At 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, 15 minutes before the end of the school day, Payson High School Principal Kathe Ketchem emerged from a meeting and fired athletic department secretary Stephanie Shields, reportedly without cause.
Ketchem said, “This isn’t working out,” Shields recalled. “She said, ‘We’re letting you go.’”
Shields asked why, and according to Shields, Ketchem said, “We don’t have to give you a reason. I’ve been instructed not to give you a reason.”
Ketchem handed Shields a letter that read, “Consider this a notice of termination for no cause.” The letter informed Shields that her presence was prohibited on the Payson High School campus pending action of the governing board on Monday.
The Roundup sent an e-mail seeking comment to Ketchem, Superintendent Casey O’Brien, Athletic Director Rob Varner and school board President Rory Huff, but only O’Brien responded.
O’Brien couldn’t comment on why Shields was terminated because the situation is a personnel matter. “What I can share is that (the) decision for the recommendation was made by the principal based on best serving the needs of Payson High School. I support the recommendation,” O’Brien wrote.
Shields’ departure marks the complete removal of the former high school administration. Former Principal Roy Sandoval, along with assistant principals Tim Fruth and Jason Lobik lost their jobs in April during budget cuts. Sandoval’s former secretary, Sherry Goode resigned earlier this year.
To replace Sandoval, the district handed the high school’s top spot to Ketchem, who also heads Payson Center for Success, the district’s alternative school.
Former English teacher Anna Van Zile took over Fruth’s previous job as assistant principal.
Attendance secretary Cheryl Woodall will now work as the athletic director’s secretary, and Ketchem will replace Woodall’s position with someone else in the district.
O’Brien wrote in an e-mail that Shields had not been terminated, but had been placed on home assignment until the board votes on her termination during its next meeting.
Shields said she has never been written up, or even received negative feedback about her performance during her two-and-a-half years with the district.
“I am completely flabbergasted,” said Shields, a 37-year-old single mother of three. She asked Ketchem why no one ever said anything, or suggested corrections for any unwanted behavior.
Neither did anyone suggest that Shields switch to another position, leading her to believe personalities and politics led to her termination.
‘We don’t have to give you any reason whatsoever,’ Shields recalled Ketchem saying. “She said that several times and kept shaking her head at me.”
In an apparent coincidence, Roundup reporter Max Foster had interviewed Shields just weeks earlier for an article extolling her hard work as both athletic department secretary and helping the school’s main office with assigning detentions, answering phones and issuing parking permits.
Shortly after the paper printed on Aug. 20, O’Brien and Athletic Director Rob Varner spoke with Shields. According to O’Brien, the two men complimented her on the article.
Shields said the compliment was “backhanded” and made her “uncomfortable.”
According to Shields, Varner told her, “You need to tell Max to stop living in the past.” Foster is a retired math teacher and coach who now works at the Roundup as a sports reporter.
“Rob said, ‘You need to tell Max to start coming to me,’” said Shields. O’Brien said the article had nothing to do with Shields’ termination.
The firing mystifies Shields. “I’ve tried to figure that out,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because I worked there with the previous administration. I was the only person left.”
Sandoval praised Shields. “When Stephanie worked for me, she got a lot of work done, (and) she was innovative.”
Sandoval also said that people from outside the district complimented Shields’ knowledge, and one even said she was the best athletic director’s secretary he had known.
“She really cared about the kids,” said Sandoval.
Fruth, who also worked with Shields, said, “It was the last piece of the puzzle to fall out of that office.”
Since the new administration took over, Shields said the campus climate has descended into funk.
She has heard students call it “Auschwitz,” or compare the campus to a jail. She said the new administration has installed new rules without communication, leaving people unsure of guidelines.
“The kids don’t know what the rules are anymore,” said Shields. For instance, the dress code has changed, but Shields couldn’t explain the new code because she didn’t understand it.
“They’ve tried to explain it,” she said, “but the principal and vice principal have admitted they don’t even agree on it.”
Previously, punishments followed a protocol. A student with an unexcused absence would have a lunch detention, followed by other outlined punishments for subsequent offenses. “Now, they’re making it up as they go along,” said Shields.
The new administration operates very much top-down, without seeking input from teachers or other staff, Shields said.
Ketchem responded that she had no comment to a separate e-mail sent by the Roundup regarding Shields’ allegations about the campus environment.
About the firing, Sandoval said, “I don’t think it’s good for the kids. I don’t think it’s good for the morale of the high school, the staff, and I don’t think it’s good for the community of Payson. I certainly don’t think it’s good for attracting and retaining high quality people in the future.”
He wondered, “What in the world is going on over there?”