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Did Jeff Gilbert get a raw deal?

Fired Reynolds High principal battles to restore his reputation


Jeff Gilbert, principal of Reynolds High School from 2008 until he was fired in June of this year, doesn’t mince words as his voice rises.

“I never took a single cent from Reynolds High School and the Reynolds district!” he says.by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Jeff Gilbert, ex-principal of Reynolds High School, cleans office windows on Oct. 5 at his job as a night janitor at Bennu Glass in Kalama, Wash. After being fired from his job as principal of Reynolds High School, Gilbert retained an attorney and has been fighting to restore his reputation.  OUTLOOK PHOTOs: JIM CLARK

Gilbert is a man even the people who fired him credit for turning Reynolds High into a thriving school after years of gang activity and poor academic performance.

Now, however, he works for a cleaning company in Washington, his 20-year education career a thing of the past, his reputation in tatters.

In less than a year, he’s gone from an educator his former boss — Superintendent Joyce Henstrand — praised for raising graduation rates and tests scores to a man Henstrand labeled an insubordinate unlicensed employee who misspent district funds on an SUV and a luxury boat.

Gilbert was informed of his termination in a June 20 letter from Henstrand, who retired June 30.

On Aug. 2, the Reynolds School District Board unanimously upheld Henstrand’s decision to fire Gilbert.

But in the months since his firing, Christopher Lundberg, Gilbert’s attorney, has raised a number of troubling questions about the nature of the investigation that led to Gilbert’s firing.

For example, why did the district’s investigator decline to talk to 30 district employees — including 10 minorities — willing to defend the principal from unnamed accusers who alleged he made racist comments; comments alluded to, but never explained, in a district report?

And why did the district release this report to the press given it contained anonymous accusations labeling Gilbert a bully with “explosive anger”? And by doing so, did the district violate Oregon employee law, a contention Lundberg makes?

Except in cases of compelling public interest, the state forbids employers from disclosing documents related to a public employee’s firing, Lundberg says.

“There is no public interest in publishing unsubstantiated allegations,” Lundberg says.

The deeper question is why did the district rush to cast aspersions on Gilbert’s character so quickly, his attorney adds.

“Why wasn’t Gilbert given the benefit of the doubt?” Lundberg says. “It’s not like he was being secretive.”

What’s the truth?

Was Gilbert really fired because he was an abuser of the public trust?

Or could it possibly have something to do with the fact he repeatedly called into question the competence of various district employees, a scenario Gilbert says is more plausible.

It’s hard to tell, because the folks Gilbert thinks conspired to bring him down won’t talk. Through the district, The Outlook requested interviews with several current and former employees, who allegedly had a hand in bringing down Gilbert. But the district, citing personnel and legal concerns, repeatedly declined to assist in the writing of this story, save to answer certain procedural questions.

Gilbert and Lundberg say the former principal is seriously considering suing the district for defamation of character, breach of contract and any number of other possible claims. Gilbert says the district has made him look like a thief in the public’s eyes and that its leaders, including Henstrand, destroyed his good name for nothing.

In attempt to get to the bottom of this story, The Outlook requested an interview with the author of the report, attorney Bruce A. Zagar, that helped bring down Gilbert.

“We are not willing to comment or answer questions at this time,” Zagar wrote The Outlook in an email.

In an effort to be completely fair, The Outlook contacted Zagar again with emailed questions and a phone call.

“I have already deleted it,” Zagar said of the email.

Ready to rumble

Gilbert has a fierce ally in Lundberg, who said he believes Gilbert is an honest man who’s gotten a raw deal.

Yes, Gilbert didn’t always play exactly by the rules, but he was working more than 80 hours a weeks to turn a school in crisis into one where students could feel safe and affirmed, he said.

“We’re not saying Jeff Gilbert didn’t make mistakes,” Lundberg said. “We’re saying what should the district have done with respect to the mistakes that were made, given the circumstances.”

And that’s the rub — how serious were Gilbert’s mistakes?

