Can Everett School Board work past rift after physical fracas?

  • By Sharon Salyer and Eric Stevick Herald Writers
  • Thursday, August 25, 2011 12:01am
  • Local NewsEverett

EVERETT — Just 36 hours after a brawl that ended with 911 calls and accusations of assault, Everett School Board members planned to gather again this morning to begin a two-day workshop.

Tuesday evening’s fracas among three school board members broke out about 9:25 p.m. during a closed execu

tive session at school district headquarters.

Police were called. After the scuffle, school board member Jessica Olson was left with scratches on her arm and bloodied fingernails, including one bent back at a 90-degree angle.

Fellow board member Kristie Dutton, who reached over to grab

a document from Olson, triggering a scuffle, said she, too, was scratched during the brief confrontation.

Wednesday afternoon, Olson said her arms were still sore. She said that was caused by Ed Petersen, school board president, grabbing her from behind. Petersen said he was trying to restra

in Olson’s arms to break up the struggle between her and Dutton.

All five of the school board members filled out police statements about the incident. Everett police Sgt. Ryan Dalberg said Wednesday that officers were continuing to investigate what happened. After their report is completed, it will be sent to Everett city prosecutors to determine whether misdemeanor assault or disorderly conduct charges should be filed, he said.

With tempers flaring and emotions on overdrive, just being in the same room again will be uncomfortable. How can five people, forced to spend hours together by the happenstance of being elected, rebuild a working relationship that devolved into an act of violence?

Christina Fong, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, said such physical confrontations are increasingly common in the workplace.

“Our human reaction when we’re feeling so backed into a corner is to react with force, because we feel we have no other avenue for expression,” she said.

Fong teaches conflict management. She said such outbursts can occur when people are focused on taking positions instead of describing their interests.

When people take a stand on an issue, it becomes much more difficult to come together with other people, she said. “When you talk about what it is that you really want, it’s easier to have a conversation.”

Olson has frequently clashed with others on the board, as well as Superintendent Gary Cohn, over what she contends are school board practices that ignore laws governing public access to meetings and information.

Olson has almost always been in the minority on the numerous issues the board has handled since her election in November 2009. People who are in similar positions often become a scapegoat, Fong said.

“It’s important to pay attention to the person with the minority viewpoint,” Fong said. “So finding a way to be able to allow that viewpoint to come into the conversation in a nonconfrontational way becomes really important.”

Petersen said that the board previously had arranged to have Jeff Turner, president of the Seattle-based human relations company Praxis HR, lead Thursday’s meeting.

Petersen called Tuesday night’s scuffle embarrassing. He was the first in the room to engage in an overtly physical act, grabbing at a video camera that Olson had turned on during the closed-door meeting. He then stood over the meeting table, his hands on his hips, as the argument unfolded.

“I fault myself a little bit for the escalation by the end of the evening when this got out of hand,” he said.

Petersen expects what happened Tuesday to be the first matter discussed during the workshop. “We can’t just delve into business without having a conversation about this incident,” Petersen said.

Tuesday night’s clash occurred as board members went behind closed doors to complete an annual review of Cohn. They started the executive session after a three-and-a-half hour public meeting, during which board members exchanged bitter words.

Olson wanted to talk about how the review should occur and told the group that discussion of the process of evaluating the superintendent could not legally occur in executive session. She wanted a minority report — specifically her views on Cohn’s performance — to be included. Olson and Cohn often clash.

Petersen had handed out a draft that contained elements of Cohn’s review. Olson turned on a small video camera, one she also has been using to record public board meetings and interactions with some school district staff.

“You are not going to be recording in here,” Petersen said.

“Yeah, I am,” she responded.

Board members said recording the meeting would not be allowed. Cohn’s review is a personnel matter, and under state open meetings law, it can be exempted from public discussion.

Olson refused to turn off the recorder and instead said the meeting should stop. Others on the board also said the meeting shouldn’t continue, although they wanted the record to reflect that Olson was the reason. She objected and countered that the board wanted to hold an illegal executive session.

Dutton later said she was trying to collect copies of the draft performance review, fearing that if she didn’t, Olson would publicly disclose the contents. Olson on Wednesday adamantly insisted that wasn’t true. She said she would have respected Cohn’s privacy as a public employee.

Tim Ford, the open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General’s Office, on Wednesday reviewed a transcript The Herald prepared after viewing Olson’s video from the executive session. He concluded that the board was acting within the law in going behind closed doors to discuss a proposed evaluation of the superintendent.

“I would tend to think from looking at the transcript that there was an attempt to discuss the draft evaluation and that part would have been legal,” he said.

It would have been illegal, he said, had the purpose of the session been to discuss the process that would be used to evaluate the superintendent. That’s what Olson said she was trying to discuss with the board when the camera was turned on.

In keeping with state law, the school board agenda advertised the executive session as a confidential review of a public employee’s job performance.

Fong said that people often experience regret after physical altercations in the workplace.

“I think asking for forgiveness could probably go a long way toward repairing relationships and getting people back on the road to productivity,” she said.

Yet forgiveness may be a tough path. Tuesday’s confrontation was just one in a string of disputes between Olson and the board, which in February lined up against her in voting to censure her for what they claimed was bullying and disruptive behavior.

“I regret the scenario,” Dutton said of Tuesday’s events. “This was a very unfortunate outcome of (Olson’s) long disruptive and antagonistic behavior.

“There has to be give and take … just like a marriage. It can’t all be one-sided,” Dutton said. “That’s what compromise is all about.”

Olson said she found it hard to believe that none of the board members called to apologize Wednesday.

“Yes, I can be confrontational,” she said. “I’m not afraid of confrontation when I’m on the side of right.”

Olson, though, said that she could still support ideas from a fellow board member, even one with whom she scuffled Tuesday night.

“If one of them has a good idea, I’ll vote in favor of it. I can separate ideas from people,” she said.

Essentially, the board is now governing with four rather than five members, Petersen said. Olson often casts lone votes in dissent.

Petersen said he’s losing hope that he and other board members can work with Olson. “It’s nigh on to anarchy in that she violates rules, protocols and policies without any remorse,” he said.

Jeff Russell, elected to the board in 2009 along with Olson, said that when the public sits through meetings they can feel the tension.

“This isn’t about dissent at all,” he said. “Reasoned dissent is a great benefit for an organization.” When it comes to Olson, “to a degree it’s tone and manner that feels off-putting and threatening.”

Russell said he had no illusion that the next meeting of the board will bring any “kumbaya moments.”

Asked if there would be any move toward forgiveness, Russell, a pastor, said: “That would be very interesting to see. Part of forgiveness is people taking ownership for their part and stating what regret they had.”

School board member profiles

The Everett School Board is one of few school boards in the state with directors serving six-year terms.

Here is a short profile of each board member:

Ed Petersen

Board president

Appointed: March 2006

Elected: 2007

Term ends: 2013

Background: Director of Housing Hope in Everett

Jessica Olson

Elected: 2009

Term ends: 2015

Background: Married and raising four children

Kristie Dutton

Elected: 1999

Re-elected: 2005

Background: Dutton is not seeking re-election this fall. She is executive director of the Everett Public Schools Foundation.

Carol Andrews

Board legislative representative

Elected: 2007

Term ends: 2013

Background: CPA for an Everett accounting firm

Jeff Russell

Board vice president

Elected: 2009

Term ends: 2015

Background: Pastor of Central Lutheran Church in Everett

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