By Eric Stevick and Sharon Salyer Herald Writers
EVERETT — Jessica Olson, an unapologetic critic of her fellow elected school leaders and the district administration, has ended her often stormy tenure on the Everett School Board. She sent an email of resignation Tuesday.
Olson said she always felt that school board terms should be four years and not six. Everett is one of few districts in the state with six-year terms. She is stepping down after four years.
“I never wanted to serve six years,” Olson said in an interview.
She often was at odds with her colleagues on the board, who voted to censure her on two occasions. “It’s clear that the citizens really want the status quo,” Olson said. “They don’t want reform. They don’t want people like me. I gave it the old college try.”
This is the second resignation from Everett’s school board in a little more than a month.
Former board President Jeff Russell abruptly resigned on Dec. 1. The remaining three members of the school board are scheduled to meet Thursday to interview five candidates and select one to fill Russell’s position. A similar process later will choose a replacement for Olson.
Olson said she tried to push for transparency, including campaigning to have public meetings video-recorded. When she was elected four years ago, she vowed not to be a rubber stamp for the administration. Olson said she often was frustrated that the board wasn’t more aggressive in scrutinizing district finances.
For example, Olson said she feels the district should have let voters decide whether they were willing to pay for a new $28.3 million school district administration building.
“In four years, with the exception of putting in the track at Cascade (High School), I can’t think of one thing that the board of directors has done to improve the lives or education of children,” she said.
Olson’s resignation email, sent to board President Pam LeSesne at 12:34 p.m. Tuesday, simply said: “I hereby resign from the board of directors, effective immediately.”
“I’m amazed,” LaSesne said minutes after reading the email.
LeSesne said she saw no indication that Olson was about to resign. “I wish her the best,” she said.
Olson said she was disappointed that two “reform candidates” — Rod Reynolds and Kim Guymon — lost in the November general election. Had they won, she might have finished her term, she said.
With that in mind, Olson recommended the board consider appointing the incumbent she unseated in the 2009 election to replace her. Olson defeated Karen Madsen with 54.5 percent of the vote. Madsen did not offer herself as a candidate for the opening left by Russell’s resignation.
For the opening created by Olson’s departure, the school district will accept emailed nominations through Jan. 16 and direct applications through Jan. 23, said Mary Waggoner, school district spokeswoman. The school board plans to select the finalists on Jan. 24 and interview them on Feb. 3.
Superintendent Gary Cohn could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Olson has ardent supporters, both among the public and watchdog groups advocating for government transparency.
In 2010, the Washington Coalition for Open Government gave Olson its Key Award in recognition of her work to make government in Washington open and accountable to the public.
Yet Olson was controversial nearly from the start of her tenure, censured by fellow board members twice in seven months.
The first censure occurred in February 2011. It carried no legal weight — it was simply a public reprimand. The resolution alleged that Olson publicly disclosed, without board authority, confidential information from executive sessions about potential real estate purchases, in violation of school district policy.
Olson maintained that she was fighting for openness and had vigorously questioned what items can be discussed in executive sessions, which are closed to the public under certain exemptions to the public-meetings law. “These are people that don’t ask questions and seek to effectively silence someone of the minority view,” she said.
Ed Petersen, who at the time was school board president, had a different assessment.
“It’s a reprimand by four colleagues against one who’s behaving outside the norms,” he said. “It’s a clear and more direct message to her and the public that we’ve got a problem.”
One of the most dramatic events involving Olson occurred in August 2011. A school board meeting ended in calls to 911 after three board members, one of whom was Olson, grappled over a document during an executive session. Olson videotaped part of the scuffle, and it was widely viewed on the Internet.
The following month, four board members voted to censure Olson, accusing her of intimidation and harassment of staff, undermining public trust with false accusations, wasting the superintendent’s time, ignoring the board’s email policy and violating the school district’s records rules.
Olson called the action “an exercise in farce.”
“You know, if the stated reason for censuring me was that I can be overly strident, or that I’m not always polite, or that I can be overly tenacious when arguing for a point I believe in, I would sit here before you, raise my hand sheepishly and say, ‘Guilty as charged,’” she said.
Guymon, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for the school board in November, said she had no indication that Olson was about to leave the board. But Guymon said she understood Olson’s frustrations. “She found out very quickly her opinion and voice were not welcome,” she said.
Guymon said she thinks some board members will celebrate Olson’s departure.
“I believe her heart was in the right place for the public, wanting transparency,” she added. “But the way she went about it, that’s for her to decide whether it was right or wrong.”
Meantime, a marathon board meeting that begins at 3 p.m. on Thursday is scheduled to culminate in a nighttime decision on a replacement for Russell. The person chosen will serve the two years remaining on Russell’s term.
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.