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Departing Hazelwood superintendent was caught between friction on board

Grayling Tobias, former Hazelwood superintendent
Ferguson Commission

Grayling Tobias, who has retired as superintendent of the Hazelwood school district after being placed on administrative leave, decided to give up the job to help ease continuing strife among board members, a longtime former board member said Wednesday.

Mark Behlmann, who served on the board for 18 years before leaving to run -- unsuccessfully -- for mayor of Florissant this year, said in an interview that the Hazelwood board is basically divided into pro-Tobias and anti-Tobias factions. Though Tobias had had no plans to leave — he had even passed up the chance to sign up for an early retirement bonus earlier this year — Behlmann said it was clear that Tobias' tenure was going to end, one way or another.

"I think he could see the writing on the wall," Behlmann said. "And to save himself a lot of aggravation and to save the school district aggravation, he said it’s time to retire.

“There are no grounds to fire the man.”

Tobias went on a month-long paid medical leave in mid-April; that changed to administrative leave last month. Then, after a closed session Tuesday, the Hazelwood school board released a brief statement that had no comment about Tobias’ three years as superintendent or the reasons for his retirement. It read in its entirety:

After working in education for more than 30 years, Dr. Grayling Tobias has announced his retirement as superintendent of the Hazelwood School District. The Board of Education has approved his retirement and has appointed Dr. Ingrid Clark-Jackson as interim superintendent of schools for the 2015-16 school year. A search for a permanent superintendent will be announced at a later date.

By Wednesday morning, all mention of Tobias had been removed from the Hazelwood website.

Employees of the district had been offered an early retirement incentive program last year, but Tobias did not file for it by the January deadline. A spokeswoman for the district said Wednesday that Tobias will not be receiving any separation settlement because his retirement is effective at the end of June. 

Desiree Whitlock, president of the school board, did not respond to a request for comment about Tobias’ departure.

Behlmann, who praised Tobias’ leadership, said that board members had taken sides over his job performance, and those disagreements have hurt the district. Tension in north St. Louis County following last August’s shooting of Michael Brown has not helped the situation either, he said.

Through it all, Behlmann said, Tobias has shown caring and concern for the part of town where he grew up.

“He was engaged and involved and informed in the community,” he said. “He pulled the community together.

“He is a very conscientious man. He cares about all — capital A, capital L, capital L — of the children. Others claim they are in favor of all children, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

Behlmann said he spoke with Tobias after his retirement was announced.

“He seemed comfortable with the fact that he was retiring,” Behlmann said. “He basically wants the best for the district. His comment was, the more my name is left out of everything, the better off everything will be.”

Tobias did not respond to a request for comment about his departure.

Tension on the school board

Diane Livingston, who heads the Hazelwood branch of the Missouri National Education Association, said she was surprised by Tobias’ retirement. She noted that he had not taken advantage of the early separation agreement incentive offered by the district, under which he would have been entitled to a financial settlement if he had filed papers by Jan. 5.

She wouldn’t speculate on what issues may have caused tension between the board and the superintendent and pointed out that the new superintendent would be the third one in less than five years.

“We would hope we will get one who will lead us for quite a while,” Livingston said.

"There are no grounds to fire the man." -- Former Hazelwood school board member Mark Behlmann

She noted that a two-year contract that had been presented by the board as its final offer was ratified by the teachers in a 57-43 percent vote, indicating a lack of enthusiasm for the longer-than-normal pact.

Behlmann said he hopes that the change in the superintendent’s office will ease the tension in Hazelwood. But, he added, that may be too much to ask.

“A board of education is there to make policy,” he said. “We are custodians for the people. We are not the people who should run a school district, though some people who have degrees in education think they know better. That creates problems. That creates conflict.”

And, he added, Tobias’ retirement is likely to stir up new questions.

“It’s not going to be just left alone,” he said. “Patrons in the district are interested in where their tax dollars are going, and who’s to blame. That what this society is all about, who’s to blame.”

Tobias’ predecessor

Since Tobias became superintendent in 2012, Hazelwood’s score on its annual performance review has dipped slightly but remains well within accredited range. In 2013, it received 85.4 percent of the possible points on its annual review; last year, that fell to 82.9 percent. This year’s scores are due in August.

In 2014, after two years in the job, Tobias’ contract as superintendent was extended. But minutes from the meeting where the board approved the extension show the vote was 4-3. One of the four members who voted in his favor was Behlmann, whose seat on the board was won in April by Richard Roberts. He did not respond to a request for comment about Tobias.

Tobias, 59, came to Hazelwood after working in a variety of positions in the Parkway and Riverview Gardens school districts. In Hazelwood, he was director of secondary education, assistant superintendent for accountability and assistant superintendent for learning before becoming superintendent in 2012.

Ingrid Clark-Jackson, interim Hazelwood superintendent
Credit Hazelwood school district
Ingrid Clark-Jackson, interim Hazelwood superintendent

He also was named to the Ferguson Commission last year.

He succeeded Steve Price who left his job as superintendent before the end of his contract. According to the terms of his separation agreement, the district paid him a total of $437,047.

Ingrid Clark-Jackson, the district’s interim superintendent, came to Hazelwood in 2006 after working in the Ritenour school district. She was principal at Hazelwood West High School before becoming an associate superintendent of human resources. Earlier this year, she had announced her own retirement from the district under the early retirement incentive, but that now is on hold.

Other departures

The departure of Tobias is the latest in a recent series of shakeups at the top of school districts in north St. Louis County.

Earlier this year, Ty McNichols, who became superintendent of schools in Normandy in 2013, abruptly left that position after the district’s appointed board began searching for new leadership. Charles Pearson, who had been president of the Normandy board, was named interim superintendent and recently was hired to fill the slot on a permanent basis.

In November 2013, Art McCoy was placed on administrative leave from his job as superintendent in Ferguson-Florissant because of unspecified “differences in focus and philosophy.”  After several months, during which the board there issued charges against McCoy that have never been made public, the two sides came to an agreement that led to his resignation in March 2014.

Sudden departures of high-profile superintendents are not limited to the St. Louis area.

Earlier this week, in Joplin, Mo., C.J. Huff left his job as superintendent after a period of disagreement with the board there. Huff had attracted attention for getting schools up and running after the tornado that devastate the southwest Missouri town in May 2011, and he later was one of five finalists for the job of commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Missouri.

Huff’s settlement in Joplin includes payments of $175,275 through December 2016, $263,000 when he retires on June 30, and another $50,000 to assist Joplin’s new superintendent through July 2016. He may not file suit against the district, and neither he nor the district may criticize the other in public.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.