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Christina School Board removes superintendent at 2:45am, public calls board an 'embarrassment'

Delaware Public Media

At 2:45 a.m. Wednesday, the Christina School District board voted to remove its current Superintendent Dan Shelton despite public backlash.

The vote comes after a June ruling from the Department of Justice (DOJ) that the board has made repeated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) violations, and the Delaware General Assembly voted to require a member of DOJ to monitor the board's meetings for the next year.

Christina Board of Education FOIA violations and monitoring by DOJ

Five members of the state legislature, including State Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton (D-Newark), State Rep. Paul Baumbach (D-Newark), State Rep. Cyndie Romer (D-Newark), State Rep. Sophie Philips (D-Bear) and State Rep. Eric Morrison (D-Glasgow), filed a FOIA violation with DOJ, alleging the board held unannounced executive sessions — private meetings not open to the public — for invalid reasons, voted and discussed matters related to the superintendent's tenure without proper notice and that Robert's Rules of Order and board policies were repeatedly violated.

In a decision released June 26, 2024, Deputy Attorney General Dorey Cole concluded the board violated FOIA by holding an unannounced executive session for an improper purpose and by failing to provide adequate notice in its March and May meeting agendas for the votes regarding the contract rescission and vote of no confidence in the superintendent.

Although, DOJ found no violation with respect to the notice of the executive sessions on the March board meeting agenda and the notice for the vote on the employee suspension on the same agenda

"In this case, we recommend that the Board reconsider those noncompliant items, including the ratification of any votes, at a future public meeting held in strict accordance with FOIA," Cole wrote. "If the contract rescission involves a superintendent, principal, or staff in which the public interest is of similar significance, the Board is recommended to discuss and ratify the open session item on the contract in a future public meeting after providing appropriate public notice with greater specificity."

Additionally, the state legislature included epilogue language in its fiscal year 2025 Grants-in-Aid bill instructing DOJ to "monitor the meetings of the Christina School Board for one year, commencing July 1, 2024. The monitoring will focus on transparency, adherence to public information laws, and other issues that may arise."

DOJ is required to issue a report to the General Assembly on July 1, 2025, including "a synopsis of any FOIA matters observed and any recommendations for changes necessary to ensure the proper operation" of the board.

Residency concerns with board member Naveed Baqir

During the attendance roll call of Tuesday's meeting, which bled into the early hours of Wednesday morning, board member Doug Manley called a point of order alleging board member Naveed Baqir is no longer a resident of the Christina School District due to prolonged residency outside the country.

Manley noted Baqir has not been physically present for any general board meeting, including Wednesday's meeting, which he attended via virtual webinar, and this year and has only been physically present for one policy meeting on Jan. 4, 2024.

Manley went on to argue under Delaware law, Baqir is not a resident and is thus not a school board member and therefore his votes for the remainder of the night should not be considered.

Board President Donald Patton ignored Manley's point of order, saying he was "out of order" and responded, "So what I'm not going to do tonight, is entertain this nonsense."

Patton's comments were followed with outcries from the audience, prompting the president to threaten to clear the room if disruptions continued.

Board member Monica Moriak argued the point of order needed to be addressed, but Patton said discussions on Baqir's residency was not on the agenda.

"We spoke with the attorney today, and there is nothing that prohibits the gentleman that you all are talking about, Dr. Baqir, whose kids go to our district, who has a house and lives in our district — we know the situation, why he's where he is. So for us to come out here and do this is just kind of disrespectful," Patton said, effectively ending the conversation.

Public opposition to the superintendent's removal and concerns with the board's behavior

Members of the public spoke for over an hour during public testimony, with the majority of comments being in opposition of putting current Superintendent Dan Shelton on administrative leave.

Three testifiers called the school board an "embarrassment," including one of the district's first grade teachers Katie Ghione.

"The board wants to spend a lot of money to remove someone, and we don't even know why. This district — it's embarrassing that the DOJ is now watching you. I'm embarrassed. I hope you are too," she said.

Several members of the public brought up questions as to why Shelton's removal was being considered, noting there has been no cause for concern alerted to members of the district.

"In 2022, [Shelton] was named Delaware State Superintendent of the Year, yet you want to dismiss him? This makes no sense to me." said Harry Ellen Minahan, who taught for 18 years at Bancroft Elementary School.

State Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton explained to Delaware Public Media prior to the meeting that the board has not conducted a performance evaluation of Shelton that would provide measurable reasons for his dismissal.

"There's nothing wrong with putting an employee on paid administrative leave when they're clearly not meeting goals or standards of the job, but putting a superintendent on paid leave for a year with no evaluation, no metrics for success — frankly, it's irresponsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars."

She expressed concerns with teachers leaving the district following the superintendent's removal, and noted "numerous staff and board members" have come to her sharing "really heinous behavior" from the School Board President Donald Patton.

State Rep. Paul Baumbach also questioned Patton's leadership during public comment, noting the district is likely to go to referendum in the next 12-18 months: "Is the board president striving to torpedo the district's ability to get such a referendum passed? Seems like a great plan. Einstein's definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You don't need to be an Einstein to know that this board needs completely different leadership."

