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Monroe Schools’ Superintendent Blasko put on leave by school board, to be investigated

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Fifty or more Monroe School teachers and supporters gathered outside the Monroe School District offices on a wet and cold Monday, Dec. 13 evening to protest school district leadership. “We’re zooming in to the School Board meeting tonight, they all went home” one sign carrier said, meaning the School Board meeting was being held remotely and the sign-carrying teachers were not invited.

MONROE — Emerging stories of retaliation and fear under School District Superintendent Justin Blasko that surfaced last week led to the school board to put Blasko on administrative leave and to hire a third-party investigator to probe the allegations. School Board President Jennifer Bumpus announced Dec. 18 that these actions are being taken. The decision came from a Dec. 17 closed door session to review his performance, Bumpus’ message to the community indicated.
Days before, the board received a catalog of first-person accounts of incidents that include documented complaints of Blasko yelling at staff and secondhand reports of him making contemptuous insults. The catalog was compiled by the Monroe Equity Council, an anti-racism advocacy group.
Their catalog paints Blasko as mercurial: stonewalling certain people on district matters, and, to others, allegedly being duplicitous and contradictory with his words.
A growing number of parents and educators want Blasko out.
The Monroe teacher’s union asked Blasko to resign after taking a vote of no confidence in his leadership Dec. 10.
More than 100 Monroe High students frustrated with feeling unsafe in the district held a walkout protest Dec. 13.
Parents and educators assembled a protest, too, and more than 1,300 people have signed an internet petition seeking his removal.
Leading into the meeting, the district already faced a perception it is indifferent to racism and discrimination.
On top of this is a feeling of distrust with administration, said Melanie Ryan, the president of the Monroe Equity Council.
While Blasko is on administrative leave, the district appointed Kim Whitworth, its chief academic officer, as acting superintendent.
A board member has publicly shared his disagreement on firing Blasko.
“Although our district has suffered from racism ... to assume Dr. Blasko is the reason for all of this is naive and myopic,” school board vice president Jeremiah Campbell said near the end of the Dec. 13 meeting, adding, “These are cultural issues of which our entire community bears the burden of responsibility.”
“It is not a time for us to fire our district leader,” Campbell said, “however it is time for us to review the comments made tonight.” He described firing Blasko as a “knee-jerk reaction.”
District employees don’t report things to human resources because “there is a culture of fear in this district,” Ryan said. “(District staff) are terrified — that is their word — to speak publicly about their experiences for fear there will be the retribution of losing their job.”
“(Blasko) simply cannot reform a culture he has created,” Ryan said in her address.
There are students who do not feel safe or supported by the district, Monroe High’s associated student body president Sophia Welch addressed the board.
The teachers’ union rarely if ever takes a vote of no confidence. The vote was prompted by how many students are being impacted by racism.
“There’s this environment of fear,” Monroe Education Association president Robyn Hayashi said. “I think this has been festering for 10 to 12 years.”
“Students deserve to feel safe,” Hayashi said. “Under his leadership, we’re hearing more and more from students, they feel harassed and bullied in this district.”
Regarding the investigation, Bumpus wrote in a Dec. 16 community message that “we will share information about the outcomes once they are complete. We kindly ask for your patience as we work through this process.”
The district did not have any further comments for what was raised at the Dec. 13 meeting.
Meanwhile, at the Dec. 13 meeting, Blasko introduced Bill de la Cruz, one of the consultants in diversity and equity the district will be working with.
“If I could, somehow as a superintendent, turn back the clock, it would be to accelerate the support provided to all of our staff in examining their own biases as well as the systemic barriers ... Perhaps this would have prevented some of the recent situations from happening on our campuses,” Blasko said in an opening statement before introducing the consultant.
Board members Campbell and Sarah Johnson both openly endorsed the district should hire a director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
The Monroe Equity Council wants the district to hire a full-time diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officer.
The Monroe Education Association union has sought equity and diversity training for years, Hayashi said. They received a “flatline response” from district officials and found no traction with school board members on the request, Hayashi said.
Teachers need professional training to properly respond to incidents and hate crimes, Hayashi told the board. “There is zero direction coming from the top” and when there is, the direction is not uniform.
The board heard more than one and a half hours of public comments last week.
“They should not go to school in fear because of the color of their skin. It is 2021,” Junelle Lewis told the board.
One speaker mentioned that the current damage in the district could threaten the district’s February levy renewal measure to fail.
The confrontational incident in Monroe High’s parking lot Nov. 10 thrust racism at school into the spotlight, but alumni are frank that it’s not a new phenomenon.
Sarah Olson told the board she felt unsupported when she experienced racism as a child in Monroe schools: “There’s a reason I’m choosing not to raise my brown, multi-cultural son in this community: because I don’t want him to go through the same experiences I did.”

Public comment period modification suggested
Board member Jeremiah Campbell suggested studying if the board should modify how much time is allotted for public comment.
Campbell said he picked up the idea from a recent Washington State School Directors’ Association training.
New school board member Sarah Johnson said broad public input should be gained before any change is made.
Last week’s general meeting went almost four hours. The board then followed with a closed-door meeting for an additional hour and 45 minutes to cap the meeting off just before midnight.

MHS Principal returns
Monroe High principal Brett Wille’s administrative leave concluded Dec. 6, the district’s spokeswoman said.
He went on temporary leave after a Dec. 3 all-school assembly speech where he gave unfiltered examples of racial and derogatory language to demonstrate types of unacceptable language for school.
School board student representative Nathan Burrell said the assembly divided the school: It left some Bearcats offended, while others recognized the language was meant to educate.

Previous coverage

Online petition to remove Monroe Schools Superintendent gains hundreds of signatures

MONROE — An online petition seeking to remove Monroe School District Superintendent Justin Blasko erupted last week, gaining more than 750 signatures within 48 hours. It asks the school board to remove Blasko, and that his replacement be located using a formal search committee. Meanwhile, on Dec. 13, the Monroe Equity Council formally requested Blasko to resign.

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