Former Camas principal takes legal action

Aaron Smith, who oversaw CSD’s project based learning schools, accuses district of wrongful termination, discrimination

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A former Camas School District (CSD) administrator known by many as “the founding father” of the district’s project based learning (PBL) schools is taking legal action against the district for what he considers wrongful termination and discrimination.

“At this point, I’m not trying to get my job back. They’ve interviewed and they’ve hired. The new administrator is making plans. The damage is done,” former Odyssey Middle and Discovery High Principal Aaron Smith told The Post-Record. “I’m devastated and heartbroken … and I don’t know what to do. What I’m hoping is that this will wake people up to what is happening in our community so it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

Camas School District officials warned the community they would need to make more than $5 million in budget cuts before the 2023-24 school year due to declining enrollment rates, the end of one-time COVID relief funds that allowed the district to maintain its staffing levels throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and reduced “regionalization” funds from the state that had been used since 2018 to help school districts in higher cost-of-living areas retain teachers and other certificated staff members.

Smith, along with Dan Huld, the principal of the district’s 2-year-old, remote, K-12 Camas Connect Academy, were informed in the spring that the district intended to hire one principal to oversee the PBL schools and CCA, and that both principals’ positions had been eliminated. Both Smith and Huld were told they must apply for the newly created PBL-CCA principal position to be considered for the newly created administrator job.

Though he did not realize it at the time, Smith said he has since learned that his tenure as a principal, as well as his years working in the Camas School District and Washington state as an educator, should have provided him with tenure and some protection against losing his job.

When Smith received his “reduction in force” (RIF) notice in March, he was not aware that his length of service as a principal qualified him for tenure under state law.

“I wasn’t aware of this until mid-May, when I talked to the Association of Washington School Principals,” Smith said.

Smith said he was so surprised by the loss of his position — especially considering the fact that he had run the district’s PBL schools since their inception and had hired and trained the district’s PBL staff — that he didn’t stop to consider whether the district’s actions were allowed under state law.

“I was so shocked that ‘illegal’ didn’t cross my mind at all,” Smith said. “It was only when I spoke to my attorney in May that illegal entered my consciousness.”

Smith said he had retained an attorney, Tyler Firkins with Van Siclen Stocks Firkins law firm in Auburn, Washington, and filed a tort claim — the legal precursor to a lawsuit —  against the school district in early June. 

Instead of eliminating his position, Smith contends, the district should have asked him to take on more responsibilities.

“I should still be employed,” Smith told The Post-Record. “They should have kept the principalship to Discovery and Odyssey, then added some online responsibilities. They should have informed me that I was getting more responsibilities on my plate. But I was never given a choice. I was told my job was eliminated and that I’d have to apply (for the new position overseeing the PBL and CCA programs).”

Smith said he felt that he should not have to reapply for a job he had held for the past seven years — a job for which he had regularly received accolades and positive reviews. “Because I wasn’t made aware of my actual rights – there was no conversation with the district about what that could look like — I said I would not reapply for my current job. … It was just a complete lack of professional courtesy and empathy from district leadership.”

Smith, a Washington native who earned his bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate at Washington State University in Pullman, and his master’s degree in school administration from Western Washington University in Bellingham, began his career in public school education in 1996 and taught music and band classes for nearly a decade before taking his first administrator position — as an assistant principal of a middle school in Blaine, Washington — in 2005.

In 2009, Smith was named the principal of Skyridge Middle School in Camas. In his seven years overseeing that 900-student school, Smith helped Skyridge earn a “School of Distinction” award from the Center for Educational Effectiveness and annual Washington Academic Achievement awards. In 2016, Smith began leading the Camas School District’s new PBL middle and high school programs — recruiting more than 500 students and families into the choice schools, overseeing the conversion of the former Sharp Industries office building into Odyssey Middle School and the ground-up construction of Discovery High School, which welcomed its first class in the fall of 2018 and honored its first graduating class of seniors in June 2022.

Smith’s welcoming, inclusive attitude and “my door is always open” leadership style proved popular with students, families, staff and several district administrators.

“Aaron exudes collaboration and understands the importance of building teams,” former Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell stated in a recommendation letter he wrote for Smith on Feb. 22, 2023. “From directing the annual district administrative skit to leading teacher teams to develop two new schools focused on (PBL), Aaron gets the best out of everyone. Staff members feel a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Snell added that, having been Smith’s direct supervisor for five years, he has seen the former principal’s success with students and families.

“Aaron engages the school community in an ongoing conversation about increasing student engagement, equitable grading practices, high expectations and safe and inclusive schools,” Snell stated. “His leadership makes a difference for students, parents and staff. He is the type of leader that makes public education such an amazing place for each student that it serves.”

Additionally, many Odyssey and Discovery students and parents who talked to The Post-Record said Smith, who had been the Camas School District’s only openly gay principal, created a welcoming, safe space for LGBTQ students and their families.

“I felt like he was an advocate,” Camas parent Carrie Kuba said of Smith. Kuba’s PBL student, a recent Odyssey Middle graduate and incoming Discovery freshman, identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community.

“I was really impressed by his desire to make (diversity, equity and inclusion) a priority,” Kuba said, “and by his ability to be aware that those issues do not take away from services for other kids … but lifts the school and community as a whole.”

