An open letter to the Board, the Administration, and the Alumni of Western Mennonite:
In view of the recent happenings, at Western Mennonite, i.e. the firing of Dave Engle, I am choosing to reveal what I know about this matter and to clearly articulate my understanding of Dave’s firing so that all interested can understand and determine whether his firing was appropriate or whether there were other issues involved. In addition, I plan to remove all financial support, and my witness to the benefits of Western for the foreseeable future. I do this with sadness because my connection with Western Mennonite has been long and rich. I came to Oregon and to Western in 1978 and served as English teacher and counselor until 1990. During that time, I built life-long friendships with administrators, faculty, and many, many students.
Since 1990 a number of changes have come to Western due to some administrative decisions, some changes in demographics, and some Board decisions. The campus has undergone dramatic change with the building of a chapel and performance auditorium, the building of a science, computer, and library building, and adding a new entrance to the administration building. All of these changes have created the appearance of positive change, but inside, there seems to be a growing culture of administrative cronyism, unfair firing practice with many staff wondering if they will be the next target for dismissal, a general distrust of administration, and a gradual movement away from anabaptist teaching and practice. So it comes as small surprise that the personnel committee confirmed last week the firing of long-time anabaptist Bible teacher, Dave Engle. Dave has taught at Western Mennonite for the past 18 years, feels a deep calling to the ministry at Western Mennonite, and has admittedly made some mistakes in judgement, but certainly nothing egregious or criminal, and nothing that would have merited dismissal. Since his dismissal,the Administration and Board have been totally silent on this matter, leaving alumni and friends wondering about what is going on. What did he do? I have talked with Dave who has given me documents and has given me permission to share their content as I saw fit to break the silence.
The charges leveled against Dave were generally listed as inappropriate patterns of behavior, and specifically listed as centered on student interactions, student management, and insubordination towards administration as listed in the following examples: (All of these behaviors happened on the first day of school with students this year, 2014)
1)Parents have reported that on the first day of school (September 2nd) you asked students to give their name and then asked them to share their “best farting noises.”
Comment: Granted this was the first day of school and students may have felt a little embarrassed and self-conscious, but “farting” is always funny especially when it isn’t coming out of your mouth. So, you might question the appropriateness of this ice-breaker, but it was an attempt to put students at ease, and it is certainly not cause for firing. Was it professional, probably not, but at the same time did not cause any lasting injury and could probably be placed on the quirky pile of “do not use again.”
2)Unwillingness to close your classroom door as directed and involving students to break directive issued to you.
Comment: This issue comes with long history with staff responding to a culture created by the administration as they responded to the mandates of a previous fire marshal who was lenient in his response to Western’s administration as long as they assured him that they were taking steps to comply. The culture was created by jokingly suggesting that staff would get in trouble if they didn’t keep their doors shut, etc.. When a new fire marshall came on and after inspecting the record, determined that Western was out of compliance and wasn’t making reasonable efforts to comply with installing safely requirements into the building, lowered the hammer and threatened to shut down the school until they were in compliance with fire doors and laser alarms installed. Dave was not the only teacher who did not take the directive to keep doors shut as the room temperatures escalated in the afternoon, (above 80 degrees) but he was to my knowledge, the only one written up. Numerous teachers were out of compliance that afternoon due to the culture that had previously been created by administration that “shutting one’s door” was not a serious request. Thus, Dave is being dismissed by an administration that was itself insubordinate and noncompliant to the fire marshall over time, and then was written up for that insubordination when an air conditioner might have been a better reaction. Dave admits that using a student to shut the door if he/she saw an administrator was poor judgement, but this again suggests the level of the created culture and the outside temperature as it seeped into the classroom from the afternoon sun. Dave did shut his door and kept it shut in spite of the temperature when an administrator peered into his room giving him the “stink eye” and sternly stated, “Keep this door shut.”
3)Telling parents that there will be levels of mistrust with their students and that their students smell like a sewer at the parent orientation.
Comment: Dave assigns daily Bible reading to his students which is mostly on the honor system. When he sees something that looks a little suspicious he asks the student about it to validate the assignment. To me this seems a reasonable approach and certainly not responsible for creating levels of “mistrust.” The sewer comment came from the fact that just outside Dave’s window is a huge sewer pit. On warm days if the wind is just right, it wafts into his classroom. On the first day of school the wind was right and Dave made a comment at the end of class because it was too obvious to ignore, that the kids better get out of there “before they got that smell all over them.” This accusation seems like an obvious misrepresentation.
4)Putting the military poster back on your classroom wall without permission from Paul Schultz to do so.
Comment: The poster in question had been down for two years. With the new construction in his classroom he was rearranging his classroom walls and wanted to rehang the poster “ Uncle Sam Wants You!” to which Paul had objected two years before. Dave had hung this poster beside another one which read, “Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.” Students would often comment on the juxtaposition of these two posters which led into a classroom discussion. Dave rehung the poster and sent a note to Paul saying that he was not trying to pick a fight, but looked forward to having a discussion with him about why he felt that these two posters were important to his classroom and consistent with the message that Western was trying to represent. Paul did not come to Dave to have this discussion but sent an email saying he wished Dave had asked him first before putting it on the wall. Paul continued by saying, “I do not want to see it on the wall because it is possible that people may see it and take offense. Without the opportunity to communicate to our parents ahead of time I would be concerned about people drawing inaccurate conclusions about what we teach.” Dave covered the poster, but did not tell Paul that he had.
These were the reasons given to Dave for his dismissal when he met with the Personnel committee which consisted of Paul Schultz (Head of School), Zig Derochowski (Principal), Stan Oyer (Board member), Linda Dibble (Current Board President), and Cherie Barnhart (Board Member). When they finished interviewing him, they put him on administrative leave, and said they were doing so because he wasn’t “contrite enough” and because of his “pattern of behavior” which suddenly went from the four incidents that took place on the first day of the school, to the year 2002 and 2004.
In 2002, Eric Martin was principal and Dave was teaching a lesson on the difference between swearing and using obscenities. At the beginning of the lesson Dave used the illustration of a little kid running in and holding up his middle finger and asking, “Why is this the swearing finger?” Dave then used this to differentiate between these two concepts. At the time, Eric Martin was concerned enough to call Dave into his office and discuss this matter. Both Eric and Dave agree that there were no directives given at that time, though Eric did comment that illustrations like this were a double edged sword... effective for kids, but problematic for some parents and most often the brunt of parental response stopped at Eric’s desk.
In 2004, there was another principal at Western. Dave gave the same lesson and when called into the office explained that two years earlier, he had been given no directive, simply had a conversation, and though he had not forgotten the conversation with Eric Martin when reminded, at the time of re-presenting the lesson as it was not given every year, the prior conversation did not pop immediately to mind. For this , Dave was given a written reprimand for disobeying a directive, and placed on a plan of assistance. The plan of assistance was that his classroom would be visited every month by an administrator with a final evaluation at the end of the year. None of this was done. Yet, suddenly, in 2014 these two incidents were suddenly recalled as an indication that there had been a pattern of inappropriate behavior culminating in the four behaviors described earlier on September 2. As a result, Dave was notified on September 12, 2014 that he was being terminated at Western Mennonite.
To me, none of this seems reasonable for grounds of dismissal or firing. After the first meeting with the Personnel Committee, Dave wrote a letter of apology to the administrators and the Board. In the letter, Dave admitted his faults and said he would continue to pray for the mission of Western regardless of the outcome of this matter, but that he would appeal his termination.
Dave was then called a second time and a third time before the personnel committee. This was the same group of people who had already decided that he should be terminated. After listening to his story and asking further questions, they dismissed him and later told him that they were standing by their decision. In all of this, there has been absolute silence from school administrators, and the Board in spite of the outrage and concern expressed on social media, conference churches, and throughout the valley. Again, the question hung in the air... What awful thing must he have done? There were no answers given and everyone was left with their worst fears.
My number one concern is that an outstanding member of Salem Mennonite, an outstanding member of our school community, an academic scholar, and a good friend has been diminished and terminated on grounds that have been embellished and exaggerated, and his educational career as he knows it is over. Additionally, on every application he fills out for future jobs, he has to respond to the question, “Have you ever been fired from a job?” This is not right.
In most public schools, the termination of a teacher is handled with considerably more concern and compassion, and they make no effort to embrace anabaptist theology. Usually there is a plan of assistance that often takes place over the course of a year or even two years in which administrators make classroom visits, meet personally to make suggestions and offer conferences and trainings. If, after exhausting numerous opportunities to show progress and gain mastery, the teacher is still showing lack of understanding, he is told that his contract will not be renewed, and he is given a letter of recommendation, and is encouraged to continue his career in a new setting. I have never known a dismissal to be given after the first day of school unless there was some egregious reason, usually criminal in nature. There is no egregious reason here.
Secondly, an appeal deserves the respect to be enacted before an impartial committee. To appeal a termination before the very group that initiated the termination is not comprehensible. Once the appeal was requested, a new committee with impartial representation or an outside mediator should have been acquired. At the very least, Dave deserved to be reinstated, placed on an implemented plan of assistance, and if the plan were deemed unsuccessful, terminated with a letter of recommendation. The educational model is that both sides work together to find resolution and agree that another setting might be better if it doesn’t work out. That is the way it works in most business and educational settings. To fire someone on the basis of the events of one day, and to reference a couple incidents from 10 years earlier is unconscionable. This top down, heavy handed model of authority is not only out-dated, but has no place in an anabaptist institution.
Thirdly, The current administration has no one evaluating their conduct. There is no one who is holding administrators to account. Western Mennonite is no longer under the umbrella of the Pacific Coast Conference, nor accountable to the Mennonite Educational Agency. There is a lack of education at the helm and though Paul Schultz is a passionate and resourceful fund raiser, he is totally lacking in educational methodology which is why we like our teachers and administrators to be credentialed. Thus, there are a couple additional things I would ask of the Board:
1)I would request that the Board require Paul to enter an undergraduate program immediately, to be followed by entrance into a Master’s Degree in Administration which would include any financial help normally given to Western teachers seeking advanced degrees. It is only fitting that the Head of School be credentialed in the same manner that is expected of the teachers he hires.
2)In lieu of that, rearrange the administrative model, making Paul the Director of Fund Raising and Foundation Building, an area of true giftedness and excellence. Compensate him with a direct percentage of the money he brings in per year. (Financial planners make 1% of all monies invested per year.) The Board can investigate and decide on the appropriate percentage.
3)Reshuffle the Administration. The current number of administrators is too high for the size of the school. Making Zig the principal was a good move, (He has his credentials.) now streamline others. I am unsure if he is a Mennonite. This might be a problem as Western’s Charter calls for the Principal and, I assume, Head of School to be Mennonite. Find a way to develop Women in leadership. The current leadership on the Board is a fine model of this.
4)Seek out Governance Trainings for the Board. Develop fair, Anabaptist discipline policies that address the accountability of all professional employees, develop strategies for helping new teachers, providing them with teacher mentors, and identifying common pitfalls and challenges for new teachers and help for avoiding them. Set up credible plans of assistance with administrative follow though and yearly Board examination of whether the current administrator has followed though with mentoring and assisting developing teachers in a restorative manner. The intention of the discipline policy is for administrators to respond to questionable practice in a manner that embraces love, grace, forgiveness and transforming, Anabaptist faith. Criminal behavioral always results in termination.
Conclusion: The firing and termination of Dave Engle is an injustice. Because of all the mistakes in judgement by administration, the failure of administration to follow up with an implemented plan of assistance, their own insubordination with the fire marshall and trifling with the safety of students at Western Mennonite, and using Dave Engle as a scapegoat because he is quirky and teaches the Bible in an uncensored manner, the Boardhas the responsibility to offer Dave full reinstatement if he will take it, and if not, full pardon and a wonderful recommendation for the next job to which he applies. In the meantime, the Board should recommend giving Dave full compensation for the year under which he is contracted. This is right and this is just.
The Board is the only body to whom Western is accountable at the moment. Unfortunately, the Board has been woefully silent and appears to be simply rubber-stamping the decisions made by a high school educated, Head of School. I would call on the Board to step up and become the governing body they were intended to be. Bring transparency where there has been none. Bring voice where there has been silence, and replace fear with compassion. Only you can do this work, and there are many people up and down the valley who are waiting to hear your wisdom, watching to see what you will do, and making decisions based on whether they will continue to support your endeavors or withhold their blessings based on what you decide and do.
With respect and hope for what you are up against...