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Board chooses new school superintendent

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By Brian Beckley-The Courier-Herald

After nearly three months of searching, the Sumner School District board of directors selected Gil Mendoza of Tacoma as their new superintendent last week.

Mendoza, 53, is the head of Tacoma's Career and Technical Education program and will take over for outgoing Superintendent Donald Eismann in July. Eismann is retiring after 22 years at the head of the district.

There are some questions, however, about the process followed by the board in making their decision with regard to the state's Open Public Meetings Act.

The board made its announcement at a special meeting May 3 following a 35-minute executive session. No public discussion of the decision was conducted before the unanimous vote.

According to the district, Mendoza will receive a base salary of $140,000 per year plus a $250 per month car allowance and a $500 per month annuity. Additional contract details were not made available pending legal review.

“We're very, very excited to have someone with Dr. Mendoza's background and involvement leading our district into the future,” said board Vice President Greg Hanon after the vote.

“We were confident he's a good replacement for Don,” President Jeff DeMarre said. “Gil stood out as being the best experienced person for this position.”

Following the meeting and the signing of his contract, Mendoza, who was in the back of the room when his name was announced, stayed for a brief reception, meeting with teachers, administrators and members of the public.

“I hope as we get to know each other, I'll earn your trust,” he said, adding that he was “truly humbled and honored” to be joining the district.

Board members cited Mendoza's experience in Tacoma and his involvement in that community - as well as his desire to move to Sumner - as major components in their decision.

“From the moment we met him, he sounded very enthusiastic about Sumner,” board member Toni Froehling said. “He just got better each time we talked to him.”

Mendoza, who has lived in Pierce County nearly all of his life, said he has applied for some superintendent positions in the past, but saw the decision to apply to Sumner as “automatic.”

“When Sumner opened up, I just kind of went ‘wow,'” he said. “I saw it as a good match.”

Mendoza said he was excited to be part of the district that is “setting the pace” in Pierce County. Mendoza said his role will be to make sure things keep moving in the direction set forth by Eismann.

“You can't fill Donald Eismann's shoes,” he said. “I see my role coming in as being a learner and working with the team.

“I'm really coming here to be part of what I see as a quality team,” he said.

Mendoza said his first weeks will be spent talking to leadership teams within the district and learning from them about what they are doing to help Sumner achieve its high test scores.

“If we're asking the kids to be learners, I think I need to model that as well,” he said. “My intent is not to change anything.

“They're doing pretty good here, excellent work,” he said. “Sumner's doing great things and I want to learn from hem.”

Though no one has spoken out against the choice of Mendoza, there are some questions about the process used by the board to select him as a replacement for Eismann. The board chose Mendoza from approximately 20 applicants, including three who were invited back for an interview day throughout the district, including a public session with parents and community leaders.

Following that meeting, the board went to dinner and met again with the candidates, deciding to narrow the field to two for another round of interviews.

Finally, the decision was made to offer the job to Mendoza.

According to state law, discussions to eliminate candidates and/or select a candidate must be done in open, public meetings and it appears this was not always the case. The dinner meeting, for example, was not announced and no meeting minutes were taken.

The lack of public discussion before the unanimous vote May 3 and the appearance of Mendoza at the meeting - and no other candidates - as well as talk by board members of negotiating Mendoza's contract also indicates the board had already made its decision in private, something it is not allowed to do.

According to the OPMA, though executive session may be used to discuss an applicant's qualifications, salary and other contractual issues, it may not be used to choose an applicant or eliminate others from the running, all of which must be done in public session.

In the case of Miller v. City of Tacoma, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that the city council violated OPMA because the council used an executive session to conduct a “secret ballot.”

“This did not weigh or evaluate the qualifications of the applicants, but identified a consensus candidate for appointment to the planning commission. As such, these secret ballots constituted ‘action' beyond mere evaluation of the candidates' qualifications and therefore fell outside the scope of the RCW 42.30.110 (1)(g) exception [and violated the OPMA],” reads the decision.

School boards are also bound to the open public meeting laws.

Should the district be found in violation of the act, board members could be forced to start the superintendent search again from the beginning.

Mendoza is scheduled to begin work July 1.

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