MONROE — These are difficult times in the Monroe School District.
Parents are tired. Teachers are angry. Students are scared.
Their frustrations spilled out Monday as students walked out of class at Monroe High School and families rallied on the street outside of the district’s administration building.
In the evening, they turned their attention to the School Board, demanding that Superintendent Justin Blasko resign or be fired. They say the superintendent has failed to respond effectively to incidents of bullying and harassment of students. And they allege he’s created an unhealthy workplace where employees fear losing their jobs for speaking out.
Monday’s meeting marked the arrival of two new directors to the School Board. But those hoping that might signal a swift leadership change were disappointed as the three returning directors — Jeremiah Campbell, Chuck Whitfield and Jennifer Bumpus — expressed support for Blasko.
“Although our district has suffered from racism, bullying, academic and other issues, to assume that Dr. Blasko is the reason for all of this is, I think, naive and myopic,” Campbell said at the close of the meeting.
“These are cultural issues of which our entire community bears the burden of responsibility. We are committed to do what we can in the school but our whole community needs to be a part of it,” he continued. “It is not a time to fire our district leader. However, it is a time for us to review the comments made tonight as we work together. And yes, look into investigating and look into reviewing. That is an important part. But I think if we do something that is a knee-jerk reaction, it is going to affect our district in a negative way. We are a new board. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Melanie Ryan, president of the Monroe Equity Council, called Campbell’s response “insulting” and “egregious.”
Heather Young, a parent who spearheaded an online petition to remove Blasko, said she attended the virtual meeting hoping directors would pledge to consider the evidence the superintendent’s critics presented. Instead, she heard the opposite.
“I think that over a year of sustained efforts to work collaboratively that are consistently met with deafening silence does not constitute a knee-jerk reaction,” she said.
Campbell said Wednesday he’s heard from many who are “disappointed and angry” with what he said.
“They have taken my comments to be unequivocal support of the superintendent. That’s inaccurate,” he said. “We need to have a serious conversation about what was said. I am in support of doing what’s in the best interests of the students.”
Bumpus, the board’s president, said in a statement issued Wednesday the board is working with Blasko “to formulate a plan to address racism both in the short and long term.”
“The school board takes all reports of harassment, intimidation, bullying, racism, and discrimination very seriously, whether they are from staff or students,” Bumpus said. “Serious allegations were made at the board meeting on Monday and as a result, we will be investigating the matter. We are obligated to keep personnel matters confidential unless formal action is taken.”
On Monday night, Bumpus said she was hopeful the directors and district administrators can work together to address the problems.
“I think we have an opportunity to do better. It can’t look the same as it did in 2003 when I graduated,” said Bumpus, who now has three children at district schools. “I think we have really amazing people here. I’m excited to serve with all of you. And I think that we have the staff and the team to do it.”
Blasko declined an interview request following the meeting.
“The district has no further comment at this time,” wrote Tamara Krache, the district’s communications manager. She added the district would review “all that was brought forward” at the meeting.
Last month, Blasko issued a statement condemning racism and discrimination. And in an interview earlier this month, he said, “We know that we’re not where we want to be. … This diversity, equity, inclusion work is not something that’s going to change overnight. It’s something that you have to just continuously get better and better at.”
Incidents of racism in Monroe schools drew renewed public attention last month. Among other cases, a viral video that circulated on social media showed a white student repeatedly saying a racial slur in a confrontation with a Black student in the Monroe High School parking lot.
“Trying season is done for you,” that student’s mother, Stephanie Holliman, told The Daily Herald in reference to Blasko. “It’s time for you to go.”
Parents and teachers say students have been targeted for years, for reasons including their race or sexual orientation. And not only has Blasko done nothing to help the problem, he’s made it worse, they say.
“We have reached an unsustainable level of daily crisis in this district largely due to the inaction of the past,” Ryan, of the Monroe Equity Council, told the School Board.
In a presentation lasting nearly 20 minutes, she said equity council leaders had heard from employees who reported being yelled at, threatened and called cruel names by Blasko. Those workers said they feared retribution if they said anything about it, she said.
“There is a culture of distrust where employees, students, families and the community do not feel that they are being told the truth, their best interests are considered, or the superintendent or board will take meaningful action,” she said.
Meanwhile, the district has dealt with reports of threats of violence to its campuses, racist graffiti on a school building, a principal put on a brief administrative leave and a school psychologist charged with sending sexual texts to minors — all in the past couple months.
In his comments Monday, Director Whitfield said the superintendent has kept board members informed on the response to each event. Sometimes, he said, there are “things we can’t say” for privacy reasons that might help the community better understand a situation.
“The actions that were taken for the gun threats and the student violence were handled effectively and were done well to my satisfaction,” he said.
Blasko grew up in Alaska and went to Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a minor in English teaching.
His career started at a private school where he taught middle school students diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, according to his biography. His first public school job came as an elementary teacher in the Lake Washington School District. He later moved into administrative roles serving stints as a principal of three elementary schools.
Blasko joined the Monroe School District in 2010 as executive director of human resources. He earned a superintendent credential in 2009 and a doctorate in education after hiring on with the district. In 2016 he was named assistant superintendent of learning and teaching.
The board named Blasko superintendent on Feb. 10, 2020, just as a global pandemic was underway.
Last summer, the board approved a three-year contract with Blasko, effective through June 30, 2024, to replace his original three-year contract. Then, on Nov. 22, the outgoing board approved an amendment to the contract extending it to June 30, 2025. That decision drew fire Monday with assertions it violated district policy and state law.
Campbell said Wednesday the board was looking into the matter.
On Dec. 10, the Monroe Education Association overwhelmingly issued a vote of no confidence in Blasko.
Union President Robyn Hayashi told directors the situation is untenable with him at the district helm.
“Monroe students receive their public education in fear and staff work in fear,” said Hayashi, a middle school teacher. “Monroe schools have become more and more hostile for students of color, female students, students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students, and Superintendent Justin Blasko has refused to take action to improve the culture and climate in our schools.”
Ryan said it is appreciated that development of a diversity, equity and inclusion plan is underway and outreach to the community has increased. Come January, the district will also be working with an equity consultant who has done similar work with Everett schools. That consultant will help the district come up with ways to make Monroe schools more inclusive, Blasko has said.
Nonetheless, Ryan said there’s no faith in him to make positive changes. And, she told directors, if they decide to stay the course with him they will be “culpable and derelict in their duty.”
Young launched the online petition to oust Blasko late last week. It had more than 1,250 signatures as of Wednesday.
Parents no longer believe he has the skills necessary to turn things around and his actions “directly contribute to the toxic culture that has allowed our schools to become hostile environments,” Young told directors.
Melanie Lockhart, a parent, cautioned the continuing tumult could erode voter confidence and lead them to oppose renewal of a four-year operations levy on the February ballot. A setback would imperil millions of dollars in local property taxes on which the district depends.
“Dr. Blasko, if you truly care about the district,” she said, he should know “you aren’t the best person to right this ship.”