When the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education (BOE) placed former Colorado Superintendent of the Year Dr. Bruce Messinger on paid administrative leave — pending an investigation of a personnel matter — at the end of March, it sent shockwaves through the entire community. Subsequently, when the Board voted to unilaterally terminate Messinger’s contract on May 9 without revealing the results of the investigation or the reasons for its decision, critics of the Board’s actions lambasted the process for lack of transparency and publicly defended the former superintendent for his contributions to the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) during his six years at the helm. The following is the first installment of what Boulder Weekly has learned regarding the turmoil within BVSD.
According to multiple sources who asked to remain anonymous either because they are not authorized to speak on the issue or for fear of retaliation — and confirmed by an open records request recently submitted to BVSD — the BOE investigation was due to complaints lodged by Leslie Arnold, a high-level BVSD administrator. And while Messinger was not fired for cause, the BOE investigation did, according to sources, raise concerns about alleged questionable behavior by the superintendent towards subordinates both recently and in the past.
Messinger hired Arnold in 2015 as the assistant superintendent of strategic initiatives to head up the district’s strategic planning process. She had previously worked as an assistant superintendent at the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sources familiar with the investigation say Arnold alleges she was on the receiving end of what she believed was inappropriate behavior by Messinger, which led her to bring her concerns to the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Shelly Landgraf. Landgraf was hired in 2006 as director of human resources and promoted to assistant superintendent by Messinger in 2014. According to sources, when Arnold brought her concerns regarding Messinger to Landgraf, she did not feel that the head of HR took the appropriate actions. Furthermore, according to sources, Arnold believed that she was being retaliated against and stripped of responsibilities because of her complaints.
In an interview with BW, Messinger would not address the nature of the complaint. However when asked about the nature of his relationship with Arnold he says that the two had a “constructive working relationship.”
“Clearly there are always issues you work through,” he says. “There was some concern about some organizational restructuring I was doing and that didn’t set well with everyone. It never does. So we were working through that when this complaint was initiated in early March.”
Emails obtained through an open records request show that Messinger, with the input of Landgraf and Chief Operating Officer Leslie Stafford, was in the middle of reorganizing the superintendent’s cabinet this past winter. Stafford started at BVSD in 1997 as an accountant, eventually making her way to Chief Financial Officer in 2008 and Chief Operating Officer in 2014 under Messinger’s direction. Messinger affirms that the three of them were working on the reorganization — a necessary process, he says, given several members of his administrative cabinet were set to retire.
The emails reveal several different suggestions regarding how Arnold’s job would change under the reorganization and multiple sources familiar with the investigation have told Boulder Weekly that Arnold alleges these emails demonstrate her responsibilities were being taken away as a means of retaliation. The email discussions include talk of moving Arnold away from the strategic plan and “more towards program evaluation/development,” as well as what responsibilities “can be moved 100 percent, what needs some insight from her and what still needs her direct attention and/or would be considered part of her adjusted responsibilities.” Additionally, according to organizational charts attached to the emails and confirmed by Messinger, Arnold would no longer report to the superintendent — instead reporting to Stafford — and that she would be stripped of at least some of her direct reports.
Although her job title was intended to stay the same, sources confirm Arnold believed the changes were a demotion in terms of her responsibilities and retaliation for her previous complaints about Messinger’s behavior toward her.
“She would still remain a member of the cabinet,” Messinger says. “There was becoming less need for that position to actually provide oversight to the strategic plan but there was other important work in the organization that I felt would support the strategic plan but was a change of some responsibilities.”
In early February, he says, he met with Arnold and Landgraf to inform Arnold of the “conceptual” reorganization and how her responsibilities may change.
“That meeting didn’t go particularly well; she wasn’t receptive to those changes,” Messinger says. After that meeting, he included Landgraf in all future meetings with Arnold, including regularly scheduled “check-in meetings” according to the emails.
One email chain in particular reveals that Landgraf was added to those meetings with Arnold and Messinger to serve as “a referee.”
In the end, Arnold bypassed the HR department and brought her complaint directly to the BOE. Not only do sources say that Arnold did not believe Landgraf was taking the appropriate actions as to her concerns, Messinger was the district’s compliance officer, including responsibility for human resources complaints, and therefore Arnold had nowhere else to go but the BOE.
According to Darci Mohr, the assistant superintendent of human resources during Messinger’s first three years with the district (2011-2014), the role of compliance officer is typically held within a district’s legal counsel or human resources department. Mohr was also a part of BVSD from 2001-2006, when she served in the district’s legal counsel office and held the role of district compliance officer, until she left BVSD. However, Mohr says, when she came back to BVSD in 2011, the compliance officer role had already been transferred to Messinger and when she offered to take on the role, “the decision was made that he (Messinger) was going to serve in that capacity.”
Messinger says the decision was made with legal counsel and made sense given he’s the “most senior administrator.”
“Honestly, in that whole time, I never really had an active role as a compliance officer because I delegated it back down to the appropriate level,” he says. “We just did that because everybody ultimately reports to me as the superintendent.”
