The superintendent of Riverside Elementary School District 96, who resigned last week effective June 30 as part of a negotiated deal with the school board, is not receiving any severance pay even though she is leaving with one year left on her contract.
However Bhavna Sharma-Lewis is getting a very positive letter of recommendation from school board President Mary Rose Mangia, one which will be sent to prospective employers.
The letter of recommendation, which is part of a separation agreement Sharma-Lewis and the board signed last week, was obtained by the Landmark as part of a Freedom of Information request.
“As our superintendent, she has made significant impact on the teaching, learning and professional environment of our school district,” Mangia wrote.
Mangia then went on to list nine specific accomplishments of Sharma-Lewis, including updating the district curriculum to meet the new Common Core state standards, modernizing the district website, extensive professional development for staff, initiating block learning at Hauser Junior High School, developing new services for non-native English speakers and expanding special education programming.
“Dr. Sharma-Lewis would be an asset to your school district,” Mangia wrote. “Her vision, resilience, and ability to problem solve in challenging situations will benefit your district, staff and students.”
One would never guess from the praise for Sharma-Lewis in the letter why she essentially was forced out.
Mangia would not comment about the letter.
“The letter speaks for itself,” Mangia said.
Behind the warm words were a superintendent and a majority of the school board that just never clicked. Three members of the school board that hired Sharma-Lewis were no longer on the board when she was began work in District 96 in July of 2013.
And three new board members had been elected on a reform platform and were skeptical of anything the previous board had done. Two of those newly elected board members, Mangia and Rachel Marrello were elected president and vice-president of the school board.
Trust was never established between the new board leadership and Sharma-Lewis. Mangia peppered Sharma-Lewis with questions and the superintendent sometimes seemed to view the board’s involvement as a hindering her ability to do her job.
Some board members felt that Sharma-Lewis undermined them when she warned of cuts, despite a huge cash reserve, after the board voted 4 to 3 in 2013 to freeze the property tax levy.
Things got so bad that in early 2014 that Sharma-Lewis accused Mangia of creating a hostile work environment for her. By then everyone recognized that there was a serious problem behind the public smiles.
The board brought in a retired superintendent, Steve Humphrey, to work with both the board and Sharma-Lewis. Things seemed to improve a bit, especially between Sharma-Lewis and Mangia, but Marrello’s frosty relationship with Sharma-Lewis never thawed.
Last spring Marrello publicly called for the board’s law firm to investigate whether Sharma-Lewis deliberately lied to the board when she provided incorrect information about one school district’s early release plan when she was trying to sell the board on her own plan for professional development.
During the summer, when Sharma-Lewis underwent a relatively minor surgical procedure, she reportedly asked to be able to work from home all summer. The board nixed that request.
Things came to head at the beginning of the school year when four board members appeared ready to start the process of getting rid of Sharma-Lewis. But then two of Sharma-Lewis’s three supporters on the school board, Lisa Gaynor and David Kodama, abruptly quit.
The board’s next meeting drew an angry crowd and the school board took no action on Sharma-Lewis after two members of the board, Randy Brockway and Michael O’Brien, apparently decided that it was not the right time to make a change.
But whatever chance Sharma-Lewis had of repairing her relationship with the board evaporated in September when she gave Jennifer Leimberer, one of the former board members defeated in the 2013 election, the names of those who applied to fill the vacancies created by the resignations of Gaynor and Kodama. This apparently infuriated some board members, according to multiple sources, and one source described that action as the last nail in Sharma-Lewis’s coffin.
On Sept. 8, 2014 Leimberer sent an email to Sharma-Lewis requesting the names of those who expressed interest in the vacant seats. The Landmark obtained a copy of the email through a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request.
Although Leimberer didn’t specifically state in her email that her request was a FOIA it was treated as such, a not unusual response.
“After D96 received this request, we consulted with the BOEs attorney,” Sharma-Lewis told the Landmark on Monday via email. “He advised us to treat this as a FOIA request and release the names without personal candidate information. We followed his direction as we do with all FOIA requests.”
Leimberer also told the Landmark on Monday that she had intended her request to be treated as a FOIA request.
Names of applicants for a school board vacancy are not always released but they are subject to a FOIA request. In 2011, when Gaynor was appointed to fill a vacancy, the Landmark filed a FOIA request to obtain the names and applications of all those who applied to fill the vacancy.
But many school board members were unhappy that Sharma-Lewis released the names to Leimberer so quickly. Apparently Mangia wanted the opportunity to try and talk to some of the applicants and try to persuade them to withdraw their applications.
Mangia and Marrello both declined to answer when asked if they were angry Sharma-Lewis released the names of the applicants to Leimberer. Shortly after Leimberer publicized the names of the applicants, Mangia released them via a press release.
But, from then on, it was just a matter of time until Sharma-Lewis was gone.
Tired of fighting Sharma-Lewis decided, apparently some months ago, that she had had enough. She agreed to leave and began looking for other jobs. Sharma-Lewis was a finalist for a superintendent’s job in Skokie, but she didn’t get the job last week.
When asked about her shaky job situation and her future during an informal conversation with the Landmark in January, Sharma-Lewis had a brief reply.
“I can hold my head high,” Sharma-Lewis said.
Mangia read a prepared statement at the board’s meeting on March 17, saying that the board will begin a search for an interim superintendent.
“The board’s commitment to exceptional learning at District 96 is guiding our search for an experienced and well-credentialed interim superintendent,” Mangia said. “We will hire a highly qualified interim as soon as possible. We seek a smooth transition that will support great learning and strengthened academic achievement.”