Former Idaho Education Association Executive Director Sue Wigdorski is accusing current IEA President Kari Overall of a pattern of inappropriate communications — involving staff and a State Department of Education employee.
The union is denying Wigdorski’s claims, made in a scathing Jan. 25 letter to the IEA’s 27-member governing board. “The allegations made by a former employee regarding the current association president are unfounded and without merit,” the IEA said late Wednesday, in a statement to Idaho Education News.
The public blowup comes three months after Wigdorski left the staff of the state’s largest teachers’ union — an abrupt departure that was unexplained at the time. And while the IEA is one of the state’s prominent education stakeholder groups, Wigdorski’s letter paints a picture of in-house dysfunction and discord.
“I apologize once again for not keeping the IEA board informed about the behaviors of their leader,” Wigdorski says at the conclusion of her two-page letter. “I did not understand what it would cost us all.”
The allegations at a glance
Wigdorski isn’t elaborating on her letter, which was sent to Idaho Education News by a third party. On Tuesday, she confirmed she wrote the letter, but declined an interview request. Idaho Education News asked Wigdorski to provide any documents supporting her claims, but received no response.
Wigdorski, a longtime hired IEA staffer, levels several allegations against Overall — a teacher elected to the president’s position by union members.
- Wigdorski says an unidentified IEA staffer lodged a complaint against Overall in November 2017, prompting a request for an investigation from the IEA’s parent organization, the National Education Association. Wigdorski said she and IEA attorney Paul Stark conducted the investigation, which resulted in a written settlement agreement. “The complaints were valid and cause for great concern,” Wigdorski wrote in her letter to the board.
- Several months later, Wigdorski said, Overall began communicating with an identified SDE staffer, via text messages, Twitter messages, email and phone. “This communication was separate and apart from the formal IEA communications and the rest of the IEA team was not included in any of these messages,” Wigdorski wrote. “This separate line of communication created several situations where your IEA president agreed to actions that had not been discussed with her teammates and created conflicts.”
- Wigdorski suggested Overall tried to force her out. “In one of the last conversations that I had with your IEA president, she informed me that she was not inclined to recommend me for another contract because ‘I did not respect her enough,’” Wigdorski wrote.
The IEA’s response
On Wednesday, Idaho Education News submitted a three-page memo to the IEA, with more than 50 questions pertaining to Wigdorski’s allegations and the IEA’s governing structure.
The IEA’s statement did not address the questions point by point — but it contained a blanket denial.
“No employee has filed a formal complaint of any kind against IEA President Kari Overall,” the union said.
Further, according to the statement, Overall has the IEA board’s “full support and confidence,” and the IEA’s staff also fully supports Overall.
Pointedly, the IEA also hinted that its prepared statement might not be its final word on the matter.
“The IEA will pursue all avenues necessary to protect the integrity of the association and its president.”
A contentious, complicated relationship
Within a two-month span in 2017, Wigdorski and Overall ascended to the IEA’s two most high-profile posts.
In April, Wigdorski was promoted to executive director after three months filling the job in an interim capacity — and after 22 years with the organization.
In June, IEA members elected Overall to a three-year term as president. A U.S. history teacher at Boise’s South Junior High School, Overall had served on the IEA’s board of directors for the last 11 years.
Wigdorski and Overall were the IEA’s public face during most of 2018, attending and testifying at legislative hearings and advocating on behalf of the IEA’s members.
But by then, by Wigdorski’s account, the working relationship was deteriorating. The pattern continued. By July, amidst continued complaints from staff, Wigdorski directed IEA employees to copy her on all of their communications with Overall.
In her letter, Wigdorski said she tried to serve as a mentor. “I will assert to the IEA board that I did everything I could to assist her and to help her grow as a respected leader in this organization that I love with all my heart,” she wrote.
The IEA did not provide a copy of its organizational chart, as Idaho Education News requested, but answered some questions about its governing structure.
The president can be elected for a maximum of two three-year terms, and is a full-time IEA employee during this tenure. The executive director ultimately answers to the IEA’s board; like the president, board members are elected.
In her letter, Wigdorski urged the statewide board to take a more active role, and “provide policy guidance” to the executive director.
That position has since been filled, at least for now. The IEA has hired Paul Hambleton as interim executive director.
And while the IEA disputes Wigdorski’s version of events, the union also seems to want to move on.
“The IEA remains committed to advocating for our members and our students and will not be distracted by these false claims from a former employee,” the union said in its statement.