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Kent School Board votes to extend contract for Superintendent Calvin Watts

Kent Superintendent Calvin Watts
Ashley Gross
Kent Superintendent Calvin Watts

UPDATE, Dec. 1: Updates to add comments from Board Director Leslie Hamada on Aug. 12 clarifying her characterization of actions by the Kent Principals Association. 

In a 3-2 vote, the Kent School Board has voted to extend the contract for Superintendent Calvin Watts, a move that comes amid some community controversy.

Watts has led the school district of about 27,000 students since 2015. Two years ago, the district struggled through a budget crisis and the Kent Education Association took a vote of no confidence in Watts. The board voted last year to end automatic renewal of his contract, which was set to expire next June. But now a majority of the board has voted to keep him on through June 2022. Watts earns more than $250,000 a year.

Board Director Maya Vengadasalam said he’s done a good job restoring the district’s budget. The Kent School District has been trying to rebuild its fund balance after going into the red in 2017 and 2018. As of April this year, district documents show the school system had $56 million in its fund balance.

“I want to thank you especially for bringing our finances back to a respectable front and for hiring the excellent team in charge of our finances,” she said.

And yet the coronavirus pandemic has prompted new criticism of the district. Parents have said that the switch to distance learning was chaotic and lacked rigor. In April, the district ran out of free meals for kids after misgauging demand.

But Watts received support from two other board directors, Denise Daniels and Leah Bowen. They joined Vengadasalam in voting to extend his term and alluded that race has played a role in the criticism of Watts, who is Black. The Kent School District is one of the state’s most racially diverse, with students of color making up more than two-thirds of enrollment.

Bowen said she tried to examine her own white privilege in deciding to extend his contract.

“Our hearts and minds need to be open to new ways of thinking. Open in realizing that changing a system built by and for the benefit of an outdated, white way of thinking takes hard work and commitment,” she said.

Bowen is one of three board directors who won election last year. The other two, Leslie Hamada and Michele Bettinger, voted against extending his contract, saying votes of no confidence by labor groups played a role in their decisions. Bettinger also cited allegations against Watts of conflicts of interest in his dealings with vendors

Hamada later said at an Aug. 12 meeting that she mischaracterized the actions of the Kent Principals Association by calling it a vote of no confidence. In April 2019, the principals association sent a letter to the school board expressing concerns about the superintendent’s leadership, but it did not include a vote of no confidence.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.