Scott Graves
Curry Coastal Pilot

The Brookings-Harbor School District union is demanding the school board immediately place Superintendent Brian Hodge on administrative leave, saying teachers and staff "overwhelmingly supported" a vote of no confidence in his ability to lead the district.

"We can't go through what we did last year," said Terri Poponi, president of the Brookings-Harbor Education Association (BHEA).

On Friday, school board chair Katherine Johnson said the board cannot place Hodge on administrative leave until an ongoing investigation into the complaints is concluded.

"We take their concerns very seriously and we recognize that there are multiple concerns, more than just with the superintendent," Johnson said. "Whatever decision the board makes, we have to take the necessary legal steps to make sure that any action we take is without repercussions."

In a press release issued earlier this week, Poponi said the teachers and school staff "have lost confidence in Hodge's ability to lead the district in a positive direction, through the challenges that students, staff, parents and our community will face now and in the future.

"Teachers have voiced their concerns to the district about serious issues that are doing real harm to students. Sadly, they have all been ignored or covered up. Our students deserve better," Poponi said.

The vote of no confidence is the latest in a series of challenges facing the school district, where morale has been said to be at an all-time low.

In the last several months, the school board chair resigned mid-term, the district's finance manager, two principals and 11 teachers have taken jobs elsewhere, and the transition from a traditional to proficiency-based grading system has been deemed a disaster.

In early June, about 85 district employees gathered at a Brookings park to cast the vote of no confidence, Poponi said.

"I was overwhelmed by the response. I didn't expect that many people to show up," she said.

The union currently has about 180 members in the district, including teachers, instructional aides, clerical and support staff.

Poponi said it was mostly teachers and teachers' aides who approved the vote of no confidence.

In a July 19 Pilot story about the district's current woes, Hodge said, "I understand the high level of frustration among the staff. I am responsible for the district and we're addressing the issues. I'm optimistic that things will get better."

Hodge was provided a copy of the union's press release Wednesday, but declined to comment further.

A vote of no confidence in a superintendent is rare, according to Becca Uherbelau, media consultant with Oregon Education Association (OEA). The statewide union represents about 45,000 educators working in public schools and community colleges.

"It is a very serious matter," Uherbelau said. "It only occurs in the most extreme of circumstances when local educators have exhausted all other options to address and solve the significant, on-going issues in the district that negatively impact students and staff."

She added, "In recent history, a vote of no confidence by teachers and staff is so exceedingly rare that it has only occurred in Oregon school districts a few times."

In mid-June, BHEA presented the vote of no confidence to the school board in an executive (closed door) session. The school board, after conferring with legal counsel, unanimously voted to launch an independent investigation into the union's claims. The union promised to provide employee names and contact information to the investigator.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, current and former district employees streamed in and out of the Brookings public library annex, where they were interviewed by the investigator hired by school district.

According to Poponi, the local union considered hiring its own investigator to interview employees, but is satisfied with the one hired by the district's law firm.

"The investigator has a background in education and I believe he can remain unbiased," she said.

Poponi said public disclosure of the vote of no confidence was part of a multi-step process recommended by OEA.

The first step was to present the vote to the school board in executive session. The second step was to conduct interviews with current and former employees who worked with Hodge. The third step was to publicly announce the vote of no confidence. The fourth step is to canvas the community and get citizen comments about the situation.

Poponi was disappointed that Hodge remained on the job during the investigation.

"He remains at the helm, despite the fact that if any one of the allegations brought before the board were to be brought before a building administrator about a teacher or district staff member, immediate administrative leave would be the outcome," she said.

School board member Bruce Raleigh said the board is bound by legal guidelines as to what it can or can't do until the investigation is complete. He said he sympathized with the union members.

"This is a culmination of issues that have all converged in one year," Raleigh said. "The board will address the issues and eventually we will resolve them and move forward. We are all in it for the kids and we need to keep that focus."