Former Peach Springs superintendent leaves problems behind him

KINGMAN - Eugene Thomas officially began his new position Monday as superintendent of the Tuba City Unified School District by taking the day off for personal business.

Three attempts to contact Thomas over the past week, including one Monday to pose questions about financial problems in two districts he previously worked for and several other problems in Peach Springs Unified School District at which he last worked, failed.

Delbert Goldtooth, human resources manager for the TCUSD, said Friday that the district's governing board offered Thomas a two-year contact as superintendent on May 16. Asked how extensive a background investigation was done on Thomas, Goldtooth said, "The recruitment and background check was done by the Arizona School Boards Association."

John Gordon, director of leadership development, said the ASBA does background searches and reference checks of administrative candidates through contacts of previous employers.

However, he added checks do not include most recent/current employers, so anything positive or negative in job performance during Thomas' time at Peach Springs would not be added to the record until after hiring at Tuba City.

Suzi Neergaard was the music teacher for the PSUSD during the period of January through June 1, 2007. She wrote a letter dated April 30 to Phillip Williams, deputy associate of school finance with the Arizona Department of Education, in which she stated a number of "concerns" about district operations.

In turn, Williams passed along the letter from Neergaard to people able to investigate each concern. He also suggested Neergaard contact the offices of the state Auditor General and Attorney General.

Neergaard alleges that Proposition 301 funds paid to teachers in several installments annually were "intermingled" with general fund money.

Prop. 301 is an education funding initiative approved by voters in November 2000. It takes a percentage of tobacco revenues and puts them into classrooms and teacher pay.

A former district employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said Thomas routinely "juggled accounts," directing the business manager when and where to move money around.

"Go into board meeting minutes and you'll find (Thomas) always blamed (the business manager, who no longer works there) for the problems."

End-of-year checks issued June 1 to 28 employees were not paid at the time due to insufficient funds in the account against which they were written. Chase Bank had to issue the district a $200,000 line of credit to meet payroll obligations in June.

Vince Yanez, executive director with the state Board of Education, said Thursday he has heard of allegations of financial mismanagement in the PSUSD. He was going to check for further information with the school financial services department.

However, he did not return calls Friday or Monday to the Daily Miner.

In addition, Neergaard alleges failure to pay teachers on time or other reasons led to the sixth- and fourth-grade teachers twice being replaced, along with the loss of a high school guidance counselor, English teacher, high school science and math teachers, music teacher, school nurse, two special education teachers and a speech therapist.

"Hardly two weeks went by when a teacher did not disappear," Neergaard said. "The students often said it's because we're so mean that we can't keep any teachers.

"There have been 41 staff members who resigned, been forced to quit or been fired since Thomas came there."

Neergaard further alleges Thomas hired non-certified replacements as special education teachers and that "half the school is non-credentialed."

Collette Chapman, deputy associate superintendent in the Exceptional Student Services Department of the ADE, was contacted Friday.

"The Peach Springs district office was closed Friday when I tried to call," Chapman said. "We have a director going up there Monday to see if there is any basis for Ms. Neergaard's allegations about special education.

"In April when their special education program was monitored, we noted they had one special education teacher certified and one with an emergency certificate, which is OK. She wrote her letter later and that is what we need to check on."

Neergaard said she kept an inventory of music department items found broken and missing instruments.

She went to Thomas about the matter and he became enraged and warned her not to go the school board about it, she said.

"I told him you work for the board, I work for the board and it has a right to know about this, so I'm going to the board," Neergaard said.

She filed a grievance with the clerk of the board and received a response dated April 5 in the form of a notice of administrative leave with pay. Security personnel removed her from school property, Neergaard said.

The notice begins, "The school has received reliable reports that you have engaged in misconduct, including but not limited to failure to maintain proper fingerprint clearance and teaching certification."

It goes on to say she remains a school employee with full pay and benefits. However, she is to have no contact in person, by mail, e-mail or phone with anyone working in the district and must surrender all school property (i.e. cell phones, credit cards) signed out to her.

She did not receive a final Prop. 301 payment to which she said she is entitled and wondered why that is since the notice further states, "Your being placed on administrative pay with pay is not a disciplinary action."

Neergaard produced a certified evaluation done on her in the spring. It encompasses four areas and has a total of 41 criteria. She received a score of 2, the highest possible, in 40 of the categories, with the other being not applicable.

Jan Pentek, ADE director of teacher certification, was contacted.

She could not find a valid Arizona fingerprint card on Neergaard in the agency's database, nor could Mike Timmerman, manager of the applicant-processing group with the Department of Public Safety, find one.

"I have filed for an Arizona card and have a reciprocal card with the state of Idaho that is valid until April 2008," Neergaard said.

Pentek said Neergaard does hold a valid reciprocal provisional secondary teaching certificate that expires April 10, 2008.

Neergaard and the anonymous source both said the PSUSD Governing Board twice tried to fire Thomas but backed down when he threatened a lawsuit or some other negative consequence.

Thomas previously worked as executive director for Dilcon Community School in Winslow. A story appearing June 27, 2001, in the Gallup Independent related problems there involving Thomas.

Dilcon chapter members held an emergency meeting in which they passed a resolution permitting about $19,500 in chapter housing discretionary funds to be used to pay employees not paid in recent months. Those funds are normally applied for weatherization purposes.

In addition, Dilkon Chapter membership voted 28-1 with 11 abstentions to evict Thomas from the house where he resided on school property.

"The school board's administrative hearing officer, Larry Foster, recently ruled Thomas violated school board policy by not following proper procedures before expending school funds on such projects as the purchase of special education trailers and a schoolwide electrical upgrade," the story stated. "Prior to Foster's ruling, during the May 25 administrative hearing, Thomas argued that the former school board had consented to all his requested expenditures in excess of $20,000."

The whereas section of the resolution blames Thomas for spending in excess of $650,000 in school funds without board approval, adding that "this unauthorized spending by Eugene Thomas was not budgeted by the school (and) thus caused the current school financial difficulties."

Thomas countered that the school board amassed sizable travel and meeting debts, along with attorney's fees after he was placed on paid administrative leave in November 2000.

The school contended all of its debts occurred while Thomas was in charge.

Principal Carlos Hernandez of Dilcon Community School was contacted. However, he said he could not speak on the past problems.

Neergaard said she is in the process of moving to Minnesota and has no agenda here. She simply wants people to be aware of the problems that follow Thomas wherever he works.