Turmoil in Blaine County: Critics seek Holmes’ ouster

Unrest in the Blaine County School District has sparked a pointed online petition drive.

The petition urges trustees to fire Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes, saying she has created a culture of fear while surrounding herself with “yes people” and a “lickspittle battalion of principals.” Meanwhile, critics say, student performance has stagnated.

GwenCarol Holmes

“We believe (Holmes) has wasted large amounts of taxpayer money and we allege she has violated ethical standards,” the petition reads. “As such, we believe she can be terminated for cause without the need to incur (yet another) poorly negotiated severance package.”

Holmes came to the Blaine County district in 2014, during another time of turmoil. She replaced Lonnie Barber, who stepped down in September 2013 in a dispute with trustees over leadership style. Barber received a $600,000 settlement.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 1,000 people have signed an online petition seeking Holmes’ ouster. Organizers had hoped to collect 1,000 signatures before Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

But in a statement to Idaho Education News, Holmes says she doesn’t plan to go anywhere.

“From the beginning, I’ve heard that the people of Blaine County don’t trust how decisions are made and believe that a vocal minority disproportionately impact decisions. I’ve worked to ensure that all voices are heard and to provide transparency in decisionmaking,” Holmes said Tuesday. “Our community can accomplish anything by working together and I look forward to being part of this effort over the next few years.”

What the petition says

At more than 1,350 words, the petition outlines a litany of grievances.

The petition centers on a handful of recurring themes. Here’s a rundown from the petition, and responses from the district:

Spending. Critics say Holmes has squandered taxpayer money on excessive administrative staffing and benefits and expensive legal fees. The district currently faces two high-profile legal challenges: a federal civil suit filed by two former students, who say the district violated their rights to free speech; and a pair of tort claims filed by human relations director Shannon Maza, who says she has been the victim of a “witch hunt” led by other district administrators.

The district says it has cut administrative staffing by 12 percent over the past four years, while cutting the district’s administrative budget by 15 percent. (School-level administrative costs have gone up, however, offsetting cuts at the district level.)

Legal costs were not immediately available Tuesday. But in a statement issued by spokeswoman Heather Crocker, the district says these fees cover “review of policy, contracts, bids, public records requests, insurance matters and liquidation of school-related property.”

Advisory boards. Holmes has ignored community input, and by putting herself in charge of district advisory boards, she has seized influence over district operations. The district’s policy committee, for example, has instituted policies “that are extremely restrictive for staff, students and the public, while giving the superintendent the lion’s share of power and control.”

Trustees asked Holmes to chair the district’s finance, policy and wellness committees, and she serves as a non-voting “facilitator,” Crocker said.

Relationship with trustees. While petitioners urge trustees to fire Holmes, they also say Holmes has created a compliant and “captive” school board — partly by controlling the information she shares with trustees.

Crocker points out that Holmes reports to trustees, who review her performance annually. “The board of trustees sets the goals for the superintendent each year in a public meeting and the board expects the superintendent to fulfill those goals.”

Student performance. All the while, say petitioners, student performance has remained “decidedly middle of the pack” during Holmes’ tenure.

The petition does not spell out specifics. But in 2018, Blaine County’s graduation rate exceeded the state average. On the 2018 Idaho Standards Achievement Test, scores in English language arts exceeded the state average, while math scores were slightly above average. And test scores don’t tell the entire story, Crocker said. “Thanks to our dedicated staff, we see student success in a number of areas including the arts, robotics, athletics, debate, and more,” she said.

Retribution at the polls?

The controversy surrounding the district escalated last week. More than 120 people attended a town meeting, Mark Dee of the Idaho Mountain Express reported, and critics vowed to target trustees if they sided with Holmes.

The next round of trustee elections is scheduled for November.

The online petition says Holmes is the highest paid superintendent in Idaho. That’s no longer the case; Boise Superintendent Don Coberly overtook Holmes this year. Holmes’ 2018-19 salary is $176,054, second-highest in the state.

 

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