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Monday, April 23, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Principal's downfall came at a high cost

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

In the seven years Mark Robertson was principal at Lake Washington High School, he hired his sister against district policy, fired a football coach who later received a $60,000 settlement, and was the focus of dozens of teacher complaints about his performance.

The district superintendent grew so dissatisfied with Robertson that last May he reassigned him to the central office.

There, one afternoon last August, Robertson checked his personal e-mail and clicked on a pornographic newsletter to which he subscribed. It was the final misstep.

In an agreement with the district, Robertson resigned in November and collected the rest of his $108,456 annual salary through March. The district also agreed to withhold from potential employers details about Robertson's work problems, although this information is available through a public-records request.

Complaints to OSPI


Mark Robertson's case is one of 96 complaints the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction received about administrators and teachers in 2006, and one of seven complaints involving computer misuse, said Charles Schreck, OSPI's director of the office of professional practices. Six people's certificates were revoked, seven certificates were suspended, four people received an order of reprimand, and eight voluntarily surrendered their certificates. OSPI dismissed 11 complaints and it is still investigating 60 cases. Over the past three years, the agency has taken an average of 9.8 months to complete an investigation, Schreck said.

Robertson's story exemplifies challenges districts face when dealing with a low-performing school administrator.

A settlement is not uncommon in cases like these, in which issues of poor performance and misconduct are repeated, say those familiar with education-employment law.

The Robertson settlement ensured that the Lake Washington district avoided a legal fight that could have cost $100,000, said Janene Fogard, deputy superintendent.

"You're looking at paying the person for six to eight months to go through that [legal] process and also incurring all the legal costs," she said.

Often the best course is to encourage the person to seek employment elsewhere, education leaders say.

"Personnel issues and law is a complicated business," said Paul Rosier, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators. "It's only simple when it's blatant. And even if it's blatant, you have to investigate ... collect evidence and make sure to follow appropriate procedures."

Besides paying Robertson for five months, the district agreed to tell potential employers only details that are "expressly authorized" by Robertson, such as dates of employment, pay, job position and duties. Both sides agreed that "avoiding unnecessary disclosure of this agreement will serve to promote a smooth transition."

Even without a legal fight, Robertson cost the district more than $160,000, including settling a lawsuit by the football coach, lost revenue in rent from a church the school undercharged, the cost of an outside investigator, and the salary Robertson received while not working.

The district referred his case to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which is considering whether to suspend his principal's certificate.

Robertson said he believed he was under more scrutiny than other principals, though he didn't elaborate.

During a brief interview at his Seattle home, he said he thought he did a good job overall and that his problems were no different from those of other principals.

"I'm not saying I'm Mr. Perfect," said Robertson, 49. "I've moved on. We all have to live our own lives in the end."

Gains at the school

Robertson came to the 1,200-student Lake Washington High School in 1999, hired away from his job as assistant superintendent of the Washington D.C. Public Schools. He'd had experience in the state before, as principal of Seattle's Franklin High School.

During his tenure, Lake Washington performed well: Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores increased and the number of students taking Advanced Placement and honors courses grew, as did numbers of minority students going on to college.

"I think the environment at Lake Washington High School during Mark's tenure allowed these gains to be made," district spokeswoman Kathryn Reith said.

Robertson had a knack for connecting with students.

"He made himself visible in the student center, instead of sitting in his office," said Doug Lundvall, a Lake Washington social-studies teacher.

Performance problems

Along with Robertson's successes came problems.

Since 2002, the district teachers union received more complaints about Robertson than about any other principal.

About half of the teachers at the school, more than 30 people, "had concerns and raised questions" about Robertson, said Kevin Teeley, president of the Lake Washington Education Association. They complained about Robertson's performance, conduct and lack of leadership.

The association at most has received one or two complaints a year about other principals, Teeley said.

Documents from Robertson's personnel file, obtained through a public-records request, chronicle slipping performance over several years.

In August 2002, Robertson let his principal's certificate lapse, forcing vice principals working under him to take over some of his duties for two months. That same month, against district policy, Robertson hired his sister, Evelyn Robertson, paying her $2,000 to be a consultant during an Associated Student Body summer leadership camp. "I ran the leadership camp, and she happened to be one of the experts I brought on board," Robertson said of the hire.

Costly mistakes

Robertson's apparent lack of oversight cost the district tens of thousands of dollars, according to district records.

As principal, Robertson was in charge of rental agreements for groups using school space. The biggest of those groups is Antioch Bible Church, headed by pastor Ken Hutcherson. Robertson is a church member.

Hutcherson said the two agreed it was best for Robertson not to be involved in Antioch's rental agreement. A school staff member handled the contracts.

Still, the schedule Robertson approved for the 2002-2003 school year was not updated for three years, although the district increased fees during that time, said Reith, the district spokeswoman.

In 2005, the district discovered that Antioch had been undercharged by $1,100 to $1,400 a month. The estimated loss: $30,000.

Other groups that rented space also may have been undercharged, but the money lost would have been insignificant, Reith said.

Regardless of who handled the contract, Robertson was ultimately responsible, said deputy superintendent Fogard.

Football coach fired

In January 2006, head football coach Tim Tramp met with Robertson to go over a post-football season evaluation. At the end of the 20-minute meeting, Robertson fired Tramp as head coach. Tramp remained a teacher at the school.

Robertson said it was at his discretion as principal not to renew Tramp's contract and gave no other reason.

Tramp, who led the team to a league title in 2004, was shocked. In October, he filed a lawsuit against the district and Robertson, citing breach of contract and defamation.

Tramp's lawsuit claimed he was fired without warning and that Robertson had accused Tramp of treating African-American players differently from others. The accusation came out during grievance meetings with the district after the coach's dismissal. As part of a $60,000 settlement, Don Saul, the district superintendent, wrote a letter saying that allegations of player mistreatment were unfounded.

Written warnings

In May 2006, Saul wrote Robertson a letter of reprimand, the third written warning from the district about his performance.

"I no longer feel confident in your capacity to lead the LWHS community effectively and as my delegate in the role of principal," Saul wrote.

Robertson was reassigned to the district's central offices. Starting in July, he oversaw digital-resource development.

Within a few months, a new problem surfaced.

In August, the district investigated and dismissed a complaint that Robertson was too friendly with a student. As part of that inquiry, the district hired a consultant to examine Robertson's computer use.

The consultant found that Robertson had used his district computer to e-mail women via an online dating service and to e-mail romantic overtures to women who advertised tutoring services on a Web site.

The consultant questioned Robertson, who confirmed that he had used a district computer to access a pornographic newsletter. He should have used better judgment, Robertson said.

In September, the district placed Robertson on paid administrative leave.

He resigned in November, and the district agreed to pay him until the end of March.

Saul alerted OSPI's office of professional practices about Robertson's misuse of the district computer, a violation that can lead to suspension of a principal's certificate. OSPI's investigation could take months to wrap up, said Charles Schreck, director of the office of professional practices.

A background check on Robertson through OSPI's database would show he is under investigation, although that doesn't preclude a school district from hiring him, Schreck said. Potential employers who call the district offices will still learn only bare details of Robertson's time as principal at Lake Washington High School.

Robertson declined to talk about what he plans to do next.

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or rtuinstra@seattletimes.com

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