snoqualmie Valley School District Board of Directors interviewed six semifinalists in the Superintendent Search process. During these interviews, a panel of 16 observers watched the interviews and provided written feedback for the Board to consider. At a special meeting, the Board voted publicly and unanimously to extend the offer to Dr. Gibbon.
Dr. Gibbon replaced Superintendent Dr. Robert W. Manahan, who retired that summer. Gibbon’s term as Superintendent started in July 2021.
Everything seemed to be in order. The Oak Harbor School District made a statement about his departure: “Dr. Gibbon’s genuine care for our students, staff, and community shone through everything he did. He advocated for rich and diverse learning experiences for all students. He also strove to remove barriers and to provide equitable access and opportunities for each child. We were fortunate to celebrate countless student successes under his leadership as a result.”
The Snoqualmie Valley Citizens for Schools non-profit noted, “Dr. Gibbon will play a critical role in leading the transition of the Snoqualmie Valley School District community out of this challenging phase and back to its strong performance prior to the pandemic.”
Schools re-opened; state standardized test scores were starting to rebound from their pandemic lows, and Empower Youth Network honored Superintendent Gibbon with their first Community Kindness Award.
When the letter from the school district came out, it expressed concerns regarding Dr. Gibbon’s “perceived focus on matters of his public persona rather than attending to the substance of Teaching and Learning.” It went on to assure parents that while they realized that the payments necessary to reach a settlement were not without impact and may have caused concern, the Board felt that it “speaks to the seriousness of our concerns about the amount of damage we felt that Dr. Gibbon could have done had he been allowed to stay.”
The impact of the letter was that it was seen by some in the community as a ‘hit piece’ and ‘wildly inappropriate.’ Immediately it became a hot topic among local SVSD parents who wanted answers as to what went wrong and how much the taxpayers would have to pay for this settlement agreement.
A school board meeting was held on the evening of the 8th, where the topic was briefly addressed, and in-person public comments were taken.
President Johnson was the first board member to comment briefly, addressing email and social media comments she had seen alluding to a ‘coup’ to install a new superintendent or in response to his support of the arts. Johnson stated the theories were false and that Gibbon was “not a good fit for our district and not a good fit for our mission.”
Director from District 3, Board Member Carolyn Simpson, reiterated the letter’s language to the community, saying, in part, that the Board felt Dr. Gibbon wasn’t as focused on “teaching and learning as the board would expect a superintendent to be.”
Simpson dismissed the claims related to sports and arts funding as the reason behind the separation agreement with Gibbon. She noted that everyone on the Board understands sports and the arts are a big part of getting kids involved in the school experience.
Vice President Geoff Doy agreed with the previous two speakers’ sentiments, adding that the Board didn’t take the decision to separate lightly.
Doy noted the support for Gibbon’s candidacy was unanimous, without one dissenting voice from the Board, administration, teachers, parent committee and the community. He defended the procedure used to hire Gibbon, saying the District employed a recognized and experienced firm of external consultants in the process. He did say the process was hampered significantly by the pandemic, so everything had to be done remotely, but at the time, everyone was very happy with the decision.
Board members Fancher and Vedullapalli commented briefly, and the meeting was opened for public comment. North Bend resident and senior parent Linda Grez stepped to the podium. Grez has served as a leader on multiple PTSAs, Music Boosters, as an elected official at Si View.
Grez’s fiery comments started with strong criticism of the school board regarding the letter to the community, saying, “You have made very serious allegations in your letter regarding Dr. Gibbon. You must now provide facts and documentation to back up your harsh words. Your comments about him personally are not only unprofessional but are in opposition to the lived experience of many people in our community. That you would put into writing such slanted and reputation-damaging words is both shocking and disappointing.”
She asked many of the questions that parents had been asking all day. Grez wanted to know the specific objectives in the ‘thoughtful plan of improvement’ mentioned in the letter, when the plan was created and which staff left the District whose resignations or terminations the board regrets.
Ms. Grez praised Dr. Gibbon for “making long overdue progress in modernizing much of our District and its decision-making processes, all for the better.” And “To say that he was not focused on teaching and learning is completely false and a libelous statement, in my opinion. It is the kind of vague criticism that is veiling some other reason why he was terminated. Getting students and families excited and engaged about school was his greatest strength, not his greatest failing.”
She ended her comments by noting that when the facts are fully known, “we will see who exactly his success was threatening to and what really happened.”
President Johnson addressed Grez’s questions, saying more information could be obtained by filing a Public Records Request (PRR) but that employee privacy laws protected some information.
Johnson also noted that not one of the board members disagreed with the letter. Board member Fancher then interjected, saying he would have “preferred different language,” but “it’s not that it’s not true.”
The next day, taking the advice of the School Board President, Living Snoqualmie filed a public records request for the Superintendent’s Employment Contract and Settlement Agreement. After answering a clarifying question from Carolyn Malcolm, the Community Relations Manager for the Snoqualmie Valley School District, we received these records on December 14th.
According to the Settlement Agreement, dated November 15th, 2022, SVSD will be required to pay Gibbon a total settlement amount of six hundred thousand dollars. One hundred thousand dollars by November 28th, 2022; two hundred and fifty thousand dollars by February 1, 2023; and two hundred and fifty thousand dollars by September 30th, 2023.
Under the terms of the Superintendent’s Employment Contract signed by Gibbon and all five members of the Board of directors of the SVSD, “This Agreement may be terminated by mutual agreement, retirement or resignation.”
If Dr. Gibbon had resigned, he would have been required to provide prior written notice to the Board of not less than 120 days. He would “not be entitled to receive additional compensation from the District following the date on which the resignation and termination of employment becomes effective.”
Had the Superintendent been discharged for ‘sufficient cause,’ there would have been a procedure of written notices, corrective actions, a reasonable time for completion of the corrective action, and a written notice that constitutes the basis for termination and time for an appeal should the Superintendent wish to do so. Gibbon did not retire.
Wondering if Gibbon had an evaluation based on the fact that the Board was not pleased with his work and had written an improvement plan after that evaluation, Living Snoqualmie asked for both of those documents and any related documents to his administrative leave in September on December 14th.
The next day, we received a reply from the Community Relations Manager saying, “Due to our District receiving an unprecedented magnitude of complex records requests earlier this year, we’re currently working through a backlog of requests and working to process requests in the order they were received. When estimating the time we’ll need to complete a request, we consider the scope of a request, collaboration needed with others to search for records, redactions that may be needed, how many requests were received prior, etc. Also given our small District’s limited resources for processing requests, our District is notifying new requests that it may take up to 6 months to complete. Certainly, if we are able to complete the request sooner, or if we need to adjust our estimate to allow more time, we will keep you updated. Also, if there is a significant number of responsive records, the District may provide relevant materials in batches.”
When we asked why the first two records had come so quickly and these would be so delayed, we were told the question had already been answered in the first email, but “if we’re able to complete requests earlier than our estimated timeframe, we’ll certainly let you know.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Gibbon released a letter to the community, via another publication, and local social media groups were full of upheaval, anger and conspiracy theories. Would the district have to pay out Dr. Gibbon’s accrued sick leave? Why was the letter informing the community so seemingly harsh? How can this be prevented in the future?
Living Snoqualmie submitted questions to Dr. Gibbon and the SVSD Board, hoping to get clarity for a community struggling to understand.
[Stay tuned for part two to see if we got the answers we were looking for from Gibbon or the school board]