Tukwila School Board investigates charges against superintendent
By SARAH KEHOE
Tukwila Reporter Reporter
April 19, 2012 · 3:37 PM
Tukwila School Board members hope the public keeps an open mind during the investigation of discrimination complaints against Tukwila superintendent Ethelda Burke.
“We want the community to focus on what is important,” said Mark Wahlstrom, board president, in an interview last week.
“We have a lot of challenges here and while I have never seen a staff so dedicated to serving kids, we cannot do a half job while the other half is distracted by events. The kids here deserve and need our full attention. We will make any decision that needs to be made to keep the schools here operating for their benefit,” he said.
Nine employees hired a lawyer file complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and called for Burke’s immediate suspension.
Employees from vice principals, to teachers, to dispatchers have a story about the comments they’ve endured. Some black staff members claim they were called “slaves” by Burke, who is also black.
Burke did not respond to requests from the Tukwila Reporter for an interview.
The board placed Burke in paid administrative leave in March, while it investigates discrimination complaints brought against her. The investigation could take three weeks.
“I am not now defending nor have I ever defended Ethelda against any allegation that has been made; but to be clear, at this time Ethelda has not been found guilty of anything and to my knowledge we have received only one EEOC complaint to which the district has been asked to respond,” Wahlstrom said.
Wahlstrom noted the particular complaint was not about her language but about her evaluation and a job reference for an individual employee.
“We have heard the other allegations and are seeking to understand them through an investigation, but we do not yet have the results of this investigation,” Wahlstrom said. “My intention to treat all parties fairly. We need to hear all sides. If action by the board is merited, it will be taken.”
Wahlstrom pointed out Burke has made many positive changes for the district since her arrival in 2007. Improvements include establishing Phone Messengers in multiple languages and through List Serv, so parents can instantly be informed when there is an issue at a school.
“She has also put funds together to purchase curriculum and add staff in targeted areas against a backdrop of funding cuts,” Wahlstrom said. “Over the last four years the district has moved forward in being better able to serve the kids that make up our neighborhoods.”
The board named Mellody Matthes, the district’s assistant superintendent, as interim superintendent while Burke is on leave. The board also authorized Wahlstrom to oversee the district’s response to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, including supervision of the investigation of these complaints by the district’s legal counsel, the firm of Dionne and Rorick.
The EEOC is conducting an investigation of its own, which will follow its receipt of the district’s response to the complaints, according to Nina Melencio, the district’s executive director of human resources.
“We are taking this very seriously,” Wahlstrom said. “The board has over the years repeatedly reaffirmed our commitment to an open and diverse school district. One of the board’s goals we have had for years is to provide safe and civil schools for staff and students. We keep that on the list because we believe that students can’t learn and staff can’t support them to their potential when the environment is not safe and supportive for all.”
Wahlstrom said the board felt it needed to place Burke on leave in order for students and staff to return to school as normal.
“We were not getting the focus we needed in the district around the kids as we tried to work through the issues that we were being asked to consider,” Wahlstrom said. “We had a number of student walkouts and we had news media at the admin building every day. The staff at the middle school, high school and the administration building were under a lot of stress, and it was my feeling that, with Ethelda there and this churn going on around the schools, we would not be able to give our best effort everyday.”
Burke came to Tukwila from Tacoma School District as an interim superintendent in 2007. The Tukwila School Board hired Burke as the full-time superintendent in 2008.
Burke worked more than 30 years in the Tacoma School District. She started as a high-school teacher and worked her way up to high-school principal jobs and eventually as the deputy superintendent.Contact Tukwila Reporter Reporter Sarah Kehoe at firstname.lastname@example.org.