Patrick Exner started work as Washburn High School principal on Monday, was put on leave on Tuesday, publicly accused as a cheater on Wednesday and lost his Washburn job Thursday.
His future in any capacity as a probationary employee of the district was unclear Thursday night, with district spokesman Stan Alleyne saying he was unable to answer that question.
Washburn parents got a voice mail Thursday night saying Exner would not return to the school after being put on leave earlier in the week pending an investigation of allegations raised in an e-mail to district leaders.
A resolution of Exner’s case remained unclear as late as 9 p.m. Thursday. Still, the district acted with uncharacteristic swiftness in announcing that Exner would not be keeping his job as the principal of the 1,200-student Washburn.
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson followed the voice mail with a statement saying, ”I have decided that he will no longer serve as Washburn principal. The issues surrounding Mr. Exner’s hiring have created an additional distraction that we cannot allow to continue. We are glad that the issue was brought to our attention, although we would have preferred to learn of any possible issues of concern during the hiring process and before the job offer was made.”
The episode leading to Exner’s departure began with an anonymous e-mail the district received Monday from an insider at Ubah Medical Academy in Hopkins, Exner’s previous employer. The e-mail accused him of changing student answers on a state graduation exit exam. State education officials confirmed that Ubah had reported a breach of test security in a mid-July report that named Exner as the school’s testing coordinator.
The Star Tribune obtained the e-mail on Tuesday and reported it after interviewing the sender, who professed a belief that Exner should not go unpunished for what the whistleblower saw as academic misconduct.
Exner hasn’t responded to Star Tribune attempts to obtain his comment.
By Thursday, parents were raising questions about the quality of the district’s search for a new Washburn principal. From a pool of 23 applicants, Exner was the only candidate forwarded to the school for a parent-teacher interview.
Johnson said the district “conducted a thorough hiring process for the Washburn principal position, including references calls, and nothing surfaced as a potential problem.” Experience candidate searchers said Thursday that checks on an applicant should go well beyond supplied references.
Critics have also questioned why the district didn’t catch the issue when it vetted Exner.
“I have questions of my own that I have to have answered, and I’m going to meet with the superintendent tomorrow to get them answered,” school board Chairman Alberto Monserrate said Thursday.
The job Exner filled opened in April when Carol Markham-Cousins was reassigned after a turbulent year at Washburn that involved a doll-hanging incident, and a walkout and sit-in by some students involving the athletic director post.
“Starting in April is kind of late,” said Ken La Croix, a former Hastings superintendent who specializes in school administrator searches.
Moreover, this year was an applicant’s market for principals, said Charlie Kyte, a former Northfield superintendent and director of the state school administrators group, who now aids searches. “There were quite a few principal openings, and I know that quite a few superintendents were scrambling” to fill them, Kyte said.
Add the turmoil at Washburn, where Markham-Cousins and her approach to academic equity caused divisions in parental ranks. “These candidates were saying, ‘Hmm, there’s been a lot of trouble there — fair or unfair — and they applied elsewhere,’ ” Kyte said.
But the biggest factor in the minds of some parents was a district search for the principal that several characterized as not sufficiently ambitious.
“I am surprised and dismayed that given four months only one candidate could be found to bring to the stakeholders group,” said parent Margaret Richardson. “I read from that that the search was either too hasty or it was not truly a nationwide search.”
“It’s a really sad process. It’s really hard to believe,” said another parent, Jeanne Massey, who felt that the school deserved a more ambitious national search.
Johnson said Assistant Principal Linda Conley will serve as interim principal, with support from Assistant Principal Nilo Guanzon and temporary assistance from Craig Vana, a retired principal. Johnson invited parents to a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday to learn about the upcoming year.