As Salt Lake City moves to shed its first Black school superintendent, a look at what went wrong

An alleged junket, a string of hires and a flood of employee complaints appear to have turned the school board against Dr. Timothy Gadson.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson, center right, on a tour East High School on the first day back for the fall session on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Soon, perhaps as early as next week, the Salt Lake City school board is poised to potentially terminate the district’s first Black superintendent after he’s served barely a year on the job.

Defenders of Dr. Timothy Gadson accuse the board of engaging in a racially motivated witch hunt to rid itself of an outsider who has shaken up the way the district has done business.

But interviews with district administrators and principals — current and former — and complaint letters from employees, as well as comments from a staff survey conducted in recent months, paint a picture of educators frustrated with what they feel is a degrading work environment, troubled by what they perceive as ethical violations, and dismayed by a string of Gadson’s hires.

“The atmosphere since the new superintendent has arrived has been the worst I’ve ever seen it,” one district employee wrote in the anonymous survey, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open-records request. “I have personally seen him be extremely rude, dismissive, condescending, and unprofessional.”

“Our Superintendent is extremely disappointing. He has shown disdain for teachers,” another wrote. “Get this man out of here and hire someone who actually cares about [Salt Lake City School District.]”

Earlier this month, the board offered to buy out part of the year remaining on Gadson’s contract — they would part ways and Gadson would get four months of salary. He refused and was put on administrative leave. Board member Mohamed Baayd, who is Black, has said the leave was meant to buy time so the board could decide the best way to get rid of the superintendent.

Baayd and Gadson’s other supporters aren’t going to let that happen without a fight. Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake chapter, said in June that she had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate possible civil rights violations.

Last week, Williams and former state Sen. James Evans sent a letter asking legislative leaders to intervene, and they are trying to rally supporters to turn out at an upcoming school board meeting to defend Gadson and oppose his potential termination.

Baayd, the only board member who has spoken publicly, has said the board’s effort “stinks with racism.”

“We have a system that is inherently racist,” he said after Gadson was put on leave, “a system that is inherently not ready for a Black person to take the lead.”

District employees insist that is not the case.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Timothy Gadson, then the new superintendent of Salt Lake City School District, sits down for an interview while touring the Salt Lake Center for Science Education on his first day on the job on Thursday, July 1, 2021.

“They’re not racist,” one employee said in an interview. “They’re holding him accountable for inappropriate behavior.”

All seven of the district employees and administrators The Tribune interviewed spoke on the condition they not be identified, because they have been prohibited from speaking publicly about the situation.

”It’s quite possible that he is the victim of racial discrimination and microaggressions,” one district employee said, “and also that he has done things that harm the district. Both of those things might be true.”

Neither Gadson nor his attorney have spoken publicly about what has unfolded and did not provide comments about the situation to The Tribune.

Gadson’s critics have raised three main issues: a trip he took to a religious college in Arizona; the qualifications of three of his top hires; and his general conduct toward district employees.

The trip

Grand Canyon University is a private, for-profit Christian university based in Phoenix. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education forgave $6 billion in loans taken by students who said they had been defrauded by several private colleges, including GCU.

In January, Gadson flew to Arizona to tour the school, where he had taught for several years as an adjunct professor before joining the Salt Lake City district. GCU wanted to pitch Utah districts on its teacher training and on online college-level classes for high school students — although state law generally requires districts to run such concurrent enrollment opportunities through Utah’s publicly funded colleges.

Gadson still went. Canyons School District Superintendent Rick Robins also visited GCU, although his district paid for his expenses, Canyons spokesman Jeff Haney said. In March, two of Gadson’s top assistants also visited GCU.

When one principal later learned of the trip from an email sent to various district employees, she was unsurprised.

“The contents reflect what I have observed for quite some time now: a disregard by our current superintendent for rules, systems, and students,” Margarita Cummings, the principal at Meadowlark Elementary School, wrote in a letter to the board obtained by The Tribune. “Accepting gifts of that size, in what appears to be an arrangement to form a partnership with an out of state educational entity, is unethical.”

State law prohibits public employees from accepting most gifts, including travel, from potential vendors.

In May, a few days after a closed-door school board meeting, Gadson filed a sworn declaration with the Attorney General’s office indicating that he had taken an “all-expense-paid trip” to GCU from Jan. 12 to 14. Such declarations are required by law within 10 days of any official accepting a gift.

In a subsequent closed-door meeting, Baayd said, Gadson produced an American Express statement showing he had paid for the trip, not the university.

It is not clear why Gadson filed his sworn declaration if he had, in fact, paid for the trip.

In their letter to lawmakers, Williams and Evans note that the Canyons board was fine with its superintendent went on the trip, but the Salt Lake City board continues what they consider harassment against Gadson.

Three hires

Under Gadson’s tenure, two new administrative positions have been created, drawing questions from some parents as enrollment is declining. His hires — Gwendolyn Johnson-White and Kimberly Mackey — as well as a third leader he hired, Leeson Taylor, are Black. Taylor and Mackey were the administrators who went to GCU in March.

Mackey, who had been hired in January as Gadson’s pick for the new job of executive director of organizational and strategic leadership, left the district last month after questions were raised about her education credentials.

Her employment application — as well as published material from past jobs going back to 2020, job applications and a lawsuit against a prior employer — referred to her as having earned a doctoral degree.

She hadn’t.

