Salt Lake City school superintendent resigns; board member says she was forced out

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham talks about the new school resource officer initiative at West High School, Tuesday, March 26, 2019.

The superintendent of Salt Lake City School District will resign at the end of this school year — a move that one board member says she was forced to make after other members voted to fire her during a heated closed meeting last week.

Lexi Cunningham, who has led the district for four years, sent her letter of resignation to the school board Tuesday. Member Michael Nemelka said the decision came just days after four of the seven people who sit on the board decided they wanted her out. And, he believes, they were not justified.

“She would have been fired otherwise if she didn’t step down,” he said. “But it’s not fair.”

During the closed meeting on Jan. 21, where they voted to terminate Cunningham’s contract, he added, they also decided to fire business administrator Janet Roberts, who has worked for the district for nearly 30 years. Along with the superintendent, Roberts also announced Tuesday that she would be resigning effective June 30.

“They were targeted,” Nemelka said. “The board would not leave the superintendent alone. They would not let her do her job.”

Nemelka suggested that three members of the board, in particular, have “snipped at” Cunningham since she was selected as superintendent in 2016. At one point, he said, they ordered her to fire 16 principals districtwide and she declined to do so.

“What an idiotic suggestion!” said Nemelka, who represents the westernmost neighborhoods in the district. Calls to each of the six other school board members were not immediately returned.

In the end, Nemelka said, the other members were not happy that Cunningham transferred one principal to a different school and has not made a final decision on one other — Ford White at West High School. In that case, there were concerns that White drove students home after he found them drinking on school grounds. According to district policy, he was supposed to call police. He is on leave and a formal resolution is still pending.

The district released the letters of resignation from both Cunningham and Roberts on Wednesday, but both make no mention of why they’re leaving and the district declined to elaborate. Spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said “neither one of them is doing interviews” and she is “not privy” to closed session discussions.

The board called an impromptu meeting for Thursday evening. The agenda didn’t specify whether members would take a public vote on the issue, but after 12 minutes in closed session, they came out and declined to answer questions.

“We will not be making any comments to the press at this time," said Board President Tiffany Sandberg. “We are adjourned.”

In her statement, Cunningham wrote that she has “the chance to pursue another educational opportunity.” She was a finalist late last year to be superintendent of the Peoria Unified School District in Arizona but ultimately was not selected for the position.

She was also a finalist to be the superintendent in Florida’s Hillsborough County School District, according to Tampa Bay Times, but was similarly not picked. In her application, though, she said she’s “interested in moving to a larger district.” She received letters of recommendation from Sydnee Dickson, the state’s superintendent, and Salt Lake City school board member Kristi Swett.

And she’s still in the running for superintendent of Tennessee’s Jackson-Madison County School District.

Before coming to Salt Lake City, Cunningham was the superintendent over Arizona’s Tolleson Union High School District beginning in 2011 — having previously worked there as an English and social studies teacher and volleyball coach.

In her resignation, Cunningham, 55, wrote that she has “mixed emotions” about leaving Utah.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the students of our district and our community,” she noted. “I will continue to support the district, its teachers, and students. While I am leaving for the next adventure in my career, I will forever carry a piece of the Salt Lake City School District in my heart.”

The superintendent has faced some public pushback within the district over the past year.

There was threat of a strike after teachers walked out of a district board meeting while requesting higher pay. The district and the teacher union, though, ultimately came to an agreement before the academic year started.

The president of the union declined to comment for this story. On Thursday, he said: “I appreciate the work Dr. Cunningham and Janet Roberts have done on behalf of Salt Lake students and wish them the best in their future endeavors.”

Nemelka said he’s asked the Utah attorney general to look into violations of the state’s public meeting laws in connection with the vote against renewing Cunningham’s contract and actions by other board members.

“This board of education is so dysfunctional,” he added. “The worst experience of my life has been watching them try to destroy the superintendent.”

The superintendent currently makes $205,000 as her annual base salary. Her contract is up for renewal every two years, according to a copy provided by former board member Michael Clara.

Clara, who often clashed with board members himself, said he had concerns about how Cunningham ran board meetings, dating back to when his term and her first year of service overlapped. But he was a “lone wolf” then, he said Wednesday, adding: “Looks like the rest of the board has now come around."

Cunningham also came under fire this year when the school district announced its after-school program was understaffed and wouldn’t be able to enroll as many kids. Many parents said they were frustrated because they found out only three weeks before the school year began.

Parents were similarly upset when the district looked at closing Bennion Elementary — one of the most diverse in the district — because of low student enrollment.

But Cunningham has also pushed to make schools in the district more equitable, created a cabinet-level position for an executive director of diversity and started statewide discussions on how to better serve all students, but particularly students of color. The district is more than 50% minority.

“I think we have to make sure we open our classrooms,” Cunningham said to The Salt Lake Tribune when she was first hired. “This is a welcoming place for all students and all families.”

She was charged with overseeing roughly 22,000 students, 37 schools and a $300 million budget.

Nemelka, who has worked under four other superintendents during his time as a teacher in the district, added: “I’ve never had a better superintendent. And Roberts, too, they’re both extremely intelligent.”

Roberts’ letter of resignation was short, stating only that she would be stepping down. Nemelka said Roberts recently led an audit into the district and the results were “perfect.”

It will now be up to the school board to replace Cunningham and open a national search for candidates. There could be a discussion about that at the Feb. 18 board meeting, Chatwin said.