The Gardner Edgerton school board voted unanimously to authorize a $459,000 separation agreement with superintendent Pam Stranathan following election of a new school board majority hostile to her leadership. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)
GARDNER — Superintendent Pam Stranathan accepted a distinguished service award from educators at Pittsburg State University for excellence in administrative leadership and innovation at the Gardner Edgerton school district that put her in a class with the “best of the best.”
The ceremony ironically followed by three days a unanimous vote by the Gardner Edgerton school board, in its final meeting before three insurgent members take office in January, to approve a severance package for Stranathan ending her run as the Johnson County district’s top administrator. It was the same school board that unanimously agreed to extend by one year Stranathan’s contract in August.
Outcome of the November election flipped the script. Voters overwhelmingly sided with board candidates unhappy with Stranathan’s job performance. Two incumbents on the school board were given the heave-ho. A school board member who won re-election, Lana Sutton, unilaterally began shopping for an interim superintendent a week after the polls closed. Board members-elect made no secret of their desire to terminate Stranathan.
This year’s school board campaigns in Gardner Edgerton and other districts in the state’s most populous county were driven by antagonism for COVID-19 mask and quarantine mandates and the mounting societal pressure to get vaccinated. At meeting after meeting of local school boards in Johnson County, public comment periods became an opportunity for the disgruntled to attack board members.
Within the Gardner Edgerton district, Stranathan and the school board’s president and vice president were primary targets of that sentiment.
Board member-elect Greg Chapman said a lame duck board had no business working out a settlement deal with Stranathan. It undercut the incoming board, which was prepared to operate with a new conservative majority and a mandate for change. It was wrong, he said, to hand Stranathan a golden parachute at taxpayers’ expense.
“The citizens made clear that they don’t have faith in the current leadership,” Chapman said. “Now is the time for this community to heal and not be divided, not seek revenge, not seek selfish ambitions, but work together to make this district even better than the gem it once was.”
Jeff Miller, another incoming school board member, said he opposed the severance agreement with Stranathan because “you cannot and must not reward failure.”
State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who doesn’t live in the Gardner Edgerton district, campaigned door-to-door for opposition candidates for school board. She had a simple message for current board members about a exit package for Stranathan: “Don’t go there.”
“Don’t pay off a superintendent because she’s unwilling to address the challenges of the future,” Baumgardner said.
Sticker shock: $425,000
The school board disregarded Chapman’s plea, Miller’s conclusion and Baumgardner’s admonition.
The Kansas Reflector, through a Kansas Open Records Act request, obtained the five-page separation agreement signed by Stranathan and board president Rob Shippy. It recognized Stranathan was under contract with the district through June 30, 2023, and that the superintendent would receive “all compensation, benefits and accrued leave” due to her through the 18-month period.
The document pegged the base cost to the district of Stranathan’s resignation at $425,000. Half the payment of $212,500 was due Dec. 8, with the second installment of $212,500 to be paid Jan. 1. In addition, the board agreed to spend $34,900 to provide Stranathan with 18 months of continued health insurance coverage.
The agreement affirmed Stranathan would depart as an employee in “good standing” and her final day would be Jan. 9, one day before the new school board would be seated.
Stranathan’s signature meant she would be forbidden from filing a lawsuit arising from her employment in the school district. It said she “voluntarily waives and releases the board and USD 231 from any claims, counts, causes of action, demands, liabilities, promises, obligations, agreements, suits, costs and rights of every kind of nature.” Parties to the deal also were prohibited from making disparaging comments about the situation. Stranathan didn’t comment on her departure.
Brandon Parks, who was appointed to a vacancy on the school board just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, lost his election for a full term last month. He said the current school board was worried their successors might make a mess of firing Stranathan. The board decided to work out a prompt settlement with the superintendent in an attempt to avoid litigation that could prove expensive. There is justification for that apprehension.
In 2014, the Gardner Edgerton school board fired superintendent Bill Gilhaus as well as district executive directors Christy Ziegler and Lana Gerber. They sued for wrongful termination and were awarded $1.8 million in 2016. Stranathan, who already worked in the district, replaced Gilhaus.
