CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Outgoing superintendent Mike Wells discussed leaving the Cedar Falls School District as early as Jan. 27.
That’s when Wells emailed School Board President Deon Senchina to advise her he would begin searching for a new job, according to emails The Courier received as part of an open records request which netted about 1,400 pages of documents.
By the time Wells sent that email, the board had already met several times in closed session to discuss the first-year superintendent’s performance as part of his mid-year review.
After Wells resigned Feb. 27, the Courier requested emails exchanged between Wells and individual board members dating back to Nov. 1, as well as any correspondence with outside individuals regarding Wells’ performance leading up to his resignation on Feb. 27.
Wells wrote to Senchina that "Schools will want to speak to the Board President to see if I’m worthy of having. I am asking your permission to list you as a reference, I’m hopeful you can find something positive to say about me.”
Senchina indicated she would “gladly” help with the transition.
Friday, Senchina said that was still true.
“Some people think it is all negative. It is certainly not,” she said. “The board wrestled with that decision for how long? January and February, two months. ... We are not out to vilify him. There are a lot of good things about Mike, just like there are about everybody.”
On Jan. 28, Wells wrote Senchina he would need just five minutes during a scheduled closed session to inform the board of his intent to look for a new job.
“As stated throughout my closed sessions, communications has been a problem,” he wrote. “... I want to follow the practice of ‘no surprises’, (sic) and if I didn't notify the board, it would be one more example of me not communicating.”
By Jan. 30, Wells had changed his mind about looking for a new job. In an email to board member Jim Brown, he said he “had faith in the board.”
“I think I want to battle for my job here, make the changes I need to make and continue to charge ahead,” he wrote.
Wells said Friday he is ready to put this issue behind him and move forward. He would not comment on the emails.
In November and December, board members expressed concerns about Wells’ proposal to initiate a Chinese exchange program with Cedar Falls’ sister city there. Wells continued with plans for a parent meeting, but advertised it as a community-led program, not a district-sponsored event.
Still, board member Jenny Leeper told Wells via email she was “extremely uncomfortable with the prominence with which the district appears in relation to this program.”
“By having the superintendent featured so prominently in the launching of this initiative, I feel it lends credibility to the program (which I don’t feel has been earned yet) and gives the false impression to parents and community members that we, as a district, fully support and give our stamp of approval to the project,” she wrote on Dec. 17.
Wells responded to the email, but also moved forward with the meeting. The program has since fallen by the wayside.
Leeper said Friday she wasn’t opposed to the program, but felt that the board and district had already identified their high-priority items for the year, and that was not one of them.
“Looking back, we all felt it was probably a great idea, but does it have to happen this year? ... We had agreed that it could be led by the city and Mike could be a liaison,” not the organizer, she said.
Board member Dave Williams alluded to similar concerns in at least one email dated Dec. 14.
Though Williams said the “day-after timing” wasn’t an issue for him, he was concerned others “might make an issue of the ticky-tack point” that an article about the exchange program was in The Courier the day before Wells’ emailed the board about the story.
Wells told Williams he was at a conference and unaware of the story until he returned.
On Feb. 20, Wells emailed the board members in response to concerns they expressed regarding a Cedar Falls Times article about a proposed legislative bill that would financially support world language education. Creating an elementary foreign language program has been one of Wells’ priorities.
The email, which clarified or corrected seven issues in the story, appeared to be in response to an email Williams sent the day before.
“The timing is going to be damaging. This is an example of one of the behaviors that has you in hot water,” Williams wrote. “The topic of the Times article might be clear as day in your mind, but it’s muddy as hell to everyone else.”
Williams chose not to comment for this article.
Brown, who supported Wells, has been contacted by more than 125 citizens since the saga started. He can’t talk about the closed sessions, but reminded them to read the talking points — specifically No. 4 — Wells outlined during the Feb. 27 meeting.
Wells admitted making mistakes, including not communicating enough with the board, not collaborating enough with the executive council, pushing too hard without getting the needed support and being too blunt.
“Mike knew his weaknesses,” Brown said. He believes Wells was still “coachable.”
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In January, Wells sent all staff members a survey seeking positive and negative feedback on his job performance. He compiled the results into a 14-page document that was sent to the board on Feb. 21.
Many of the comments were contradictory — one teacher likes his daily updates and new ideas while another asks him to stop spamming teacher inboxs and to slow down. But some do shed light on what was going on behind the scenes.
Here are just a few of the comments made in response to his request:
“You are too dictator-like. While you profess to have meetings to listen to all sides of the situation, you don’t actually listen. You have your opinions and don’t really consider the experts’ view. ... When a new superintendent was hired, we hoped for someone who would take his time making decisions before implementing new procedures; I don’t believe we’ve found the right person yet.”
“Many of the priorities you have set have not become part of a shared vision. This has resulted in confusion, and in some ways, resentment of what is perceived as your vision, and not our vision. ... Building administrators and teachers have shared concerns that you are not demonstrating support of the PLC work, and that it is not a priority for you.”
“At times, Cabinet and Admin. (sic) Council has (sic) felt that our opinion is not relative or considered. An example would be your written directive to Cabinet that you need and expect our support for bilingual education.”
Wells offered to resign Feb. 25 after sending a letter to Senchina and district attorney John Larsen pleading for more time to look for a new job.
“If I am able to acquire another position I would gladly resign. I do not feel I have been treated fairly by the board. I uprooted my family, purchased a home, and been active in the community,” he wrote. “I deserve better than the treatment I’ve received.”
Wells also expressed concern about damage to his career should it appear he was asked to resign or was fired.
“I will never be a superintendent in a 3A or 4A school. It’s a huge red flag and I will have a difficult time getting another position and will probably have to step out of education,” he wrote.
Wells, after asking for Senchina’s approval, sent an email to school staffers later that day notifying them of his intent to resign at that night’s board meeting. At the board meeting later that night, Senchina told reporters she was surprised that Wells had submitted the letter, and that he withdrew it.
Senchina wouldn’t comment on the emails, but said they only tell part of the story.
“What you are seeing is just the emails. What you are not seeing is the person-to-person communications and the emails that were pulled for other reasons,” she said.
Wells withdrew his resignation during the Feb. 25 meeting and thanked the board for its “full support.”
Two days later he was back in the board room, facing the reality that his time in Cedar Falls was coming to a close. As the board considered a motion to not renew his one-year contract, in part because he “failed to maintain the confidence of the board,” Wells asked board members to withdraw that motion, to allow him to resign.
The board voted 5-2 to accept his resignation effective June 30, with Brown and Williams dissenting.
More than 100 people attended that meeting.
In the days following the meeting, community members wrote letters supporting Wells to board members and The Courier. A Facebook page called “Keep Superintendent Mike Wells” had 157 likes as of Friday morning.
A petition asking the board to rehire Wells has about 275 signatures.
“My wife, Karen, and I met with Mike this morning regarding many items, and I was even more impressed with him then (sic) before we had met,” David Wilson, a parent, wrote in a letter to the board. “We, along with many other parents and community members, are extremely saddened by the fact that we are going to let him leave our community and school district.”
The board, however, is already well on its way to finding a new superintendent. If the board finds the right replacement, the new superintendent would likely be hired before the end of the school year.
Danielle Templeton, a Cedar Falls High School sophomore, understands that it may be too late to get Wells rehired, but she wanted the Board of Education to know that many in the community still supported him.
This week Templeton submitted a petition to the board with student, parent and community member signatures asking the board to consider re-instating Wells.
“If anything, I just want them to know how many people care about this,” she said. “It’s not one or two letters to the editor. This is more than 200 people.”