West threatens to leave WAPS at end of school year
by LAURA HAYES and SARAH SQUIRES
Winona Area Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Stephen West was accused of plagiarizing portions of the district's technology plan last week by a board member. At the close of Thursday's board meeting, West delivered an impassioned speech, saying he felt he was being subject to a "witch hunt" and threatened to leave the district at the end of the school year.
Several sections of the district's technology plan mirror plans crafted by other school districts in other parts of the country, including a passage that was used and attributed to West in a recent district newsletter sent to area families.
Board chair Ben Baratto said he felt West had plagiarized these other published documents. "I've been made aware of several examples that are obvious cases of plagiarism. Plagiarism is a very serious charge to any organization, especially for a superintendent that's being looked up to by students. By all appearances, this is an obvious case of plagiarism, not just forgetting to add citations to this plan. I would hope the board would look into this and ensure that nothing like this happens again."
West refuted the allegation and said the similarities were simply a case of failure to provide citations. “Clearly I try to pull things from other places, I try to give –– I’m not trying to, what’s the word, plagiarize,” West said. “I’ve tried to use language and pull language from other folks and say, ‘Hey, that’s where I’m trying to go with this.’”
West later complained about the Winona Post during the School Board meeting, saying he would meet with board leaders on Monday to discuss whether he would continue working through the rest of his three-year contract or resign at the end of the school year.
“I have promised you, this board, that if i was going to be a distraction to this organization that somebody would try to –– whatever –– embarrass the organization because of me that I wouldn’t stay here for that. This job is too important. This school district is too important. And I know that I’m good at what I do,” West said. “So I will be meeting with Ben on Monday and Dr. [Steve] Schild sometime to discuss what the future holds moving forward after this school year. I will not quit this year. I will not.”
Baratto said he hoped that this situation would not be repeated. "If a third grader plagiarized a report, they'd get an F," he said. "We hold our superintendent to a much higher standard."
The district is currently seeking an annual $1 million property tax increase to help fund technology initiatives laid out in the technology plan, called TL21. The property tax request will be on the November ballot, and the recent district newsletter including the quote attributed to West (see page 5a) was in relation to the technology levy ballot question. The 127-word quote was nearly identical to one published by Calvin Christian School in 2013. Emily Wilson, who penned that statement in 2013 for Calvin Christian School, said that while she "was glad to share ideas and resources, I also greatly appreciate being cited (especially now that I'm trying to build a career as a kind of educational expert!)." She said she had never distributed the statement at any conferences or shared it on any platform, adding that she considered it the "intellectual property of Calvin Christian School" and would ask for permission herself before using it for any other purpose.
At WAPS, TL21 plans to put a device in every students’ hand by the 2019-2020 school year. The plan outlines why it is important to implement TL21, the research behind the initiative, its goals, and TL21’s impact on students. A portion of the plan –– almost 700 words –– is nearly identical to Waltham Public Schools’ technology initiative that was launched in fall 2014.
West said he would revisit the technology plan and provide citations throughout for things that were written by someone else. “I take pride in citing my sources. I usually have other people help me write documents when I’m going to put it out to the community and we make sure that we’re citing,” West said. “However, I’m not embarrassed. It’s not done maliciously. It wasn’t done intentionally. I –– I’ve got to tell you, I’m extremely upset. This feels like it’s a witch hunt.”
This is not the first time that West has discussed leaving the district. In April, a behind-the-scenes conversation between West and School Board members about a district clerical position ended with West threatening to leave when his contract expired.
Following a glowing performance review and endorsement by the members of the district's executive cabinet, last month, the board unanimously renewed West’s contract for another three years. The approved contract also gives West just over $12,000 in salary increases and provides for a nearly $153,000 annual salary by 2020.