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Evergreen schools superintendent fired amid investigation into abuse of power and retaliation

The sign outside Evergreen Public Schools pictured July 29, 2020. The school was one of many to announce plans to start fall with online-only classes.
Troy Brynelson
The sign outside Evergreen Public Schools pictured July 29, 2020. The school was one of many to announce plans to start fall with online-only classes.

The Evergreen School Board fired Superintendent Mike Merlino on Wednesday, after placing him on paid leave on Dec. 8.

In a special meeting, school board members voted to fire Merlino without cause. The no-cause firing entitles Merlino, who was under contract until 2024, to receive about a year’s worth of salary: nearly $306,000.

Before his firing, Merlino faced allegations he’d abused his power to retaliate against colleagues and show favoritism to his girlfriend, who also worked at the district.

Emails obtained by OPB on Wednesday show at least one fellow administrator complained that Mike Merlino tried to give his girlfriend an “inappropriate promotion,” and would interfere on her behalf when she faced issues at work.

The emails do not name the girlfriend, and district officials have not spoken publicly about specific events that preceded Merlino’s firing.

After the complaints, the emails said, Merlino torpedoed the performance reviews of at least one administrator. The investigation found he threatened to fire employees who he said weren’t “team players.”

The emails, written between Evergreen school board members and a private investigator on Dec. 7, summarize an official investigation into Merlino. The emails do not say when the investigation began.

However, the emails do suggest the investigation began after two unnamed administrators filed complaints against Merlino sometime after his attempt to promote his girlfriend.

Efforts to reach Merlino, who landed on paid administrative leave a day after the emails, were not successful before publication. Evergreen School District is the largest in Southwest Washington.

The investigation, according to the emails, was conducted by Rick Kaiser, a Bellevue, Washington-based attorney who declined to comment to OPB for this article.

On Dec. 7, school board member Rachael Rogers emailed Kaiser to summarize the investigation.

According to the email, a fellow administrator told Merlino directly that his attempts to promote his girlfriend weren’t appropriate. When Merlino persisted, the administrator told the school board, who agreed with the other administrator.

“School board members agreed that it would be inappropriate for Mr. Merlino to promote his girlfriend,” Rogers wrote while summarizing the investigation.

Merlino knew the staffer told the board, according to the email. He reportedly “blamed” that employee, as well as the district’s legal counsel.

According to the email, Merlino stopped inviting the administrator to meetings. Multiple witnesses told Kaiser that Merlino disparaged the administrator who complained and treated her differently. And, despite giving her high marks in prior evaluations, he “prepared an evaluation … in which he gave her the lowest marks possible in most categories.” Kaiser described the review to the board as a “hatchet job.”

The email said Merlino asked the board to fire the employee “more than once.”

“She was alienated, marginalized and unfairly blamed by him for certain matters,” Rogers wrote in the investigation summary. “Mr. Merlino’s response was to deny any wrongdoing.”

Prior incidents also came into focus, according to the investigator’s report. In August 2020, the records said, Merlino’s girlfriend came under scrutiny at work for not properly recording absences on a district database. Merlino became involved and raised an issue with his girlfriend’s supervisor to board members.

“This is an abuse of power,” Rogers’ email said. “Instead of telling his girlfriend to discuss with her supervisor or appropriately raise the issue up the chain, he interjected himself into the situation and he went straight to the board.”

Merlino also reportedly tried to fire a separate investigator looking into a separate issue, according to the email. It’s unclear when that investigation occurred, but the email said it stemmed from a separate complaint about Merlino and a hiring.

Another incident occurred in May 2020, the email said. Merlino reportedly tried to fire a supervisor in his girlfriend’s department over disagreements around another employee’s recent termination.

“Mr. Merlino has said in his interviews with (the investigator) that he wants ‘team players’ to work for the district and specifically wants someone he can trust,” Rogers’ email said.

At the conclusion of the email, Rogers wrote that Kaiser described all the allegations as “a decent case of a whistleblower being retaliated against.”

Rogers then asked Kaiser in the email to let her know there were any discrepancies in her summary.

Kaiser responded half an hour later, saying only: “Correct.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Troy Brynelson