Pete Lewis: The School Board Revisits That Big River in Africa

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854.

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854.

scapegoat: a person or animal which takes on the sins of others, or is unfairly blamed for problems. The concept originally comes from Leviticus, in which a goat is designated to be cast into the desert with the sins of the community.

Some while back, WC was pretty hard on the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board, criticizing their collective decision to fire then-Superintendent Pete Lewis.

Pete Lewis has moved on. He’s the Superintendent of the Colville, Washington School District. Fairbanks’ sad loss; Colville’s gain.

But Pete Lewis has his pride and reputation. He challenged the Board’s action in an arbitration proceeding.

Arbitrator Robert Landau found for Lewis, concluding he had been wrongfully terminated.  The arbitrator awarded Lewis $88,205 in damages, plus attorney’s fees and arbitration costs of another $186,000. A quarter million dollars isn’t the big loss; that would be the loss of a very competent, very skilled superintendent.

But what may be most troubling is School Board’s response. According to the News-Miner, “School board members said they stand by their unanimous vote to fire Lewis.” That’s pretty disturbing. A neutral, objective outsider, arbitrator Landau, found the School Board was completely wrong. Yet in its press release in response to the arbitration decision, the School Board said, “The superintendent is the only employee we supervise. The Board made the right decision, and together with Dr. Gaborik we will continue to ensure the District is a safe, supportive environment for students and staff.”

The Board didn’t make the right decision. That’s pretty clear. And there’s no evidence, none whatsoever, that Pete Lewis couldn’t have accomplished those new safety standards and procedures the Board now claims to tout. It’s a straw man response, and a classic non sequitur. What the press release does not address is the key finding of the arbitrator:

[E]ven though the Board felt that Lewis’s performance as superintendent had been good or even excellent, it felt compelled by Fowlkes’s arrest and the circumstances leading to it to conclude that someone had to be held responsible for what happened and Lewis, as the senior management executive, became that person.

Pete Lewis wasn’t fired for cause; he was fired so the school board could cover its collective ass from public outrage. The focus wasn’t the best interests of the students; it was the next election and worries about public outcry. The School Board fired a competent man, and exposed the School District to more than a quarter million in damages and costs, because it needed a scapegoat.

Dr. Karen Gaborik,a former assistant superintendent, has succeeded Pete Lewis. By most accounts, she is doing well. But if Dr. Gaborik is smart, she will be looking over her shoulder every minute. And might want to be careful whose legal advice she listens to.