Citing ‘unethical behavior,’ a 3rd member of this Johnson County school board resigns

·10 min read

Shortly after new members were sworn in this month, the Gardner Edgerton school board erupted into loud bickering, with members violating board policy and hurling accusations at one another.

A week later, second-term board member Robin Stout resigned — the third member to do so this school year. Earlier this month, the superintendent’s resignation took effect.

“I refuse to be part of a Board that not only participates in unethical behavior but ignores it when it happens,” Stout wrote in her resignation letter submitted last week.

The southwest Johnson County district has been shrouded in controversy since the November election, where four candidates won and shifted the seven-member board to be majority conservative.

Superintendent Pam Stranathan, who became a target largely due to disagreements over COVID-19 protocols, resigned effective Jan. 9, a day before the new board took office. She was handed a $425,000 severance package — a move, some officials previously told The Star, that was designed to avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit.

At their contentious meeting, the first action new members took was a violation of board policy as they scrapped the approved agenda and replaced it with one presented by a new board member.

Other members accused Lana Sutton — who was elected board president that night — of leaking information out of a closed session, although she denied doing so.

It was a “highly controversial meeting,” Stout said.

“During my time on the board … I am grateful that we were able to overcome most of our differences, and even when we didn’t, we did not bulldoze or bully each other under the public eye,” Stout said. “I no longer feel like that will be possible with our current board.”

Gardner Edgerton school board member Robin Stout is the third elected official to resign this school year. The superintendent also recently resigned.
Gardner Edgerton school board member Robin Stout is the third elected official to resign this school year. The superintendent also recently resigned.

Gardner Edgerton’s troubles

Like other school boards, Gardner Edgerton has weathered mask mandate protests, legal threats and hateful comments from the public during the pandemic.

“We’ve been called names. We’ve been threatened. And it’s sad that it came to that,” Stout told The Star.

Two board members were so frustrated amid mask protests in late August that they walked out of a meeting and soon resigned.

Disputes over COVID-19 protocols, school curriculum and other national hot-button issues dominated the contentious school board elections in Johnson County this past fall.

In Gardner Edgerton, the four conservative candidates won with campaigns claiming that Stranathan failed in leadership and that the district should have ended remote learning and mask mandates. They also pointed to declining test scores.

It was clear the incoming board members wanted Stranathan out of the job.

Others defended the superintendent, saying that she had several accomplishments since she took the helm in 2014, and that it was easy to blame her for difficult decisions during the pandemic. In November, she was recognized as a “distinguished administrator” by Pittsburg State University.

One week after the election, Sutton unilaterally began searching for an interim superintendent, even though Stranathan was not leaving her post at the time.

Sutton sent an email from her personal account, asking the executive director of United School Administrators of Kansas for the contact information of several retired superintendents, regarding their interest in an interim position. Executive Director G.A. Buie previously said that he was immediately concerned, as the district did not have a job opening. So he forwarded the email to the school board president and vice president.

Some officials previously told The Star they felt that Sutton’s actions put the district at risk legally. And in order to avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit, they said, the former school board approved a $425,000 severance package for Stranathan.

The district previously paid a $1.8 million settlement in exchange for former superintendent Bill Gilhaus and two other top administrators dropping a wrongful termination lawsuit they filed after their 2014 firings.

But supporters of the incoming board members, who campaigned on ousting the superintendent, criticized the deal as a “golden parachute.”

Stranathan declined to comment on her reason for resigning.

The Gardner Edgerton school board approved a $425,000 exit deal as Superintendent Pam Stranathan resigned.
The Gardner Edgerton school board approved a $425,000 exit deal as Superintendent Pam Stranathan resigned.

Feels ‘like a game’

One day after Stranathan’s resignation took effect, the new board members were seated.

But the board could not get through the routine first step of its meeting before members started butting heads.

Board members were required to cast a vote approving the agenda for the night. But freshly sworn-in member Greg Chapman had a different plan. He moved to scrap the agenda and presented his own, which was not provided to the entire board or the public beforehand.

Chapman, who campaigned on improving transparency in the district, added agenda items, such as taking action to find new legal counsel for the district, another apparent step to move away from management under Stranathan. His agenda also removed items, including a discussion on board protocols and appropriate elected official behavior.

He also removed a discussion item about Sutton, which would have included allegations that she violated the board’s trust and leaked information out of closed session. Previous board president Kristen Schultz and the two other board members in the minority wanted the item on the agenda so they could publicly bring up their concerns.

Chapman said in an email to The Star that the topic was removed because it was “aimed at allegations and lies about a board member, and was only put on to try and run that person’s name through the mud at our very first board meeting.”

“It was meant to be a last slap in the face to a good person and the three new board members the community overwhelmingly voted in ... The people voted us in to get back to focusing on education, not squabbling over lies and allegations.”

