Trevis Mayfield photo

TREVIS MAYFIELD

PUBLISHER

The slowly unfolding and still-unexplained story of Christine Snell’s departure from the Maquoketa Community School District appears to be grinding toward its end.

Answers to many of the story’s important questions remain secret, known only to Snell, Superintendent Chris Hoover and, presumably, the school board. 

While taxpayers are the rightful owners of those answers, they are not in possession of them. And it’s not for a lack of interest.

No story in recent memory has generated a comparable amount of feedback. Everywhere our staffers go, people want to talk about this story. They tell us they want answers from the school district, and they encourage us to not give up on our reporting. Often, they share the rumors they’ve heard and, sometimes, believe to be true.

Our response is always the same.

We tell them we have published everything our reporting has proved out. We agree with them that the rest of the story should be told, but unless someone steps forward and speaks out or we figure out another way to get at the truth, the story will soon go dark. 

That does not mean it will fade from the public’s memory anytime soon. 

Some of the rumors swirling through the community are ugly. Many of them are almost certainly not true, but without a full explanation, they will hang over the district for years to come.

Last week, your hometown newspaper printed the settlement agreement the school district negotiated with Snell, who had been principal at the Maquoketa Middle School for the past nine years. In that lawyered-up document, the district agreed to pay Snell a settlement of $122,500 without explaining why.

The big, obvious question is this: What did that $122,500 buy? The district must be paying for something.

Of course, there are many other pieces of the puzzle that are also missing.

The story began to unfold in late July as rumors spread through the community that Snell was out as principal. Your hometown newspaper first reported on the story Aug. 4 when the school board posted a notice for a special meeting to interview candidates for the position of middle school principal. After the meeting, Hoover refused to answer questions about Snell’s status even though it was obvious she was being replaced.

On Aug. 8, this newspaper reported that a new principal had been hired for the middle school. The same week, we delivered an open-records request, making use of Iowa’s open-records law, for employment records pertaining to Snell.

Five days after the request was delivered, Hoover acknowledged through an email that Snell was still a district employee. When asked to explain Snell’s role, Hoover refused.

On Aug. 18, using information obtained through the records request, this newspaper reported that Snell had received a raise each year she worked for the district, and that her annual salary had grown from $70,000 in 2009 to $89,849. 

The next story, published Aug. 25, quoted Hoover explaining that annual raises have been granted to administrators automatically regardless of whether or not they received a favorable performance review. “You might have teachers [and administrators] whose evaluations are not to par over the year, but they still receive the same percentage raise as all the others,” Hoover said. 

Administrators, Hoover said, received the same raises as teachers even though they are not in the bargaining unit.  

Then, on Sept. 17, the school board voted unanimously – with no discussion – to approve a settlement in which Snell agreed to release the district from legal claims and the district agreed to pay her more than a year’s salary. The agreement also called for Hoover to write a letter of recommendation for Snell.

That recaps where the story is today, and where it may end. We hope there is more explanation in the future, but we don’t know from where it would come.

We frequently have been told that taxpayers are not entitled to an explanation because this is a “personnel matter.” The mere fact that the settlement involves a soon-to-be former employee, however, does not require that the reasons for the payout be kept secret, although it appears the district in the agreement voluntarily (and perhaps happily) agreed not to disclose any non-public information.  

Unless something changes, the public is going to be left with the knowledge that the school district made expensive mistakes, but it may not get an explanation of what those mistakes were. 

Because the administration has not acknowledged that it made mistakes – even though it is obvious that it did – there is no assurance of accountability or lessons learned.

Will better management practices be put in place in the future? Will raises continue to be granted to administrators regardless of their performance? Will the district fix whatever it is that caused its leadership to pay off a former employee to avoid a lawsuit?

We don’t doubt that members of the school board feel they have reasons for continuing to support the administration and for not providing more explanation, but the lack of transparency is eating away at public confidence in the district. 

We are confident that is not what board members want, but it appears that’s just the way it’s going to be.