A Park City parent lodged an official complaint about a superintendent’s letter she says improperly endorses the school board two days before an election
A note from the Park City superintendent that she says was meant to engender and express gratitude as the holiday season begins elicited instead a complaint to the Utah State Board of Education.
The parent who lodged a complaint about the letter claims it amounted to an endorsement of the Board of Education and President Andrew Caplan two days before an election in which Caplan’s seat was on the ballot.
Superintendent Jill Gildea’s letter, sent Nov. 1, included sections entitled “Grateful,” “Thankful” and “Appreciative,” but it’s the second half of the letter that drew the eye of Melissa McKenna, a parent with two children in district schools.
In those sections, Gildea thanks members of the Board of Education for their countless hours of work and for recently passing a large salary increase for district staff. Gildea then thanks community members for overwhelmingly supporting the district’s return-to-school plans and “those who helped inform voters on the facts of the election.”
The return-to-school plans were not universally supported, and McKenna and others have accused the board of tying the wage increase to teachers’ support of those plans.
McKenna said that, while it may appear innocuous, the letter showed that the district and the Board of Education were speaking with one voice rather than as independent institutions.
“It felt like, essentially, an endorsement to me,” McKenna said. “… When I saw that part about the raises and the school board, I just took that as an endorsement of Caplan and the school board.”
She said it continues what she calls a trend of attempting to silence or dissuade opposition to the board’s positions.
The write-in candidate opposing Caplan, Thomas Cooke, cited poor communication and a lack of trust between teachers and the district as reasons he entered the race.
Election night preliminary results showed Caplan with a lead of 1,314 votes (64%) to Cooke’s 738 (36%). There were two other seats on the ballot, both running unopposed.
The letter was sent after the majority of Summit County voters had returned their ballots.
McKenna forwarded her concern to the Utah State Board of Education and requested that Gildea be censured and that the board pursue other actions it deems appropriate. She called the letter an “obviously political” move, given the timing, and a “wildly inappropriate” one.
Gildea said the district strives to send out messages on the first and 15th of each month. She said she had written the letter on Oct. 19 to send out on Nov. 1 with the aim of including a shorter version in the Nov. 15 newsletter. She said that’s why the Nov. 1 letter opens with the phrase “we only have a few more days until Thanksgiving” and closes by wishing a happy Thanksgiving break, which starts Nov. 25.
“November is recognized as a month of kindness, and is the harbinger to the holiday season. What better time to acknowledge and recognize the many who support our community’s children?” Gildea wrote in an email to The Park Record. “The intent of the letter is in its title. It was meant as a heartfelt message of gratitude and appreciation. In the letter, I was working to address being Grateful, Thankful and Appreciative. I’d think every one of the 696 employees would be grateful for a salary increase.”
The Park City Board of Education approved a $2.4 million compensation increase this fall, the largest ever package of its kind.
Teachers at the time expressed trepidation at plans to return to school full time and in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They cited a particular concern about the lack of ability to maintain social distance in classrooms, among other issues.
Caplan characterized those objections as coming from a small but vocal minority of teachers.
In late August, the board sent a letter to teachers that appeared to tie the salary increase to support of the return-to-school plans.
“Please understand that the actions of a few are jeopardizing our ability to deliver on this much warranted salary increase,” the August letter states. “When a group of your peers continuously undermine the district through print, radio and social media because they are not getting their way please understand it hurts us all in the eyes of the community. You as a group need to collectively make a decision on which direction to take.”
In her complaint to the state board, McKenna cited the Park City Board of Education’s actions as akin to “requiring teacher’s silence for raises.”
It appears unlikely the complaint will result in action against Gildea.
The chief audit executive of the state board’s audit division said the complaint was forwarded to the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Council to determine whether it should be investigated further.
Since Gildea is not a licensed educator – not a requirement for superintendents – the complaint fell outside the purview of that office.
The auditor said it appears to be a matter for the local school board.
A state board spokesperson agreed, adding that accusations of election tampering are a matter better handled by a county attorney or state official.
“Essentially, because it’s a message of gratitude coming out in the month of Thanksgiving and it’s not specifically advocating for any specific board member, it would be a matter for the local board to deal with,” spokesperson Mark Peterson said. “… There really isn’t anything for us to do with the letter.”
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.