The 2013-14 school year started like any other year for Lisa Griebel. She had been in education for 23 years and was principal of Federal Way High School.
She had just received her annual evaluation that was excellent, save for a couple of minor suggestions. But by the spring of 2014, the previous year’s controversies regarding the superintendent’s salary increase, his and the school board’s travel to Asia and Europe, along with their policy decisions regarding grading, would envelope her and the community and reach an apex that would elect two new school board members, adjust the district’s grading approach, find Griebel working as a principal in Aberdeen and Superintendent Rob Neu headed for a new job in Oklahoma City.
Along the way, Griebel would be accused of insubordination, asked to resign, offered other district jobs and eventually provided a settlement in lieu of suing the district. According to friends, she would also learn a lot about herself, and the community would learn a lot about its district leadership.
None of the key individuals in this story would talk for the record. However, with the assistance of some school district staff, documents obtained under public disclosure, and others close to events as they unfolded, the outline of a picture emerges.
Insiders say Griebel’s troubles started when she raised questions to the superintendent and district administrators about whether they had spent enough effort on gaining community support for the Global Initiative Project prior to actually starting to travel.
They say she was also reluctant to travel and leave Federal Way High School without a principal at a critical time. She further asked questions about the district’s choice of a consultant to receive $250,000 in support of Race to the Top, when the consultant had not previously had clients in the the United States. She also allegedly expressed concerns about the consultant’s ability to measure student success satisfactorily.
According to the sources, Griebel was not alone in her comments or concerns, but even her supporters acknowledge that her manner could be pretty direct. Others say the advice and caution were well-founded and historically, district leaders had encouraged candid feedback and open discussion from principals and other staff.
However, it was shortly after raising some of these concerns that Griebel was told she was “insubordinate” and placed on administrative leave. She was not told what the specific charges of insubordination were. Her Aug. 16, 2013 letter from her supervisor Vince Blauser is also equally vague.
She was placed under a gag order, but with no charges and no manner to seek redress, prepare a defense or even respond to any allegations. Since her supervisor had stepped back from his evaluation criticism in one area and had recently praised her in the other area of suggested improvement, she was surprised by the allegation.
Later, still without specifics, she was offered the opportunity to resign. She declined. She was then offered a “good” job in the district office, which she also declined.
Some insiders found wanting her resignation, and then offering her another job as a signal of weakness in the district’s position.
However, it is likely the political dynamics at the time may have contributed to a decision to try and reassign, rather than discipline her.
Her case received some minimal level of comment, but more importantly, the community became outraged at the international travel and the superintendent’s pay raise. Parents flocked to board meetings to protest the grading system and the board president was forced to step down amid charges of a criminal nature. With significant areas of controversy, the district was on the defensive.
And with the public vote on the school levy approaching, district leaders opened settlement discussions with Griebel’s attorney. The rumors around the district were clear: the district wanted to settle the “Griebel matter,” but not until after voters passed the levy. The amount of money at stake in the levy vote was almost 20 percent of the total budget, too big to have another controversy, particularly one involving a well-liked principal where the district’s position would be very hard to explain or justify to an already-suspicious public.
Several traditional school supporters openly campaigned against the levy as a way to “get the districts attention.” The levy did pass, but not overwhelmingly.
With the levy now behind them, district leaders were able to finalize Griebel’s departure. If someone really commits insubordination, most employers usually fire them as a last resort after several years of attempts to improve their behavior.
The file usually contains documentation of poor behavior, along with documentation of counseling and corrective action. There may also be notes of reprimands that have been documented over the years.
But that isn’t what happened. The district paid Griebel her full salary and benefits while she was on administrative leave, and the only negative in her file was the letter of administrative leave, which the district later removed. The district also agreed to pay her a settlement of $220,000, in lieu of her suing the district and the district employees connected to her leave.
The district is rid of Griebel, but at what price? They paid money to get rid of a principal whom, based on the district’s own records, was a pretty good employee. They couldn’t sustain the allegation of insubordination because there was no documentation. Was she a bad employee or did someone in authority overreact to some constructive criticism, causing us to lose a good principal? To Griebel’s supporters, a good principal is now doing good work somewhere else and not here.
There may be a bigger and more far-reaching loss to our district here that we can’t see yet. Next fall, we will have a new superintendent and he or she will conduct meetings with the district’s administrative team and the district’s principals, just like the ones Griebel attended last fall. When that new superintendent asks the participants for candid feedback on a new idea or program — how many principals are going to feel safe enough to actually give an honest opinion?
The loss of trust and confidence in the free exchange of ideas between district leadership and its employees may be the biggest loss of all. How will that affect the educational environment for our children?
Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.