Bill Sorensen was living his dream: He was the passionate principal of a school he loved—and looked forward to being its leader when his twin daughters were old enough for high school.
Then, he felt the rug was pulled out from under him, leading him to say two words he hates: “I quit.”
Yet a few months later, he is launching a curious comeback, with an effort to be voted into leadership of a district he feels wronged him.
While it is closely monitoring COVID-19 data, Peoria Unified School District plans to reopen classrooms by Sept. 28.
When Centennial High School students walk into school for the first time this fall, they will not be greeted by the principal they had in January. Scott Hollabaugh is the new Centennial principal.
Sorensen, who was placed on administrative leave Jan. 30, resigned Feb. 11 with a four-sentence letter.
Though curt, it also displayed the emotion for which he was known.
“I write this letter to inform you I am resigning my position as principal of Centennial High School effective June 30, 2020,” Sorensen wrote.
“I am so grateful to the Centennial community and will forever cherish the love they showed me.”
He said he needs to “prioritize for my children in the short and long term.”
What exactly did he mean by that?
“My lawyer told me, ‘You don’t have many protections,’” Sorensen told the Peoria Times.
“I loved Centennial, and I wanted to stay there. But I have two children I have to feed.”
Instead of risking being fired or not having his contract renewed, he decided to resign and “increase my chances of finding another job.”
Indeed, Sorensen quickly found employment and is the assistant principal of La Joya Community High School in the Tolleson Union High School District.
“I love it there,” he said.
But he is ready to make a comeback—of sorts.
Sorensen, who lives in Peoria, is running for a Peoria Unified School District governing board seat.
“I think we can do better as a district,” he said.
A lingering question remains: Why was Sorensen suspended from his duties—and what did the district investigate?
“Effective Jan. 30, 2020, the Peoria Unified School District is placing you on Paid Administrative Leave,” a letter from Carter Davidson, the district’s chief personnel officer, advised Sorensen.
“The purpose of this leave is to allow the district to investigate concerns regarding your possible unprofessional conduct while serving as principal of Centennial High School.”
Sorensen said he has yet to be told the specifics of the allegation.
He is fairly certain his suspension has to do with a video he posted online.
“We were going to do a lockdown (drill) at lunch, and I sent out a YouTube video about that to the community,” he said.
After his suspension, “I met with HR (human resources) twice. The first time, they said it wasn’t related. The second time, they said it was related,” Sorensen said.
“They were looking for something.”
He said he was told, “You’ve given too much information.”
And, reflecting on that, he can see the point.
“In hindsight, did I potentially give too much information? My default is to be transparent, to over communicate. I want to be the most transparent principal in the country. I did mention (the drill) was happening during lunch,” he said.
“But ‘unprofessional conduct’—what does that mean? That was about it. They referenced my questioning of the district, how I expressed myself. There was no conclusion to the investigation; it was just me talking to my lawyer and him telling me I had no protections,” he said.
On June 14, the Peoria Times submitted a public-records request for “personnel records and all written communication with former employee William Sorensen for the period Sept. 1, 2019, through June 1, 2020.
After the district advised, “Due to how vague your request is, more than 80,000 emails are pulled in our search,” the Times revised the request, to “personnel records for that time period and written communication related to disciplinary action.”
Some weeks later, after not receiving documents, the newspaper asked for an update. “The information you asked for is about 10,000 emails that all need reviewed, processed and redacted,” responded Danielle Airey, a district spokeswoman and the PUSD compliance officer.
After several more email exchanges, PUSD provided Sorensen’s personnel file—but no other information.
On Sept. 5, the Times emailed Airey, asking for the reason for Sorensen being placed on administrative leave.
A response was not received by press time. Airey later responded, "This was a personnel matter.
"These conversations took place with Dr. Sorensen and as they are personnel matters, out of respect for him, this is all we can share."
Hints of trouble
A performance evaluation Sorensen received six months before he was placed on administrative leave hinted at trouble.
The July 16, 2019, review by Christine Lopezlira, executive director of secondary education, began quite positively:
“Mr. Sorensen in his first year has focused on his idea of post secondary success and continues to refine the idea into a mission/vision and setting goals that measure student achievement in learning. His strength this year was involving the community is one initiative towards healthy students: Tech Balance. Bill reached out to the community to hold a forum of learning from the community and to involve them in the initiative.
“One thing the community knows about Mr. Sorensen is he believes in healthy students with tech balance lives so they can be post secondary successful. Continue to learn the needs and values of the community as you support teaching and learning for increasing student achievement.”
Then, the reviewer identified “an area for refinement” in leadership:
“A principal needs to establish and maintain strong positive relationships with internal as well as external stakeholders. The area for refinement would be with the stakeholders at the district office and colleagues (administration). Principals are uncomfortable and find the complaining to the superintendent during a meeting disrespectful, counterproductive, a negative vibe not characteristic of our meetings.”
“... Other district employees have made comments about Mr. Sorensen not being welcoming or involved in tasks such as facilities or safety.”
Even so, the review ended optimistically: “Mr. Sorensen is bound to have a good second year with the first year under him and by focusing on next steps.”
Sorensen said the message was clear: “You should not disagree with the district.
“I do not have much of a poker face,” he said. “When things occur, I can continue to ask questions and try to push us in a direction where I think things should go.”
School board run
Sorensen said he left PUSD a humiliated man.
“The concept of me being put on leave after 17 years of an impeccable record was the lowest moment of my life,” he said.
The worst, he said, was the cloud of uncertainty he felt hanging over him.
“I’ve been taught people get put on leave for two things: illicit relationships and money,” he said.
Even so, he said his run for the governing board is not about revenge. He was one of nine candidates to get the signatures required to make the November ballot—with only three school board seats up for grabs.
“I would not run for the school board if I wasn’t trying to add value to the district,” he said.
“I’m not angry at the district. I think our leadership can help us go in the direction the community deserves.
“My emphasis is on love and empathy.”
And, he said, he wants to show his children an illustration of resiliency.
“It was a great example to my kids: They see their father get knocked down and fail, then watch me choose my attitude and go on in a positive light.”
After starting his career in the Deer Valley Unified School District, Sorensen was a teacher and assistant principal at PUSD’s Cactus High School.
Landing the top spot at Centennial High in 2018 was a top rung in his mental ladder.
“My plan was to be the principal where my kids went when they were old enough for high school. This was it for me,” he said.
Things don’t look like they will work out that way—teaching this longtime educator a hard, strong lesson:
“It’s a great story where what you think is going to give you fulfillment is taken away—and you have to find a new way to serve.”