Kuba, who worked as a parent representative for the school district’s Diversity and Equity Committee, said Smith and his staff at the PBL schools “have enhanced our district tremendously by providing an avenue of learning for kids whose brains have an out-of-the-box way of learning.”

When her family found the PBL schools, Kuba said she couldn’t believe “how fortunate we were to have this option within the public school (system). Here it was: free and accessible.”

Kuba’s youngest child, the incoming Discovery freshman, has flourished in PBL schools, she said.

“The support for them has been phenomenal,” Kuba said. “They’ve come out of their shell and experienced academic success. Collaborative learning has been a really big part of it … PBL gives quite a bit of structure and the ability to learn from one another, to learn from your peers and the freedom of not being taught at, but being taught together. The teachers really guide that learning and make sure they’re staying on task.”

Kuba and other parents worry that Smith’s departure will impact the sense of inclusion and belonging their LGBTQ students have felt at Odyssey Middle and Discovery High.

“There will (no longer be a) guarantee of having advocates on campus who understand how my kid and others in the LGBTQ community move through the world, because their experience doesn’t reflect that or have some intersectionality,” Kuba said. “Having those advocates removed from our student body has negative rippling effects. … If you have kids who have learned at home that LGBTQ human beings are a threat, there will be no one to hold those kids in check on campus – they’ll have the impunity to spread that hate more frequently, more adamantly. Staff who do not have that (LGBTQ) lived experience may miss something or not be aware of something being experienced by an LGBTQ kid and it can make these kids not feel safe … When they’re having to worry about being who they are, they’re not able to learn and thrive.”

Coleen Tautfest, the parent of an incoming sophomore at Discovery High, agreed that Smith has created “an incredibly safe, inclusive environment” for PBL students.

Tautfest, who serves as the president of the PBL Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), said Smith impressed her from the get-go.

“I was very impressed by him,” Tautfest said of Smith. “He is 100 percent authentic and true to who he is in every situation and conversation, whether he’s talking with a student or an adult. He’s calm, kind and diffuses (tense) situations. He’s just a really beautiful human being who sees things and cares about students so much.”

For Tautfest and other parents who spoke to The Post-Record, Smith has been a critical piece of the PBL puzzle since the program started in Camas more than seven years ago.

“He’s like the founding father of the PBL campus,” Tautfest said. “He has infused this program with his heart and his passion.”

When Tautfest discovered that Smith’s position had been eliminated and the district intended to combine the two PBL schools with Camas Connect Academy, the remote K-12 school that opened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she worried about the future of Odyssey Middle and Discovery High.

“Obviously, I want the (PBL) program to succeed and be well,” Tautfest said. “But I think repairs are needed with our community and our campus.”

Tautfest added that she also believes Dan Hult, the former CCA principal who has been named the new principal of the combined PBL-CCA campus, will need some help to succeed in his new position.

“For one principal to be overseeing this virtual school and then the PBL schools? It’s a lot,” Tautfest said. “As parents, we were concerned. … The two schools are very different in purpose, mission statement and models.”

In conversations with other parents and students, Tautfest said there seemed to be consensus that — if the district was going to hire one principal to oversee a K-12 virtual school, a middle school and a high school that have a combined student population of nearly 700 students — including 218 CCA students — the new hire should be “someone with PBL experience and knowledge.”

Jack Harding, 17, an incoming senior at Discovery High, was one of the students who helped interview the district’s four candidates for the new PBL-CCA principal position.

“The biggest thing — and we’d been saying this for a while — was that we wanted someone unbiased,” Harding said. “If we couldn’t have (Smith), we wanted someone completely new, someone not from CCA or Odyssey or Discovery, to help teach them and introduce them to (the PBL model). So, that was the main thing we were looking for.”

Harding said many Discovery students felt unheard by district leaders in the weeks leading up to the principal hiring committee process.

“Most of the school board and the superintendent came to Discovery about a week or so before the interview process to sit down with students,” Harding said. “They answered about four of our questions, but we felt like we were wasting our time. There was a lot of dodging our questions. They said they’d have a hiring committee that students could be a part of, but there were no emails, etcetera when the thing actually happened. It wasn’t advertised. I only found out they were coming from the board meeting I attended. It felt like they had their minds made up (about the new principal). I’m sure it wasn’t rigged, but it felt like it was.”

Harding said he also feels district administrators disregarded many of the notes provided by himself and other PBL students who sat on the student committee during the process to hire a new PBL-CCA principal.

The district announced in late May that it had hired Huld, the former CCA principal, to run the merged PBL-CCA programs.

Huld, a Camas native and graduate of Camas High School, served as an administrator of virtual charter schools in Oregon for 13 years and as the president of the Oregon Digital Leaders Coalition, before being named the principal of Camas Connect Academy in early 2021.

Smith said he feels school district leaders erred in their decision to open the PBL-CCA principalship up to candidates instead of simply adding responsibilities to Smith’s plate. He added that the school district also did not offer him comparable employment.

“My employment rights have been ignored at every turn,” Smith said. “I’ve reached out to school board members on multiple occasions with no response. Camas has been good to me, and I care about this community. But I can’t stay quiet. I was backed into a corner … and when there is injustice and something is wrong, you have to speak up.”

Camas School District Communications Director Doreen McKercher said CSD administrators and officials are unable to comment on Smith’s allegations “due to pending litigation.”