Some board members immediately questioned whether the new agenda was legal, and at the very least said it was a violation of the board’s transparency with the public. But instead of waiting for legal guidance, the four majority members pushed the new agenda through.

“It feels like a game,” Schultz said that night. “The people out here that work for this district deserve better.”

She said the board would have to find out “after the fact” whether it was violating any rules.

And Stout said, “I’m sorry to the students and staff.”

That first action by the board did violate district policy, which states that the agenda should be sent to all board members at least three days prior to a meeting.

Chapman denied wrongdoing and emphasized that when the board votes on approving the agenda, that is when members can propose that items be added or removed.

“Instead of listing out item by item, I pre-printed my proposal and passed it out to the board for them to approve or deny. The majority decided that my proposed additions, removal, and movement were good and it was approved 4-3,” he said.

“I do want to work together,” Chapman told the board. “I disagree with some of your stances. … But the people is who we represent. I genuinely want to work together. My intent was not to cause a whole bunch of drama with this. It was to just focus on the business at hand. Let’s not air out a bunch of nonsense and grievances. It’s just, let’s get back to doing what we need to do for our communities.”

School board ‘dysfunction’

During the meeting, board member Katie Williams pulled out her phone to play audio taken from outside of a December board meeting, when officials met in closed session to discuss the superintendent’s separation agreement.

Several residents had found out the board was planning to consider a severance package that night, and protested outside of the meeting. Schultz claimed that while the board was negotiating the exit deal behind closed doors, she got a text from someone outside alleging that information was being leaked to the crowd.

In the audio, the voice of Sutton’s husband, Kansas Rep. Bill Sutton, can be heard speaking to the group outside of the meeting.

“So we have an update. They’re still fighting. It looks like it’s going to happen. Lana’s fighting now to reduce the number,” Bill Sutton says in the clip.

Williams alleged that it is evidence showing that Lana Sutton had been texting her husband about confidential school board business.

“If I had done this, I would have recourse. I would be censured,” Williams told the board.

Lana Sutton did not return The Star’s calls for comment, although she denied the accusation during the January board meeting.

In an interview, Bill Sutton confirmed that it is his voice on the recording. He, too, denied he had been texting his wife for confidential information. He said that he simply assumed the board was still negotiating as closed session continued.

“It is absolutely false,” he said. “I didn’t receive a text from Lana the entire meeting.”

Sharing information that is agreed among a school board to be kept behind closed doors — especially about a public document such as a separation agreement — is not a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, said Max Kautsch, an attorney who focuses on First Amendment rights and open government law.

But he said doing so can “have political consequences. It could be a political error used against (a board member) in the future.”

Stout cited the alleged incident as one of the reasons for her resignation.

“The leaking of executive session information, especially when it involves personnel, is an egregious violation and it leads one to question what additional privileged information Ms. Sutton has shared with her state representative husband that we don’t know about,” Stout wrote.

After Williams played the audio, the board entered a tense debate.

“It’s clear that we’re going to bulldoze through all of the things we wanted to talk about. Just so that’s officially on the record. We’re not going to have an open and honest discussion about things,” Schultz said. “And you can sit there and smile all you like, Lana, but you know that you shared information.”

“No I did not,” Lana Sutton responded.

Schultz said the dispute showed the board is “going to continue on into the dysfunction.”

As board members argued over one another throughout the first half-hour of the meeting, Sutton called for a break so everyone could “take a breath.” The motion to a take a short break passed 4-3.

Another resignation

Bill Sutton told The Star he thinks the new board simply got off to a “rough start.”

“Any time there’s a change in leadership, that sort of thing takes place,” he said. “I’m really optimistic about the new school board.”

But for Stout, it was all a sign of a more difficult road ahead.

Stout said that disagreements over COVID-19 protocols and other issues have cast a shadow on the school board she sat on for seven years.

“It’s like the last seven years were for nothing, and I’m just a piece of crap,” Stout told the board. “I came in here hoping we could work together. It was made clear that we can’t.”

“For everybody to come in and say because of the COVID, everything that we’ve done for the district has gone downhill, gone down the tubes. We’re a pile of crap now. It’s not fair to those of us who have given to this district. I just want to apologize to the staff and admins. I’m sorry.”

Stout, in an interview, said that deciding to step down was extremely difficult.

“I’m in it for the kids and the teachers, and that’s why it was a hard decision to make. But I didn’t want my name associated with anything like that. Because they had already proven themselves to be unethical. I didn’t want to go down that road,” she said. “I didn’t want to go down a road of possible lawsuits. I have integrity that I just didn’t want to lose.”

The school board held a special meeting last week to discuss hiring an interim superintendent. And now it is also tasked with appointing a new board member to fill Stout’s at-large seat.

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