Superintendent Calvin Watts received a contract extension through June 2022 with a controversial 3-2 vote Wednesday night during a Kent School Board virtual meeting.
Watts, hired to lead the Kent School District in 2015 for an annual salary of $250,000, had a current contract that expires in July 2021. The extension keeps him in charge for at least two more years.
Board Vice President Denise Daniels and directors Maya Vengadasalam and Leah Bowen voted to extend the contract. Board President Leslie Hamada and director Michele Bettinger were against the extension.
Vengadasalam said Watts had met goals set by the board and gave the superintendent a strong evaluation.
“Thank you for your leadership over the past year,” she said. “We have addressed some grave concerns over the past year. In the summer of 2019 and in the first six months of the 2019-2020 school year, you have continued to be resilient in addressing all of the community and work member questions and I appreciate your care and concern for all during this difficult time.
“I want to thank you especially for bringing our finances back to a respectable front and for hiring an excellent team in charge of our finances. You share in that glory and decidedly so.”
Vengadasalam then mentioned several achievements including a historic high in African American graduation rates, maintaining a 5% fund balance in the district budget and voter approval of the district’s Educational Program & Operations Levy in February.
At the start of the meeting, the board heard 30 minutes of emails read that residents sent in response to the announcement of the vote on whether to extend the contract of Watts.
Fourteen emails were against the extension and only one for it, written by Bill Boyce, a current Kent City Council member and former Kent School Board director.
The board had set a 30-minute limit to reading the emails. Bettinger moved to extend the comment period so another dozen or so emails could be read, but her motion failed 3-1 with Hamada abstaining after she had seconded the motion in order to have discussion.
“I have heard from many people in the community,” Daniels said. “As I have stated before, the loudest voices are not always the majority and that was evident with the passing of our levy. I continue to listen to the community and to do what I believe is best for the students and staff in our district.”
Daniels and Vengadasalam are the two board veterans. Daniels was elected in 2017 and Vengadasalam re-elected in 2017 to a second four-year term. The remaining three board directors are each in their first year.
Bowen said it was the toughest decision she has had to make.
“It is up to us as a community and a board to come together to create positive change and voice constructive criticism,” Bowen said. “I have heard the concerns of the community and some of the concerns I hold myself and they have been communicated to Dr. Watts. …Positive forward thinking and improvement does not come from finger-pointing, name calling or an all or nothing mindset.”
Bettinger said she received 82 emails or calls opposed to extending the contract and 43 in favor of extension. She disagreed that Watts met achievement goals and said the financial crisis should not have happened in the first place.
“The most successful school districts have leaders who engage in the community in meaningful ways on all significant decisions regarding their children,” Bettinger said. “It requires a leader who walks the halls, is in the community meeting people and bringing people to the schools and incorporating their ideas about curriculum and positive change into the fabric of the culture.
“I found little to no evidence that the superintendent engages in any of these behaviors. I have to stand with the students and staff, particularly our students and staff of color because this superintendent in five years has routinely failed to significantly improve the disproportionately in discipline or close the achievement gap.”
Hamada said it’s important to listen to the people.
“Institutions, and leaders of them, cannot exist in a bubble of their own,” Hamada said. “They cannot forget why the institutions were built and that is to come together for a common cause. When we don’t listen to people around us who gather together to form governments or institutions. …then we fail as an institution. Changes can become hard, but we do have to face it.”
Hamada said votes of no confidence in Watts by teachers and principals helped convince her to vote against a contract extension.
“I am deeply concerned when I see a staff of teachers and principals that have deep concerns about the head of their organization,” she said.