Salt Lake City superintendent remains on leave, his dispute with school board unresolved, after tense meeting

Board president said there is no specific timeline to complete mediation with Superintendent Timothy Gadson, now on leave.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Board President Melissa Ford reads a statement on the status of Superintendent Timothy Gadson at a meeting of the Salt Lake City school board on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

With Salt Lake City schools weeks away from opening, Superintendent Timothy Gadson will remain on leave as a dispute between him and school board members remains unresolved.

The board placed Gadson on leave in a closed meeting last month. After members met in a closed session again Tuesday evening, board President Melissa Ford read a statement to a room so full of parents and teachers that many had to stand in the doorway.

Ford noted that the board’s statement of ethics “requires that we don’t disclose the details of closed meeting discussions regarding confidential personnel matters.”

“However, I can share that Dr. Gadson’s contract requires that we participate in mediation of any disputes, that Superintendent Gadson has requested mediation, and that the Board plans to participate in that process in good faith,” Ford said.

Gadson did not attend the meeting.

If the board ever were to terminate its superintendent or business administrator — who are the only direct employees of the board — Ford said it would be done in an open and public meeting.

The board is concerned with how the unfolding dispute has affected students, teachers and other employees, Ford said. But she added:

“The board has full faith and confidence in our district and school administrators, our educators, and staff. ... Our students are our number one priority, and you have our commitment that this personnel matter will not impact our students’ day-to-day educational experience.”

The board has questioned a trip Gadson took to Grand Canyon University in Arizona in January; parents and others have raised concerns about several of his administrator hires; and some district employees have complained that he treats colleagues disrespectfully, The Salt Lake Tribune has reported.

However, his defenders have pointed to missteps by the district’s human resources department and argued that racism is behind many of the complaints. Gadson is the district’s first Black superintendent. Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake City Branch of the NAACP, has asked the U.S. attorney’s office and the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into alleged discrimination and harassment of Gadson by the school board.

Williams spoke during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting, describing the situation as “extremely disturbing.”

“I challenge the board to explore and identify your own implicit biases,” Williams said. “... What we have with the SLCSD is institutional racism — policies, practices, procedures and culture of the SLCSD that work better for white people and cause harm to people of color, often inadvertently or unintentionally.”

Of the 118 administrators who worked in the district last year, only three were Black, Williams said. Only five Black administrators have been hired in the last 20 years, she said, and many other Black applicants haven’t been able to secure an interview.

Curtis Linton, who is running for the board in Precinct 3, said during the comment period that the board needed to “get real” after churning through three superintendents in the last four years.

“I’ve spent years following this district. If there’s one common trait in what the district faces — if Gadson is released, the fourth superintendent in four years — the common factor in that is the school board,” Linton said. “... It is your time to embrace the highest of ethics.”

Linton asked the board if members had an exit plan if Gadson leaves, and admonished them to make changes now so that the board can focus on the success of its students, not the potential legal battles it will face.

Maggie Cummings, principal of Meadowlark Elementary, criticized Gadson’s “top down approach to leadership.” During a visit to Meadowlark after Gadson was hired, he seemed indifferent about the teachers there, Cummings said.

Gadson shut down a conversation where teachers expressed concern about Gadson hiring new administrators while the district cut down on teaching positions due to declining enrollment, Cummings said.

Cummings said she believes Gadson’s trip to Grand Canyon University in January was “organized to break up a highly successful program” now in place for concurrent enrollment — allowing high school students to take college courses. GCU, a private religious school, was seeking partners for its college courses for high school students, records examined by The Tribune show.

Gadson told the board that he paid his own way on the trip, The Tribune has reported, but in May, he 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.

After comments ended, most members of the overflowing crowd made its exit.

The board does not respond to public comments during meetings. Its next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 6, after school starts on Aug. 30. After Tuesday’s meeting, Ford indicated the district does not have a timeline for the mediation with Gadson, but said the board wants to complete it “as quickly as possible.”

Gadson was hired in July 2021 after the previous superintendent, Lexi Cunningham, resigned. Former board member Michael Nemelka indicated at the time that Cunningham would have been forced out, after a heated closed meeting, had she not resigned.

The two-year contract Gadson signed expires June 30, 2023. It sets his salary at $220,000.

The contract says the board can terminate Gadson only for cause, and only after a two-thirds majority vote, with written notice to him. “For cause” is defined in the contract as certain criminal convictions; refusing to follow legal board directives; misconduct involving or harming students; failing to acquire or maintain an administrative certification, or any “egregious failure” to meet conduct or performance standards.