Embattled superintendent ousted; accusations fly at Monday meeting
The tangled web of controversy surrounding the West Platte School District administration and Board of Education has become more complicated over the last week due to recent actions — or inactions — of the Board.
The nebulous end of Dr. Jerrod Wheeler’s time as superintendent and potential fallout from that situation, accusations of misconduct by a Board member from a former mayor of Weston and the search for a new superintendent are all topics of discussion. “We are still pending the finalized agreement between Dr. Wheeler’s attorney and the district attorney,” Board President John Collier told The Citizen April 22. “We’re hoping there will be an agreement sometime this week.” Wheeler told The Citizen he didn’t believe anyone was surprised by his departure and that he could not further comment at this time. Last year, the Board voted not to renew Wheeler’s contract, and three candidates in support of this action were elected to the Board in the April 8 election. “The Board has almost been forced to take an administrative role right now, although we really don’t want to,” Collier said. “But we have to get things sorted out and back on track. We are trying to keep the district headed in the right direction and keep the education of students first and foremost of our priorities.” Last week, after a lengthy executive session held after the regular Board meeting April 16, Wheeler left his position — though there were no votes taken during the executive session — and on April 17 elementary principal Rebecca Henshaw was named acting superintendent. On April 19, though school was not in session due to the Good Friday holiday, Wheeler returned to the district headquarters to clear out his office. During that time, something happened. “While dealing with a personnel issue, I had to get the police involved to keep things in line,” Collier said during a special Board meeting held Monday evening. “In an attempt to protect district assets I had to call the police. There were high school students present and they had to witness some of what was going on and I apologize to them.” Collier said the incident had mostly abated by the time an officer arrived and the officer was present for the remainder. Wheeler told The Citizen he was aware there was an altercation while he was clearing out his office, but said he was not involved in the incident. No report was filed with the Weston PD, Collier said, and while he would give police a written statement this week, the Board would take no further action on the incident. Also at the Monday meeting, newly-elected Board member Shane Bartee also addressed what he said were potential veiled threats against Collier posted on a social media site. “I was concerned, and after I spoke to the person I was less concerned,” said Vice President Ron Rowe. “It’s a situation where we all need to be careful with what we say and how we say it and understand that some things aren’t funny.” The upheaval surrounding Wheeler’s departure has caused countless rumors in the community, and residents have voiced concerns that the Board did not vote April 16 either to approve a leave of absence or to terminate Wheeler, leaving his actual position in question. Wheeler himself acknowledged the situation was “awkward.” “Dr. Wheeler is still an employee of the district right now,” Collier told The Citizen. “Once he and his attorney and our attorney reach an agreement, the Board will vote whether or not to accept that agreement.” While Henshaw is now acting superintendent, the Board made moves Monday evening to search for an interim superintendent. Collier noted that Henshaw was still also the elementary principal, had a child about to graduate high school and other obligations and the Board didn’t wish to overburden her with responsibility. “It’s not uncommon to begin a search for a new superintendent while a current superintendent is still in place,” Collier later said, addressing concerns the Board was acting too quickly on the heels of Wheeler’s departure. “If we were to sit back and not make those preparations it would be poor management of the district.” He suggested an interim superintendent could help the Board with immediate concerns such as crafting a budget for the 2014-15 school year and addressing staff salaries. “I advocate a one-year interim superintendent position,” Bartee said. “That will allow us to be very careful and deliberate in finding a new superintendent and give the community some breathing room.” Board member Ryan Rotterman agreed. “I think the time has come and gone to find a good superintendent this year,” he said. “If we wanted to do that, we should have done it earlier in the year.” The Board voted on Monday to begin the search for an interim superintendent, with ads set for publication this week, to be advertised for a minimum of 10 days. Board member Justin Webb abstained from the vote. Webb was the sole member of the Board to vote against adjourning from executive session on April 16 and he voted again not to enter executive session Monday evening. “I wasn’t ready to leave executive session,” Webb said of his vote last week, noting he could not discuss personnel matters. “My vote was what I feel I could do in the situation.” Former Board member Aaron Johnson, who supported Wheeler and lost his seat on the Board in the April 8 election, said during Wheeler’s time at West Platte that the school’s culture had improved and he had accomplished much to benefit students. “This is a sad day for the students of West Platte,” Johnson said. “Dr. Wheeler was trying to change the culture from operating for the convenience of the adults to truly focusing on the children. By all accounts he was succeeding, despite interference from the community and some members of the board. “My tenure as a board member ended a mere 48 hours before this decision was made. I can state for certain that Dr. Wheeler had not committed any misconduct or in any other way given the district valid legal grounds for a termination. I am very disappointed that the board members put their personal agendas and quest for revenge before the interests of our children.”