Yakutat torn by school dispute

Conflict involving board, principal, superintendent leads to recall election

Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Yakutat voters will decide April 1 whether to recall a School Board member who voted to award a superintendent's contract to his domestic partner.

Community members say the recall stems from a dispute between the school principal and the superintendent, and it has divided this town of 725 about 225 miles northwest of Juneau.

"It's affected the entire community. It's horrible," Superintendent Carla Sheive said.

Since mid-December, the principal threatened to resign but hasn't, many teachers voted no confidence in the superintendent, the recall effort was initiated, and the borough mayor tried to void Sheive's contract.

Another petition, to recall the School Board president, is in the works, said Bert Adams Sr., president of the local camp of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, whose school committee monitors the town's 125-student school district.

Last June the board met to consider three applicants for the superintendent's job. Board member Vern Sigler asked not to participate in the discussion because he had a financial conflict of interest. He lives with Sheive, who was one of the applicants, in a house they bought together.

Skip Ryman, then School Board president, agreed Sigler shouldn't participate. But three other members on the five-member board voted to overrule Ryman. Later that night, with Sigler's concurrence, the board offered the job to Sheive at $84,000 a year.

Sheive said recently she could not discuss personnel matters. Principal Rod Schug said he would not discuss his work relationship with Sheive. But other people in Yakutat said they watched the relationship deteriorate to the point that Schug told his staff in December he was ready to resign.

Adams said Sheive had reprimanded Schug on several matters but their final dispute centered on the disciplining of two high school basketball players.

Two prominent players had been caught smoking marijuana at school and were suspended for 45 days. They were also supposed to lose 10 days of basketball practice once they returned.

Schug wanted to follow the policy strictly, according to Adams, but Sheive reprimanded him and told the coach - Adams' son - to let the boys skip the 10-day practice suspension.

When the School Board sided with Sheive, Schug announced his intention to resign. It prompted an outpouring of support for the principal, Adams said.

School Board President Daryl James, elected in October, said today that losing 10 days of practice isn't the school district's policy. Rather, it's in the school's student handbook.

Schug also had tried to prevent suspended students from attending games as spectators, but that also isn't in the district's policy, James said.

At a special meeting before Christmas, teachers and classified employees voted nearly unanimously that they had no confidence in Sheive but supported Schug.

Parents, the local alumni association and community members weighed in with a letter to the board. The group said Schug has created "a positive and healthy environment for both students and teachers" in his three years in Yakutat. They mentioned new after-school programs, formation of a parent-teacher association and a decline in bullying.

The letter concluded by asking Sheive to resign.

The board was not swayed, James said. "As long as she enforces (board) policy, I'm in favor of her," he said.

James said Schug, in going to the teachers with his complaints, had not followed the district's procedures for taking grievances to supervisors and the School Board. As a result, he said, the public heard only one side of the issue.

The board, a largely new one elected in October, emphasized its support Jan. 20 when it voted 3-2 to extend the superintendent's contract two years.

Sigler was allowed to vote on his domestic partner's job, James said. Even though the two live together, it doesn't represent a financial conflict of interest because they're not married, James said.

That didn't sit well with the community, said city and borough Mayor Victoria Demmert. She voided the board's vote a few days later.

"They have a policy, apparently, that if they decide they have no conflict of interest, there is no conflict," Demmert said. "That policy is contrary to the policy of the City and Borough of Yakutat, and the City and Borough of Yakutat code definitely trumps the School Board's code."

But Sheive said Demmert cited sections of the borough code that don't apply to her. Sheive doesn't work for the borough but for the school district, she said.

"Our school district attorney told us to ignore" Demmert's letter, Sheive said. She said she didn't intend to resign.

Meanwhile, more than 60 residents filed a petition to recall board member Sigler. A recall election is set for April 1.

The petition cites the fact that Sigler failed to declare a conflict of interest when the board approved a contract for Sheive on July 15.

Shelley Bremner, who sponsored the petition, said since Sigler and Sheive live in a home they've purchased together they have a direct financial interest in whether Sheive receives good evaluations and contracts.

But Bill Fletcher, owner and editor of the local newspaper, the Monti Bay Times, said the petition doesn't meet state standards of misconduct for recalling elected officials.

"... once the governing body allowed (Sigler) to vote, as far as I'm concerned, that takes him off the hook as far as misconduct is concerned," Fletcher said.

Fletcher also said the recall petition misstates a section of the borough code to read that it prohibits a School Board member from voting on issues in which a member of his or her household has a substantial financial interest.

That section of the code actually deals with appointed boards and commissions and doesn't mention the elected School Board, he said.

Empire writer Eric Fry contributed to this article. He can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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