Alsea schools: Complaints against Thielman allege hostile work environment

Three Alsea School District administrators filed formal complaints this week against Superintendent Marc Thielman, citing a hostile work environment, illegal firing practices and disregard for any viewpoint that is not his own.

The complaints, copies of which were obtained by Mid-Valley Media, were filed by Katie Sapp, former assistant superintendent now on paid administrative leave, elementary principal Shannon Rice and her husband, Travis Rice, the district’s technology and communications manager. Travis Rice was placed on paid administrative leave the day after he filed his complaint.

Together, the complaints allege staff are afraid to voice any opinion contrary to Thielman, who is running for Oregon governor and burst into the national spotlight last month when he announced his school district was taking back “local control” and would no longer require masking in opposition to current state protocols.

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The allegations paint a picture of Thielman as a bully, a man with a temper who is often distracted and even inappropriate at times. All three said they believe they are not safe in the current working environment.

Reached for comment, Thielman said he couldn’t discuss pending complaints.

Unworkable conditions

Sapp, who has worked for the district since 2012, signed a separation agreement with the district that reportedly went into effect at the Nov. 17 board meeting. But Sapp now questions the legality of that agreement, saying she could not find evidence the board authorized it in public session. She also alleges she was not invited to attend, which is her legal right.

Her complaint, which names the district’s Board of Directors as well as Thielman, says this is not the first time she has brought her concerns to the board. In October, she “formally reported ongoing sexual harassment, intimidation and bullying” by Thielman to acting board Chair Jeff Davis and board member Risteen Follett.

In addition, the complaint indicates she had an ongoing complaint against Keenan Elber, head of maintenance, also for creating a hostile work environment, although it does not describe why.

In his complaint, Travis Rice supported Sapp’s claims, citing a specific incident so out of hand that it got “to the point of me getting up out of my chair to make sure nothing physical would occur” between Sapp and one of her subordinates.

‘Utterly disgusting’

In another incident, Travis Rice accuses Thielman of making derogatory, anti-LGBTQ comments in connection with a Facebook live video. That comment was followed by a personal anecdote relayed in front of others about having sex with his wife.

“This was utterly disgusting and made me so uncomfortable I wanted to leave the room, but did not feel I could,” Travis Rice wrote.

The various incidents have made him paranoid, Travis Rice said, adding he is now living in fear of Thielman and Technology Administrator Nathan Roberts, who are “working to cut me out of anything technologically related and potentially trying to track communications made by me.”

Shannon Rice, the only administrator who filed a complaint this week not placed on paid administrative leave, said she feels unsafe sharing her opinions or concerns unless they align with Thielman’s. She emphasized this is true for other employees, especially female employees.

“He did not talk to all staff or admin about changing the masking rules,” Shannon Rice wrote in her complaint. “When I bring complaints or concerns to him, as is his request, he disregards the concern and makes things political.”

In January Thielman went against statewide rules set forth by the Oregon Health Authority and stopped enforcing masks in classrooms, freezing COVID-19 relief funding and facing fines from Oregon Occupational Safety and Health.

The move prompted the tiniest of beefs between the superintendent and his school board, whose members are often on board with Thielman’s suggestions. At the most recent school board meeting, directors complained Thielman had not explained to them that their resolution to do away with masks would cost them money. Thielman disputed that claim.

The race for governor has affected the running of the schools, Shannon Rice said in her complaint, in which she expressed concerns about Thielman’s campaign manager and bodyguard’s presence on campus. 

“Marc has told me that he would ‘burn me to the ground’ if I challenged him,” Shannon Rice wrote. “To put it lightly, you could cut the tension in this building with a knife.”

Thielman told Mid-Valley Media he and the board cannot discuss personnel matters during the open complaint process, and will not speak to the media until an investigation has been completed.

Each school district has its own way of handling the public complaint process. In Alsea, the superintendent would normally conduct the investigation into the complaint, according to the district’s website, but because these three were filed against Thielman, board chair Ron Koetz will look into it on behalf of the board. The findings will then be presented to the board in open session, when they will decide what actions to take, if necessary.

Koetz did not return four requests for comment from Mid-Valley Media.

Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_. 

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