Parks said the midyear ouster of the superintendent wouldn’t look good to prospective candidates for the vacancy in the Gardner Edgerton district. The timing of her exit was unusually bad, he said, because three dozen superintendents in Kansas had already given notice of plans to resign or retire this summer. Parks said Stranathan’s one-year contract extension was meant as an incentive to prevent her from bolting to a different school district.
“That’s the greatest irony in all this,” Parks said. “There’s a huge shortage of superintendents across the state right now.”
‘Possible interim position’
In November, board member Lana Sutton took it upon herself to contact United School Administrators of Kansas, an organization representing school leaders, to request contact information on about 20 former superintendents from Kansas. Most were from small districts, such as Cherryvale, Hugoton, Kinsley and Moundridge, but the list included former superintendents from Olathe, Basehor-Linwood and Haysville.
Sutton said in her email that she was interested in tracking down newly retired superintendents “regarding their interest in a possible interim position.”
G.A. Buie, executive director of USA-Kansas, replied to Gardner Edgerton school board president Shippy and board vice president Parks as well as Sutton. He said he wasn’t in a position to provide Sutton, who wasn’t operating on the school board’s behalf, with private information on the organization’s members. He objected to Sutton proceeding as if it was inevitable Stranathan would be fired.
“I recognize what she is attempting — planning — to do when new board members are seated in January,” Buie said. “As a taxpayer in the Gardner district, it’s disappointing and a sad time for the students and staff. It is always disruptive to a school district when a leader is removed during the school year, and almost always affects the pool of potential candidates when the position is opened officially.”
When the Gardner Edgerton school board met Dec. 6 to negotiate the separation agreement with Stranathan, Sen. Baumgardner used her time during the public comment period to raise questions about budget transparency and declining test scores. She said that during Stranathan’s tenure as superintendent, the portion of Gardner Edgerton students prepared for college or career had regressed.
“This isn’t good enough for our kids and families in Gardner Edgerton and it’s not good enough for our future in Kansas,” the senator said.
Shippy, the board president, responded by asking Baumgardner about an email the senator’s husband, Brian, sent to Shippy in November 2020 that said: “I can save you but I can’t save Pam (Stranathan).”
“Do you have any further follow up on that or do you just think that was generally inappropriate?” Shippy asked Sen. Baumgardner.
“I cannot speak for my husband,” she said. “I have no thoughts on it.”
Shippy said Brian Baumgardner sent him another text prior to the November 2021 election that bluntly urged him to withdraw as a candidate for re-election to the school board. He stayed in the race and lost by a 2-to-1 margin.
Hail the victors?
Nick Robinson, a parent who previously denounced the Gardner Edgerton’s “agenda-based” science on COVID-19, said board member Sutton and board members-elect Thomas Redden, Miller and Chapman showed grit by rolling their opponents in November.
He said the existing board lost its focus and the new board would rectify that by fighting for parents who valued personal choice and operational transparency.
“You blindly followed superintendent Pam Stranathan and her agenda over the cliff and your overwhelming defeat is the price that you’ve paid,” Robinson said.
He also said a separation agreement would be a stain on Stranathan’s professional legacy.
“Leaders don’t run from trouble or inconvenience — cowards do,” Robinson said.
School district constituents Emma Jones, Casey Williams and Stacey Coleman shared a different perspective.
Jones, who has two children in the Gardner Edgerton district, said issues before the school board led to more “willful incomprehension” than she thought existed in the community. She said the board made sound decisions during the pandemic and compared the ongoing COVID-19 misinformation campaign to domestic terrorism.
Williams said she was weary of the same angry people preaching at school board meetings and of new school board members eagerly fanning the flames of fearmongering, she said.
“The parents who believe in science have vaccinated our children and we’re ready to move forward,” Williams said.
Coleman said she offered a “thank you” to the district’s school board from parents who don’t want to wade into the political crossfire of COVID-19. She expressed concern the new school board might allow parents to write their own exemptions to protocols aimed at deterring COVID-19.
“The next few years are going to be frustrating, long and difficult,” she said in reference to the incoming school board. “If you vote to bypass state guidelines in an effort to placate your woefully uneducated ill-informed ignorant base, the district will be sued. I know parents who are already geared up.”
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