Howell, School Board to meet
Superintendent had no specific reason for searching e-mails
July 11, 2007
Steamboat Springs — Superintendent Donna Howell is scheduled to meet with the Steamboat Springs School Board tonight for her performance evaluation. The evaluation comes two days after the board released transcripts of interviews conducted with Howell and other district employees about how controversial e-mails were obtained from the school computer of John DeVincentis.
During those interviews, Howell says she had no specific reason for ordering a district employee to download files from DeVincentis’ computer. DeVincentis, who was the principal of Strawberry Park Elementary School at the time, is now a School Board member facing a recall effort because of the content of those e-mails.
The School Board launched an investigation into how those e-mails were obtained and given to the Pilot & Today.
School Board President Denise Connelly said Tuesday that Howell’s performance evaluation is part of a standard, bi-annual review, but she noted the board has concerns about some of Howell’s statements to Grand Junction attorney Earl Rhodes, who conducted the e-mail investigation.
“There were some conclusions that came out of the investigation report, and that will play a part in what we will talk about,” said Connelly. She did not say whether Howell’s job was in jeopardy.
“Since we haven’t talked about (firing Howell) as a board, I can’t say either way,” she said.
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The board released a 157-page document Monday of interview transcripts conducted by Rhodes during the course of his investigation. Howell was interviewed twice during the investigation, and the transcripts reveal variances in her responses.
In Howell’s first interview with Rhodes, conducted May 2, the superintendent stated she accessed DeVincentis’ computer because of his pattern of disrespectful behavior, fiscal irresponsibility and abuse of power during the year before his retirement in June 2005.
“I won’t go through all of it, but he was just being critical of everybody, disrespectful of colleagues, to me,” Howell told Rhodes, according to the transcripts. She also said she was concerned about damage control for whoever would succeed DeVincentis as principal at Strawberry Park.
Howell also said Director of Finance and Operations Dale Mellor informed her DeVincen-tis was processing an unusually large amount of invoices in May 2005, which the district later discovered amounted to $10,000 more than what he had budgeted.
“He continued to spend and process invoices,” she said. “I am trying to protect the district assets, you know, and there was, in fairness, there was autonomy at the building level to spend, but it was more of a professional issue. You want to leave some money for the next person in case they see something that they need.”
Mellor told Rhodes that DeVincentis’ expenditure reports were available in the school district’s computer system and did not require access to his laptop computer.
“All my records, all the live (financial) data is in this office,” Mellor said. “I would have, no, in fact (DeVincentis) would have no records on his computer other than Excel spreadsheets that I would have sent him.”
In a second interview with Rhodes, Howell acknowledged that no financial information would have been on DeVincentis’ computer. She also told Rhodes during the follow-up interview that she wasn’t looking for financial information – or anything specific – when she had a district employee access the laptop.
“I was concerned in terms of the spending that was brought to my attention,” she said. “There were other behaviors and other communications that he sent to me that also gave me a general concern in terms of behaviors, decisions, actions and so forth and so on. : I wasn’t looking for anything specific.”
Later in the interview, Howell grows increasingly frustrated by some of Rhodes’ questions, particularly ones she said she already answered during the first interview.
The transcripts also reveal that Howell asked former district technology director Cathleen Nardi to access DeVincentis’ computer after hours. According to statements made by Dave Holloway, the district’s network support specialist, Nardi requested his help in retrieving documents from DeVincentis’ computer.
“She told me that she was concerned if she didn’t deliver that she was concerned for her position,” Holloway told Rhodes. “I know that she was very distressed at this. We did not want to do it but we felt like we had to do it. It was a request from above.”
Howell also accused DeVin-centis of offering unapproved incentives to Montessori teacher candidate Jennifer Fox in the spring of 2005.
“And what he had done was offer more than what we offered the other (candidate),” she said. “I wanted to be consistent with the next teacher, and he had offered her more than I offered the first teacher.”
DeVincentis countered How-ell’s accusation in his interview with Rhodes, claiming Fox didn’t accept the position because of a conflict with the superintendent.
“I got a call from this teacher saying that she wasn’t going to come here because basically Donna had said to her, ‘Well, this is all the money you are getting and we have somebody else coming from Michigan,'” he said. “What happened was that teacher refused to come there because of Donna.”
Fox’s correspondence with Rhodes conflicts with both accounts.
In a telephone message to Rhodes, Fox said she was never offered a contract from DeVincentis and that she never spoke with Howell after her interview. She said she withdrew her application because her husband could not find a job in Steamboat Springs.
The transcripts also reveal the contentious relationship bet-ween Howell and DeVincentis. The relationship grew so bad Mellor told Rhodes he would remain close to Howell’s office when DeVincentis came to meet with the superintendent.
“I feel that, that she was scared for her safety, because of when she would meet with Dr. DeVincentis, as a principal, she wanted somebody here in the room or very close by,” said Mellor, who noted Howell never explicitly asked him to stay nearby.
Howell tells Rhodes she was trying to work with DeVincentis to make sure his last year as principal was a successful one, but that he repeatedly was disrespectful and unprofessional in e-mails and other interactions with Howell and others.
Howell’s strained relationship with board member Jeff Troeger also is evident in the transcripts. Both Troeger and Connelly provided statements to Rhodes in an attempt to provide some context behind the e-mail controversy.
“Howell was brought in by the (Board of Education) to consolidate power, and to some extent rein in John (DeVincentis),” Troeger said. “Howell spent the fall 2004 (to) spring 2006 trying to convince the board to dismiss Dr. DeVincentis.”
Troeger noted he was not in favor of Howell’s four-year contract, signed in March 2005.
“I objected to the terms as not being in the district’s best interest,” he said in his statement. “Dr. Howell answered my objections with an implied threat to quit.”
Howell said she shared the e-mails with then-board president Paula Stephenson, who requested her own copies of them. Howell said it has been protocol for her to share such information with the board president.
Howell is on vacation in Canada and was not available for comment, but she previously stated she hopes the release of the investigation report and the interview transcripts will help put the controversy behind the board.
Also in her interviews with Rhodes, Howell defended her right to access DeVincentis’ computer. Ultimately, Rhodes determined that Howell had a legal right to access the e-mails, but Troeger has questioned the ethics of the decision.
Howell said ultimately the responsibility for the e-mail controversy falls on her shoulders, but she defended what she did as what was best for the district.
“I operate using professional judgment and interpretation in particular situations to fulfill my responsibility to this district,” she said. “I also have a responsibility to this district and to the next person to set them up for success.”
Connelly said that the board has yet to meet to discuss the transcripts, but she stressed the board stands by the accuracy of the report.
“I think we have all been really consumed with the evaluation and investigation,” she said. “We all have our own perspectives. We haven’t shared them yet. We will just see what people bring up.”
– To reach Mike McCollum, call 871-4208
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