Ferndale schools chief questions his qualifications upon 2010 hiring

From the July 6, 2017 print edition

At his last school board meeting of his professional career, Ferndale’s outgoing schools chief Jack Lakin’s departing remarks were perplexing, to say the least.

Lakin chuckled about not having worked as a principal before being hired in May of 2010 for the positions of both Ferndale High School principal and Ferndale Unified School District superintendent.

During a report to the board last Friday evening on the eve of his retirement the next day, Lakin said when he was recently reviewing the applications for who was going to replace him, he realized that he wasn’t qualified when he was hired by a 3-2 vote of the board more than seven years ago.

“I got about halfway through (reviewing the applications) and suddenly realized, oh my god, no wonder everyone was concerned about hiring me because I’d never even been a principal,” said Lakin at the board meeting in the Mabel Lowry Library at the high school. “Then I thought, yikes, what was I thinking applying for this job because I’d never even been a principal somewhere.”

Lakin’s 2010 resume stated that he had been a principal of a Eureka continuation school.

Lakin’s hiring in 2010 was controversial, to say the least. His hiring came on the heels of the school board voting 3-2 in 2009 not to renew experienced superintendent and principal Sam Garamendi’s contract, prompting a federal lawsuit filed by Garamendi. The district eventually settled out of court with Garamendi and paid him $140,000. Prior to the settlement for many months, the district paid Garamendi a salary while he was on administrative leave and paid a substitute superintendent/principal. The same trustees who voted against Lakin getting hired were supporters of Garamendi and voted to renew his contract.

Lakin is the step-son of former long-time Ferndale superintendent Charlie Lakin. The younger Lakin began his career at Ferndale High School, where he attended once as a student and taught for approximately seven years. He then went on to Eureka High School as a teacher, athletic director and head football coach. He is now the North Coast Section Athletic Commissioner — a position also held by the elder Lakin. There were 21 applicants for the position when Lakin was hired. Former trustee Emil Feierabend voted against Lakin, as did current trustee Jerry Hansen. The trustees who voted for Lakin in 2010 included a cousin of Lakin’s and a former employee.

According to Lakin’s 2010 resume, the two years prior to his hiring in Ferndale, he was an assistant principal at Zane Middle School. From 2006-2008, Lakin stated he was assistant principal at Eureka High School and a full-time principal at Humboldt Bay High School, a continuation school.

When asked by The Enterprise in 2010 how he held two-full time positions at the same time, Lakin said that the “form was a little awkward,” referring to the Ferndale job application, adding that he held two-job titles at the same time paid by two funding sources.

Lakin received his administrative credential in 2007 from Humboldt State University.

When asked Tuesday via text message why he stated at last Friday’s meeting that he hadn’t been a principal before but yet stated on his resume he was a principal at Humboldt Bay High School for two years, Lakin replied, “alternative education program.” When asked to clarify his statements made last Friday about the board hiring him and concerns from the community at the time, Lakin stated in a text late Tuesday night that, “the point I was trying to make was the qualifications I had at the time didn’t measure up to the qualifications I had in my brain as I was looking through the most recent applications.”

Current trustee Jerry Hansen said this week that Lakin’s statements on Friday were understandable but unexpected.

“I wasn’t surprised, cause I knew he wasn’t qualified,” said Hansen.  “I was surprised he said it.”

Lakin’s 2010 hiring prompted much public comment from those in support of him, along with residents asking the board to look for someone with more experience.

Board president at the time, Stephanie Koch, stated that “all stakeholders were able to be part of the process” when Lakin was hired and that he was the “top-rated” candidate.

The Enterprise multiple times in the last month has asked Lakin to sit for an “exit interview” to reflect on his time in Ferndale. He said he would consider the request but did not take the newspaper up on its offer.

Lakin’s tenure in the Ferndale school district was fraught with controversies, including events which placed the Ferndale High School football program on probation for one season in 2012 after allegations of a string of racial taunting by Ferndale fans. Consequently, his handling of the probation caused headlines when he stated that he wasn’t aware of an option to appeal or challenge the probation even though three days earlier he had written a letter to the section protesting the probation and demanding that the NCS reconsider its penalty. Then there was the handling of student-athletes who participated in under-age drinking at a party directly across from Lakin’s office while a school dance was held in the gym in the fall of 2010. He also ignored or delayed responding to multiple public records requests, which ultimately landed the district in a lawsuit with this newspaper in 2016. The district ended up writing a check for $5,500 to The Enterprise’s lawyer in a quick settlement. (The district has again ignored a public records request and is for the second time under Lakin’s watch entangled in another lawsuit).

Lakin was highly criticized in a 2014 public meeting by district staff and parents over input into the state-required Local Control Accountability Plan. Multiple complaints were heard against him in closed session, including ones filed by the girls soccer team and criticism from the girls volleyball team (2012) about his treatment of them behind closed doors. Despite the complaints, trustees voted several times to renew his contract and grant him raises.

At several of the board meetings where his contract was up for renewal, members of the Humboldt County Fair Association board of directors, as well as football boosters, showed up to the meetings to support Lakin.

Then there was the 2012 controversy surrounding closed-sessions with the board regarding complaints against Lakin and football coaches that included one student allegedly being bullied in open session by student-athletes and parents prior to going behind closed doors with trustees. (A 2012 editorial by this newspaper regarding the treatment of the student athlete by the board and coaches won a national award in 2013 from the National Newspaper Association.)

In 2012 there was an independent investigation into the alleged inappropriate behavior by coaches to students that resulted in the conclusion that the district would adopt “clear policies about appropriate language and communication between coaches and students athletes.”

Perhaps the issue that cost the district the most during Lakin’s stint was that of the defeat of a $4.8 million modernization and building bond the district floated before voters in November of 2016. Lakin blamed the defeat, according to his November 12, 2016 opinion piece in The Times-Standard, to an “intense negativity by a few, who unfortunately had a significant impact on a majority of the voters.” Lakin, however, drew the criticism of many when he walked out of a Ferndale Chamber of Commerce meeting, just prior to the election, under heavy fire of questions and challenges to his answers about the bond and the impact on property owners for the next three decades.

While Lakin wouldn’t sit down with The Enterprise to discuss his last seven years in the district, one of the highlights he might point to as a success for the district was the acquisition of more than $2 million over the next five years to help low-achieving students at Ferndale Elementary School. The federally-awarded School Improvement Grant is set to bring in more professional development staff that will work with the district to aid teachers in areas like English, science and math. During the next school year, an after-school program is set to begin, paid for by the grant.

During Lakin’s time, the demographics of the student population at Ferndale Elementary School have changed significantly, according to the district’s draft Local Control Accountability Plan. The Hispanic/Latino enrollment at the school has seen an increase from 14 percent to 23 percent and the socio-economically disadvantaged subgroup has risen from 27 percent to 49 percent. The elementary school has been deemed as in “Program Improvement” status by the state since the 2011-2012 school year.

Prior to Lakin’s arrival with former FES Principal Paul Meyers at the helm, the school’s test scores were high and in April of 2010, the school was named a California Distinguished School by the state. Meyers left the district upon Lakin’s arrival. During Lakin’s seven years, the school has seen two elementary school principals come and go with the third, Renee Henderson, hired in 2015.

On Friday evening, with trustee Stephanie Koch absent, Lakin told the board, the three members of the public present and the newly-hired principal/superintendent that it had been a “privilege” to work for the district for the past seven years. He gave a shout-out to the school district and the fairgrounds for “what they offer the community. “I think they are a big part of what makes this a unique and special place,” said Lakin. “Thank you all very much.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, cupcakes were offered to celebrate Lakin’s retirement.

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