Salt Lake City mayor calls for ‘open, honest process’ after school board puts district’s first Black superintendent on leave

Mayor Erin Mendenhall said it’s her “sincere hope” Superintendent Timothy Gadson “can get back to work soon.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called Thursday for an “open, honest process” from city school board members who have placed the district’s first Black superintendent on leave without giving any public explanation.

Mendenhall added that she hopes Superintendent Timothy Gadson is returned to his post as the leader of the capital city’s school district soon.

“Dr. Gadson has been excellent to work with over the past year. I’ve been impressed with his valuable perspective into ways to improve the educational experience for all of our children,” Mendenhall told The Salt Lake Tribune in a statement Thursday.

“I expect an open, honest process from the School Board in the days ahead and my sincere hope is he can get back to work soon,” she added.

Her comments follow the school board’s decision last week to place Gadson on a leave of absence. In an emergency closed-door meeting the evening of July 7, board members sought to essentially pay Gadson four months severance in exchange for his resignation, school board member Mohamed Baayd told The Tribune.

Gadson is paid $220,000 a year, meaning the buyout would have totaled about $73,000. The two-year contract Gadson signed last year expires June 30, 2023.

Members of the Salt Lake City Council said they were alarmed by the lack of transparency by the board’s process.

“It raises eyebrows, and I want to make sure that they are transparent about the reasons behind their decisions, and that they put everything out there,” council member Alejandro Puy said. “I cannot accept anything less than that.”

Council member Victoria Petro-Eschler said she was concerned Gadson would not receive due process. “I am hoping to see an open, transparent process free from implicit biases,” she said.

The council later released a joint statement saying it recognized the “difficult” and “sensitive nature of the matter” and trusted school board members to be fair, concluding, “We believe public trust requires a thorough process which takes into account any systemic implicit biases that may arise.”

Neither Mendenhall nor the Salt Lake City Council has any formal authority over the school board, whose members are elected officials.

It is not uncommon for personnel matters to remain confidential. But Baayd said a public discussion is needed.

“His contract is a two-year contract and you want to hand him bread crumbs and ask him to be quiet so everything will be swept under the rug? That’s not what we’re doing here,” Baayd said. “Absolutely not. I’m not going to be quiet about that.”

Gadson’s attorney also did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Later Thursday, school board President Melissa Ford and Vice President Nate Salazar said that the board does not comment on personnel matters and that it was following the laws governing public meetings.

“It is unfortunate that any board member would knowingly choose to talk about topics that may have been discussed in a closed meeting,” Ford and Salazar wrote in a statement after The Tribune’s story was first published.

“While we have heard our community’s desire for more information, the Board is limited in our ability to confirm or deny the accuracy of any reported information due to our commitment to maintaining the confidentiality of our closed executive sessions,” the school board leaders wrote.

Gadson, who was accompanied by his attorney at the emergency meeting, refused the offer, and board members put him on paid administrative leave for 21 days, giving him the opportunity to reach an agreement with them, Baayd said. Otherwise, Baayd said, he believes they will terminate the superintendent.

According to Gadson’s contract, he can only be terminated for cause, and the district has not released any information about any specific allegations against him.

Some parents have questioned the hiring of additional administrators during Gadson’s tenure, some of whom are also Black. One of the hires, Kimberly Mackey, left the district last month after working for less than six months as executive director of organizational and strategic leadership, at a salary of $131,365.

Mackey had represented to the district that she had a doctoral degree, but after she started working, the university said she had not yet received one, Baayd said. He said when that information arrived, Gadson put her on leave and later asked for her resignation.

”If he was hiring his Black friends, he would have made sure to find a way to make sure [Mackey] stayed but he took the appropriate action because he was about accountability,” Baayd said.

Baayd said some district staff have claimed that Gadson is intimidating and has created an uncomfortable work environment. Baayd disagrees, and said he believes people are reacting to Gadson being a tall, Black man who has tried to shake things up at the district.

“They feel intimidated by what? No idea what it is. To a point where there were conversations where they said, ‘You should have just learned to do it the Utah way. People here are more nice and quiet,’” Baayd said in an interview.

Earlier this year, the district spent $30,000 to hire the law firm of Kirton McConkie to investigate complaints against Gadson. The scope of the investigation was twice expanded and the work ultimately cost $59,000, according to district budget records.

Neither the focus of those investigations nor the results have been released, but Baayd said the report came “back clean.”

Baayd, who is Black, said he ultimately believes the driving factor behind the attempt to oust Gadson is racial bias.

“We have a lot of good people,” he said. “We have a system that is inherently racist, a system that is inherently not ready for a Black person to take the lead.”