“Having been in both legal counsel and human resources for 15 years in public education in different school districts, I did find that having the superintendent as compliance officer a little out of the ordinary,” Mohr says. “In my professional opinion, oftentimes superintendents won’t want to be the compliance officer because as superintendents you can tend to be the lightning rod for various complaints and concerns and situations that come up. Oftentimes superintendents want to avoid that role.”
Multiple sources confirm Arnold’s complaint was received by the BOE on a Sunday in mid-March.
“I was provided a copy of the complaint when it came in. I met with Sam Fuqua (president of the BOE) and Jennie Bevel (vice president) that Monday afternoon,” Messinger says. “There wasn’t anything in the allegations, of course in my opinion, that would justify termination. I did and would argue that not everything in those allegations were true. Even with the weight of what’s in the allegation from the complaint, even if those are all true, in our opinion it didn’t justify termination.”
He was advised at that time by district counsel Richard Bump of Caplan and Earnst to not meet with the complainant (Arnold) alone. And an email from Messinger dated March 19 instructs his assistant to cancel all future regularly scheduled check-in meetings with Arnold and Landgraf.
Subsequently, the BOE hired private law firm Berg, Hill, Greenleaf and Bruscetti upon recommendation from Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett. The firm is a Boulder-based practice that specializes in a variety of areas including employment law, and by the end of March, attorney Kathleen Alt began appearing in communication emails regarding an open records request made by Arnold. BOE member Kathy Gebhardt was named the alternate compliance officer given that Messinger was the subject of the complaint.
At the end of March, the BOE explained to BVSD staff via email the decision to place Messinger on paid leave was in response to a pending investigation regarding a personnel matter. The procedure for the investigation, according to Board President Fuqua, fell under the district’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity policy (AC-R) that “address concerns and complaints about unlawful discrimination and/or harassment.” Fuqua, however, would not comment on whether or not those types of complaints were the basis for the investigation, only that the AC-R served as the model on which to conduct the investigation.
According to sources, Kathyrn Miller, a private investigator from Littleton who specializes in workplace disputes, was then brought in to run the investigation, and Messinger says he was interviewed twice as part of the investigation.
During the month Messinger was on paid leave, the BOE refused to disclose or even comment on the nature of the investigation, prompting a great deal of scrutiny from the larger BVSD community with the most vocal critics demanding more transparency in the process.
After meeting 14 times in executive session, the BOE finally held the vote on Messinger’s future at a regularly scheduled public meeting on May 9. In a 7-0 vote, the board unilaterally terminated Messinger’s contract without cause while agreeing to pay out the remainder of his contracted compensation ($120,000).
At the meeting, Fuqua acknowledged that while the process may have been frustrating for many people, he reiterated the confidential nature of the investigation and refused to talk about the nature of the complaint that led to the controversial process.
“When you join the board, you agree to respect the confidentiality of executive session and confidentiality as it relates to district policies and procedures,” Fuqua told BW. “We’re also subject to following state statutes.”
Approximately three weeks after Messinger’s termination, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Landgraf resigned. Landgraf has not publicly commented on the reason for her resignation and she did not return calls prior to press time.
Since the Board’s decision on May 9, Messinger has repeatedly criticized the transparency of the BOE process and its refusal to meet with him after he was shown a copy of the compliance officer’s report, which summarized the actual investigative report.
“We are very concerned about the objectivity of this investigation. Just from that glimpse of this report that we saw, if it is representative in any way of what’s in the full report, then we have serious concerns about the accuracy of the investigation,” Messinger says. “I was misrepresented, and we pointed that out to the Board.”
He says Board members Fuqua and Gebhardt did meet with him after this, although he didn’t meet with the full board. And although his attorney requested it, the Board never released the full investigative report.
Messinger also says he tried to negotiate alternate solutions to terminating his contract, including reducing his contract by one year to give him time to work through the administrative reorganization, with the help of a mediator if need be, and also give the Board time to find a replacement. But, he says, the Board refused.
“We had suggested, not knowing what the findings were in the interviews, there would be a less extreme measure to address any concern that they might have over my supervision of my senior staff,” he says.
Overall, Messinger says there was not enough transparency in the process and he’s “not done with the Board yet.”
“I think the District, and the Board as their governing body, has an obligation to provide me with more information and we will pursue that,” he says.
After Messinger’s complaints about the process came out in media reports, BOE President Fuqua submitted a letter to the editor to the Daily Camera stating: “There is a perception that Dr. Messinger was not allowed an opportunity to be engaged in the process. This is not the case. Dr. Messinger and his attorney were given the opportunity to participate in the process from the beginning and they did.”
Regardless of Messinger’s attempts to salvage his job, in the end the BOE voted unanimously to terminate his contract on May 9, a consensus almost unheard of in this board’s history.
The rarity of which Messinger apparently agrees:
“This was a fairly extreme action but the level of dysfunction and conflict within this Board has been going on for some time, they have been unable to set their own agendas without hiring a facilitator to do that,” he says. “So this is obviously symptomatic of bigger issues.”