A May 2022 e-mail from Northcentral University, obtained by The Tribune, stated that at the time Mackey was enrolled in the program but was not eligible for the degree. Williams and Evans contend that it is the district’s human resource department that failed to vet Mackey. It wasn’t Gadson’s responsibility, they said, and he took appropriate action by putting her on leave when the discrepancy came to light. Mackey then left the district.

Gadson chose Johnson-White as his associate superintendent. She had been retired from education since 2011 — aside from teaching some courses for GCU — although she was a mentor and a reference for Gadson on a bid for an earlier job.

On her application, Johnson-White said she had never been placed on disciplinary probation or suspended. But records from the Florida Education Practices Commission show that she was suspended without pay for 20 days and put on two years of probation in 2011 for allegedly keeping “no-show” students on her school’s rolls in order to beef up attendance numbers.

The records from her administrative hearing show Johnson-White blamed teachers who were racist and disgruntled by her strict rule-following for the attendance issues — claims the hearing officer did not find credible.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District superintendent Timothy Gadson, center, at East High School on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Gadson’s critics have raised three main issues: a trip he took to a religious college in Arizona; the qualifications of three of his top hires; and his general conduct toward district employees.

The third hire was Taylor, Gadson’s pick as executive director of school leadership and performance. Taylor had been fired from his previous job as superintendent of the Greenville (S.C.) School District after a video of a teacher dragging a special needs student by her hair across a gymnasium went viral. The Greenville school board said Taylor failed to convey the seriousness of the matter to board members.

Taylor sued, alleging wrongful termination, but the court dismissed the suit, in part because the response to the dragging incident and the fact the district’s schools were failing gave the board grounds a plausible justification for his dismissal.

Taylor said in a statement provided to The Tribune that the teacher had explained she was protecting others in the class and an investigation recommended her suspension. It wasn’t until the full video went viral that the teacher was fired.

“As the leader, I was the one terminated,” Taylor said. “The best example I can think of is, it’s like firing the bank president because a teller cashes a fraudulent check.”

Multiple sources said that Gadson was involved with each hiring process, including sitting in on the candidate interviews. Gadson made the final decision on all three hires and, district sources said, disregarded the recommendations of the hiring committees.

Gadson’s track record

A little over a year before arriving in Utah, Gadson had settled a lawsuit against the school district in Henry County, Ga., after alleging that racial bias and discrimination led the school board to rescind an offer to be superintendent there.

The board had voted to make Gadson the sole finalist for the job, with one member saying he clearly “stood out” among the field. Amid public backlash, the board withdrew the offer. Gadson sued, alleging racism both on the board and the community led to the offer being revoked. The district settled the lawsuit, paying Gadson $800,000.

In Salt Lake City, Gadson was one of three finalists for the superintendent position. Staff interviewed by The Tribune said many welcomed the board’s selection of Gadson. “I was very excited when he was hired,” said one principal.

But the district’s employee survey, obtained through an open records request, showed Gadson was soon seen by some as combative and demeaning of subordinates.

“It is not a welcoming place anymore,” one employee wrote. “He has no respect for people’s time; he is always late for appointments and never apologizes. I avoid him if I can.”

The superintendent’s office tied with human resources for the lowest satisfaction rating among district staff.

“It’s stifling and it’s very scary. It’s very much ‘be careful what you say,’” one district employee said in an interview. “The way that I’ve seen my peers treated has been very rude.”

A group of employees sent a letter — unsigned due to fear of reprisals — to the board in May saying Gadson had lost the confidence of those who worked under him.

“The past year has seen talented, innovative, highly skilled, and successful leaders ignored and often stifled,” they wrote. “Structures that have taken years to establish have been dismantled without cause, purpose, or offer of replacement. Institutional knowledge has been completely devalued or ignored. … Disorganization and lack of communication have become the norm.”

Complaints were leveled about Gadson’s treatment of employees and the board paid $59,000 to the law firm of Kirton & McConkie to investigate, district budget records show. Those investigations, according to Baayd and other sources, did not find any actionable misconduct.

Mounting a defense

Last week, Williams and Evans sent a letter to legislative leaders — based on information that Evans said Gadson had provided — alleging the board had a racially motivated vendetta against him and asking them to intervene.

In addition to noting the disparate behavior of the Canyons board versus the Salt Lake City board regarding the trip, and blaming human resources for the hiring missteps, they allege that the complaints that Gadson was loud, intimidating and mistreated subordinates are based on “traditional racial tropes used to denigrate Black male professionals.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP, in 2021. Williams said in June that she had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate possible civil rights violations related to treatment of Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson.

Senate chief of staff Mark Thomas said they have received the letter but leadership has not had a chance to discuss it. While the Legislature is loathe to get involved in personnel matters, he said, they may look at whether there are larger, systemic issues in school districts more generally.

Williams and Evans have distributed a similar letter to parents and community activists, trying to rally support for Gadson, who remains on paid administrative leave.

At this point, if Gadson and the district part ways, it may be costly — either through a buyout or a lawsuit — and the district will be searching for its fourth superintendent (one served on an interim basis) in less than three years, with the last two leaders holding the position saying the board forced them out.

If Gadson stays, animosity between him and the board and employees may continue. Either way, it has been a disruptive episode as the district prepares for the coming school year and financial challenges tied to its dropping enrollment.

“When Dr. Gadson came in, we had such high hopes. It was so exciting,” one school principal said in an interview. “... Now we’re a year and a half in and we’ve lost momentum and progress for our families and kids, and our families and kids deserve better and we need to resolve this and move forward.”

Correction: 9 p.m. July 28, 2022: This story has been updated to reflect that Canyons School District paid for Superintendent Rick Robins’ visit to Grand Canyon University.