A Few Words About Pete Lewis – UPDATED

Former Superintendent Pete Lewis

Former Superintendent Pete Lewis

WC knows former Fairbanks School District Superintendent Pete Lewis fairly well. WC thinks highly of the recently fired superintendent of schools. WC is pretty certain that Pete Lewis would never do anything that would endanger a student in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. WC is also pretty certain that Pete Lewis would take every step permitted by law and common sense to protect students. Which makes the excuses offered by the School Board for firing him just a little suspect.

There’s still surprisingly little information about the real reason the School Board fired Pete. There was apparently an investigation and report by an Anchorage attorney, but it hasn’t been made public. There’s been no explanation for why we don’t get to see that report. The reasons being offered publicly by the School Board for firing Pete don’t make a lot of sense. Dermot Cole’s article summarizing what the School Board has said mostly involve matters of one former employee arrested on sexual abuse charges. Most of the allegations involve things that occurred before Pete became superintendent July 2010. Yet, according to Cole, those events occurring before Pete’s watch were a reason for firing him. Odd. WC wouldn’t want to have to defend that argument in court.

The School Board also reportedly complained that Pete showed disrespect for the Board. Grandma Turk used to tell WC that respect was something earned. But, as WC has said, he knows Pete pretty well, and WC is certain that Pete was completely professional in his work with the School Board. As for a “climate of disrespect” in the School District staff, without specific facts it’s hard to address claims involving “climate.” Pete Lewis required his staff to be absolutely professional in their work. Perhaps Grandma Turk’s aphorism applies here, too.

But in Alaska, none of this really matters. In Alaska, a school superintendent serves at the pleasure of the School Board. In a 1997 decision called Kilmer v. Dillingham City School District, the Alaska Supreme Court reviewed the rules under which a superintendent could be fired.

Kilmer is correct in his assertion that the Board could not terminate a superintendent merely by asserting it “no longer trusts” the superintendent. The lack of trust must be reasonably based on the superintendent’s improper actions; the unsupported subjective beliefs of the Board would be insufficient to warrant termination. In this case, however, the trial court concluded that given Kilmer’s actions in misleading the Board in regard to his compensation, “the Board was justified in losing trust in Kilmer.” The trial court went on to reason in the alternative that Kilmer’s “serious errors” were suggestive of a breach of fiduciary duty to the Board “in a situation rife with conflict of interest.” The trial court’s conclusions in this regard do not constitute error.

It doesn’t matter if the basis for termination is partly the fault of the School Board, either. The court went on to hold:

Kilmer argues that the Board is not without blame. This may be true. Nonetheless, in a case that turns on legal issues, rather than equitable considerations (as the trial court correctly observed) the actions of the Board are irrelevant so long as the decision to terminate is based on the actions of the superintendent. The court permissibly found that Kilmer’s actions caused the Board’s loss of trust. We therefore conclude that the trial court did not clearly err in finding that there was good cause for termination.

There was a vigorous dissent by Justices Compton and Rabinowitz. They demonstrated in their dissent that when you examined the Board’s claims of Kilmer’s misconduct they fell apart like wet Kleenex in a Dillingham rainstorm. So the effect of Kilmer is that a School Board can fire a superintendent for any reason that passes the red-face test. That’s not a very high threshold.

Don’t confuse “legal” with “sensible,” “smart” or even “prudent.” The legal right to terminate Pete Lewis’s contract doesn’t make it the right thing t do. WC suspects Pete Lewis is too classy a guy to bring a lawsuit anyway, unless there was stuff in executive session that went beyond the bounds of decency.

WC wishes the School Board well in finding a successor; it will be very difficult to find a superintendent as dedicated, hard-working and student-focused as Pete Lewis. Before the School Board starts that task, WC recommends they sort out some other “challenges” facing the School District. They could start that process of identifying those problems by holding up a mirror and reflecting on certain Mark Twain aphorisms.

WC wishes Pete Lewis well. He deserved better treatment than he got.

UPDATE: WC received feedback from reader MS, which is relevant to this discussion: