The 2019-2020 school year started innocuously, with many students excited for furthering their education and many looking forward to their last year before going to college and/or starting their professional careers. Things did not go quite as planned, and it wasn’t just COVID’s fault.
Pandemic notwithstanding, Salt Lake’s educational leadership saw significant turbulence. A slight majority of the Salt Lake School Board disapproved of Superintendent Lexi Cunningham’s leadership, as well as District Business Administrator Janet Roberts. Cunningham served in her capacity for four years; Roberts for almost 30 years. The two employees resigned on the last day of the academic year, June 30, 2021.
According to an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, then board member Michael Nemelka felt they were unjustly targeted by the board. He partially attributes the call for their resignations to their desires to dismiss over a dozen principals within the district, including the former principal of West High School, who was fired for driving two intoxicated students home instead of involving parents or police – a judgment call that, although was meant to care for the students, went against district policy.
The school board itself was also wrought with internal conflict. Just one month after Cunningham and Roberts resigned, messages among the board revealed a hostile environment inappropriate for a team meant to guide our childrens’ education, especially amidst the challenges of remote learning. This led to training to improve professional etiquette, as reported by The Salt Lake Tribune.
The drama around the board continued when the youngest elected member in history, then 29-year-old entrepreneur and social activist Joél-Léhi Organista, was arrested for allegedly possessing child pornography and using social media to reach out to minors for online sexual encounters. His three-day trial is set to begin November 23. It appears that no child within the boundaries of Mr. Organista’s appointment had any inappropriate interactions with him.
Thankfully, it seems the storm is dissipating. On July 1, Dr. Timothy Gadson began his appointment as the new superintendent for the Salt Lake City School District. Gadson came from Anoka, Minnesota, where he served as Associate Superintendent of High Schools. He earned a bachelor’s degree majoring in both Business Economics and Secondary Education from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. He then earned a master’s degree, followed by a PhD, from Washington State University (both in Educational Leadership and Higher Education Administration). He has a history of progressive leadership in education, starting as a principal and moving to his current role.
In an interview with The Tribune, Gadson discussed the district’s diversity (which comes largely from Salt Lake’s Westside), how to continue the successes and opportunities for growth learned during the pandemic, and overall morale for the district’s leadership.
To fill the position vacated by Organista, the board appointed Rose Park resident Bryce Williams. An alumnus of West High School (where he served as student body president), he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from the University of Utah (where he was also involved in student government) before transitioning to his master’s degree training there in Educational Leadership and Policy.
Williams’ career has been centered around helping students on their path through their education to finding their own careers. He has worked at the U of U’s Bennion Center for over 10 years, most recently as Senior Program Manager, and volunteered his time as a board member for the Salt Lake Education Foundation and the West High Alumni Association (WHAA). For the latter, he co-founded a mentorship program alongside current WHAA President Emily Berry. This program couples scholarship recipients with mentors to help students navigate their first year of higher education.
Our prayers and congratulations are with Dr. Gadson and Mr. Williams as they move forward in their new appointments, working to be the force of change needed for the future of our children's education.