CONCORD — When Dick Nicoll sat next to Mt. Diablo school trustees in place of Gary McHenry at Tuesday's board meeting, many in the packed elementary school multiuse room seemed confused.
Soon, gasps escaped from the lips of district employees and parents when they learned that McHenry — who led the district for nine years — had agreed to resign. Nicoll stepped in to replace his former boss until the board finds a permanent superintendent to help the district overcome nightmarish budget hurdles, unify previously fractious employee groups and rally an often disenchanted public to approve a parcel tax.
Some seemed relieved by news of the leadership change. Others chastised board members, saying they forced out a man who was liked and respected and who did not deserve blame for the district's ills.
By Wednesday, news of the change had spread throughout the community, eliciting reactions from glee on local blogs to sadness at the district office. McHenry declined to comment on his reasons for leaving, but said he was ready to move on.
"I've appreciated the time I've worked in Mt. Diablo," he said. "I've had some very, very fine administrators and I just want things to work out for the district and work out for the people that I've brought in."
McHenry said he had recommended hiring about 90 percent of the district's administrators.
"I'm really proud of that," he said. "I think I'm leaving the place in fairly good shape."
Citing the need for a change in leadership, the board unanimously agreed to put McHenry on paid administrative leave through Sept. 30, when he will officially resign. He will continue to receive medical benefits through June 30, 2010, unless he gets another job, according to an agreement in which both parties promise not to make defamatory remarks.
Board President Gary Eberhart acknowledged McHenry's accomplishments, but said the board agreed it needed a new superintendent to guide the district in the direction voters expected after the November election. Voters elected trustee Sherry Whitmarsh to replace April Treece, establishing a new majority with Eberhart and trustee Paul Strange.
Since the election, trustees Linda Mayo and Richard Allen have supported many of McHenry's recommendations, but joined the majority in rejecting others, such as eliminating six vice principals. Hostility to McHenry grew after teacher union contract negotiations stalled more than a year ago, prompting their "no confidence" vote.
Now, many teachers are optimistic that their voices will carry more weight at the district office.
"I think the guy has done some really good things," said Mark York, executive director of the union. "It's unfortunate that he lost sight of the fact that you have to have a stable work force in order to address" the district's challenges.
Some people are unhappy and wary of the board's next moves. Representatives from the NAACP East Bay chapter accused the board of kicking McHenry out.
"My concern is that since he has resigned, will there be a pattern of people who resign, people who look like Mr. McHenry," said Willie Mims, a member of the NAACP and Black Political Association in Pittsburg. "I hope there will be no broad sweep by this board of people because they were hired by Mr. McHenry or supported by him."
McHenry's right-hand aide, whose position the board cut effective June 30, said most district employees were stunned by the sudden departure.
"Under his firm and serious demeanor is a gentle, caring, and highly intelligent man who has always put children and the adults who teach them first," Sue Berg said. "He can leave Mt. Diablo with his head high, knowing that all of us who have worked with him here feel privileged to have had his counsel, his support, and, for many of us, his friendship."
Theresa Harrington covers the Mt. Diablo school district. Reach her at 925-945-4764 or firstname.lastname@example.org.