The principal was placed on unpaid leave on Jan. 31, 2012, following the district’s decision to investigate him. The most serious charge the district made was that Gilbert was a chronic abuser of Reynolds High School funds. To support its contention, the district released an April 25 document summarizing 142 possible violations of district spending policies on such things as meals, gifts for teachers and school equipment. An audit examined more than $43,000 in reimbursements and expenditures from July 23, 2009, through Dec. 15, 2011, according to a spreadsheet the district released.

However, Gilbert says high school staff told him he did nothing different than previous Reynolds’ principals — a contention the district investigation refuted — and that four external audits of Reynolds’ finances during his tenure revealed nothing to raise suspicion.

Furthermore, Gilbert has passed polygraph tests — set up by his attorney — that questioned whether he took or stole TV sets he purchased for the high school as well as metal hitches and lifts. Indeed, Gilbert was never charged for stealing anything from Reynolds.

Gilbert already has received vindication, of a sort, from the state of Oregon.

In late August, a judge with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings examined his alleged improper use of student body funds, in particular the rental of an SUV and a luxury boat for a staff conference in San Diego, as part of a process to decide whether Gilbert was eligible for unemployment benefits.

“While (Gilbert) may have violated the (district’s) expectation by reimbursing these expenditures from (a school account) the claimant’s actions were at most a good faith error on his part and therefore excused from misconduct under (Oregon law),” the decision read.

The license

In her June 20 termination letter to Gilbert, Henstrand contends his failure to maintain his emergency administrator license was one of the reasons he was fired.

However, Henstrand herself had written the state’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission on Nov. 22, 2011, asking that Gilbert receive a one-year extension to complete courses needed to renew his license.

“Mr. Gilbert has worked many long hours these last few years, most weeks more than 80 hours, and without taking a vacation in order to achieve results,” Henstrand wrote.

Gilbert got an extension until Jan. 31, 2012 to finish his coursework, but by then Henstrand refused to give him a follow-up letter, asking he be given more time to complete his coursework.

“She encouraged Jeff to work his butt off,” Lundberg said. “But once this stuff all came down, the license issue was used as a tool to persuade the board to approve his firing.”

Gilbert notes teachers and administrators delay renewing licenses all the time, but it’s clear he rues not taking the issue more seriously.

“To be real honest, I never thought about it twice,” he says. “The support and encouragement I had been given by the district to keep working diligently and long hours were a strong indication that I would receive assistance when my license came time to be renewed. Had I any notion that the district would capitulate, I would have immediately taken the courses. When all was said and done, I finished my required classes in less than a month, but the district would not accept the work by then.”

Gilbert has filed an appeal of his termination with the Oregon Fair Dismissal Appeals Board, which will hear his case between Nov. 6 and 8. The Reynolds district has asked for the appeal to be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, “because Mr. Gilbert does not have a license from Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.”

And that statement alludes to Gilbert’s objection — that his license lapsed precisely because the district encouraged him to take his time in renewing it.

The administrative law judge in Gilbert’s case did uphold the district’s side on this issue, but expressed a grain of sympathy when it came to his administrative license.

“(Gilbert) explained that he failed to attend to the necessary coursework because he was busy devoting the maximum available time to his duties at Reynolds High School,” the judge wrote. “While the claimant’s attention to these duties is admirable, it remained within his power to attend to coursework requirements and obtain a renewal of his license.”

Insubordination

Gilbert also was fired for being insubordinate, with Henstrand noting in her termination letter that Gilbert authorized a payment of $10,500 to Group MacKenzie, a consultant on the Reynolds High School stadium project, on Oct. 4, 2011.

“You received a clear directive from the Reynolds School Board that District funds could not be used for the high school stadium project,” she wrote.

On this matter, Gilbert and Lundberg concede Gilbert exercised poor judgment. However, once again, it’s all about context, Lundberg says.

“This is just one of a million decisions he was trying to make,” Lundberg says. “In this instance, he was trying to pay a bill that needed to be paid for work that was already done.”

Gilbert should have called Henstrand for guidance, Lundberg adds, but he felt he needed to act promptly.

“He was not trying to be defiant.”

As for Gilbert, despite his sadness over what’s happened, he still harbors a glimmer of hope he will run a school again.

“If I could return as the principal of Reynolds High School, that would be the most precious day to me.”




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