State Rep. Cyndie Romer also spoke at the meeting, thanking DOJ for their presence at the meeting, adding, "In the past hour, we have already witnessed new FOIA violations."

Board leadership elections cause turmoil

Following public comment, the board held elections on its president and vice president positions.

Vice President Alethea Smith-Tucker re-nominated current president Donald Patton, but newly-elected board member Amy Trauth attempted to nominate herself as well.

Patton opted not to entertain Trauth's motion, although Superintendent Dan Shelton, who also serves as the board's executive secretary, noted if Patton failed to receive enough votes, a new nomination could be considered.

Patton ended up winning the presidency by a vote of 4-3.

Trauth promptly nominated herself for vice president at the same time Patton was attempting to nominate Smith-Tucker, motivating Smith-Tucker to contest who spoke first.

Trauth's motion was ultimately considered first, but failed 3-3 with one abstention.

Y.F. Lou was nominated for vice president but declined due to the "current dynamic of the board and political power plays."

Moriak then opted to nominate Manley for the position, saying: "We as a board need to clearly think about some level of change in leadership, and I think it's criminal that we have decided, apparently, that what we were doing this past year was really good, and we want to continue."

Manley's nomination failed 3-3-1, and Smith-Tucker was ultimately re-instated as vice president by a vote of 4-3.

Votes to remove the superintendent and not renew his contract

Prior to giving his superintendent's report, Shelton made a personal statement expressing confusion with the board's intention to vote for his removal.

"For months, I have remained relatively silent allowing for the disappointing display of political theatrics and the inappropriate use of these meetings. Each step taken over the last few months I believed was ‘the end’ and we could stop with the distractions and focus on the real work — the work that as educators we came into this profession to do," Shelton said.

"I have sat quietly as both my integrity, and by extension, the integrity of my team has been unfairly attacked often in unprofessional ways that lacked evidence or due process. We all sit here tonight wondering what and why actions will be taken and specific items were placed on the agenda this evening."

When it came to vote on not renewing Shelton's contract, Moriak echoed the public's concerns as to why the motion was even being considered.

"There's been no information, this particular item and the one after it was placed on the agenda at 8-something in the morning, the day that the agenda needed to be posted. No information has been shared with the board as a whole. There have been some opinions that they just think this is a good idea, and the employee in question has never been part of any discussions about any part of this. So I have a concern about the board's actions and how this employee is being treated because it does violate Title 29," Moriak said.

Trauth also expressed frustrations with removing Shelton from his post: "I think in addition to scaring off high quality educators from wanting to work here, it's also gonna scare off any reasonable competent person to want to lead this district."

Manley asked repeatedly what the reasoning behind the vote was, to which Patton responded the information was privileged.

“I’m not going to say it because I’ve already said it’s privileged personnel information. I have a list right here of eight things, and we discussed these things... I’m not reading anything.”

Manley eventually read a letter from the board addressed to Shelton alerting him of a three-day suspension in March, which Shelton says is currently under appeal.

The letter expressed concerns with not including a recommended motion on the lead constable from board member Naveed Baqir on a meeting agenda, said Shelton was "at least reckless or at worst deceitful" to the board regarding the extension of his contract, cited "poor relationships" with current board members, engaging in "significant expenditures" and cited poor processes of the human resources department.

The motion to not renew Shelton's contract, which ends on June 30, 2025, passed 4-3.

During consideration of placing Shelton on administrative leave, Lou provided some clarity, mentioning a complaint filed against Shelton from a current employee.

"So there is there is a complaint that is being filed against Dr. Shelton, against an employee of the school district, and we also have a report that has been coming back. So what we're going to do is we're going to actually exercise due process to put the individual on administrative leave until we are able to finish with the current ongoing investigation. And this is to protect the employee from retaliation."

Moriak noted that report was received Wednesday afternoon by the board and questioned why Shelton's removal was put on the agenda a week before the report was received.

She also noted the report concluded that the complaint could not be corroborated.

Manley read an excerpt from the report, but did not include the name of the employee who filed the complaint.

“The investigation was able to corroborate a non-specific allegation of a single prior incident where as alleged in the complaint, Dr. Shelton raised his voice at [employee]. However, while the investigation confirmed that there was an unpleasant interaction between Dr. Shelton and [employee] on June 3 that left [employee] deeply upset, the investigation could not confirm on June 3, 2024, Dr. Shelton yelled at [employee] or moved into [employee]’s space in an intimidating or threatening fashion. Similarly, the investigation did not reveal information sufficient to support a finding that the alleged events of June 3 were part of a broader pattern of conduct by Dr. Shelton."

Patton ignored a motion to table the motion, as well as a motion to adjourn, and the vote to place the superintendent on administrative leave ultimately passed 4-3.

Moriak questioned who would succeed Shelton, questioning why a predecessor is not already in place, to which Patton said a meeting will be held July 18 to discuss future leadership.

Before residing in Dover, Delaware, Sarah Petrowich moved around the country with her family, spending eight years in Fairbanks, Alaska, 10 years in Carbondale, Illinois and four years in Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2023 with a dual degree in Journalism and Political Science.