Fuqua states in his letter to the editor: “The board is composed of elected officials with diverse points of view. They rarely decide on difficult issues unanimously. The vote to terminate Dr. Messinger’s employment was 7-0. If any members felt they were ‘pressured’ to vote a certain way, they could have made their feelings known. None were and none did.”
So why was the Board motivated to unanimously terminate Messinger? And if it was a result of the investigation into Arnold’s accusations, which sources say went beyond mere management differences in the work place, why not fire for cause and save taxpayers the remaining contract payout? There may be an explanation.
According to multiple sources, the BOE investigation not only examined questions concerning Arnold’s recent complaints, but also raised questions as to whether similar behavior may have occurred in the past.
If such behaviors were known earlier and went uninvestigated and unaddressed, it could cause further problems for BVSD on a variety of fronts.
According to multiple BW sources, a former high-ranking administrator, who has since left the District, raised serious concerns about Messinger’s behavior toward her during the time the two worked together, but she never filed a formal written complaint. At that time, sources say some BOE members requested an investigation into Messinger’s alleged behavior towards the woman despite the fact she had already left the District without filing a written complaint. No such investigation apparently occurred, however, even though sources say BVSD legal counsel Richard Bump had been made aware of the details of the woman’s complaints.
The decision not to investigate in 2015 seems questionable at best given the guidelines for such decisions as laid out in BVSD’s own policies regarding such matters. The District’s policy AC-R states, “whether or not the individual files a written complaint or otherwise requests action, the district is required by law to take steps to correct unlawful discrimination or harassment and to prevent recurring unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation.”
Messinger told BW he was unaware of any complaints made prior to Arnold’s.
“This is my 39th year in my profession, 20 years as a superintendent, I have never had any investigations, any allegations. I have only had glowing evaluations,” Messinger says.
And this claim seems true based upon the history of positive evaluations he has received in the past, including in June 2016 before his latest contract was renewed.
However, according to multiple sources, Arnold told the independent evaluator in charge of the 2016 evaluation, Abbey Curnow-Chavez of The Trispective Group, about the issues she was having with Messinger. Also during that same evaluation process, sources say, information regarding the concerns of the previously mentioned former employee were also brought to the evaluator’s attention.
When Curnow-Chavez was asked about such complaints, she said, “I absolutely cannot comment on anything.”
It remains unclear why there is no mention of any such complaints in the final evaluation that was made public and ultimately led to Messinger’s 2016 contract renewal.
As is often the case, one controversy leads to another.
Since Messinger was terminated, the salaries of top-level BVSD administrators have come under BOE scrutiny. During budget negotiations in June, several Board members expressed concern over the salary schedules of Messinger’s cabinet, asking the overall board to do more research before approving a 4.8 percent raise for all cabinet members this year that accounts for both cost of living and experience. Additionally, there have been some questions as to why cabinet members were placed at 90 or 95 percent of the approved salary ranges, with several members receiving significant raises under Messinger. Landgraf, for instance, received a 35 percent raise in 2014, and Stafford a 26 percent increase that same year, the year they were both promoted. Other cabinet members also received significant raises that year, ranging from 11-17 percent increases. Regardless, the 2017 cost of living and experience increase were approved as part of the budget at the June 27 BOE meeting, with some cabinet member salaries reaching nearly $200,000, while Stafford will now make more than $204,000.
While there may be perfectly legitimate reasons for these compensation increases, such as a change in title and responsibilities, the size of some raises and the level of pay in general for those at the top has caused some within BVSD to voice their frustration. Perhaps the best example can be found in a handwritten anonymous letter to the BOE dated in early May and obtained via an open records request.
The letter reads, “We are hopeful that today this Board will hold accountable all those who are responsible for the harassment and hurt imposed on others, those who were in positions of power and trust and chose either to turn a blind eye or to cover up and hide allegations, and those who took benefit of any kind for their silence or inaction.”
The letter closes with the statement: “I choose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, please understand.”
Members of the BOE have been relentlessly criticized for dismissing Messinger and refusing to explain why he was terminated or what was the reason behind the investigation that led to his paid administrative leave. At the same time, many people from the teachers’ union to parents and others in the community still support Messinger and all he accomplished for the District. But just like people, all stories have two sides and most times we are better off having the opportunity to hear both.
Messinger has stated that he would like to see the full investigation made public. That would seem to be the best way for the community to understand the nature of the allegations against the superintendent. Such transparency would also give the public a mechanism for evaluating the way the Board and BVSD legal counsel may have handled any past behaviors that should have warranted an earlier investigation.
At this point, all the public knows is that the former BVSD superintendent’s behavior toward fellow BVSD administrator Leslie Arnold was investigated, and that at the end of that process, Dr. Bruce Messinger’s contract was terminated without cause. That doesn’t seem enough information to be fair to anyone; not Arnold, not Messinger, not the members of the BVSD Board of Education, not the District’s legal advisors nor anyone else who may have believed they were treated inappropriately. It would seem this story is far from over.
Clarification: The article has been updated to clarify Abbey Curnow-Chavez was in charge of Messinger’s 2016 evaluation, not investigation, as originally published. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.