Dr. Stephen West's career ratcheted up a few notches in 2014. Three years as a Eden Prairie School District director spring-boarded him to Winona. As the district's new superintendent, West was charged with leading 3,000 students and almost 700 staff.
Winona Area Schools looked like it had picked a winner. West held four college degrees, his resume showed. He held a master's and Ph.D. in education from St. Mary's University, within walking distance of his distict office.
West played the role of a vocal advocate, making the case for a $75 million school funding referendum. He talked of how the money would be put to good use using first-rate technology inside renovated schools.
"What I appreciate about him is that he holds us accountable," then-school board chair Mohamed Elhindi told the Winona Post in 2014, "and he allows us to hold him accountable."
That they would, eventually.
This school year imploded before having the chance to lift off. West, who had been tasked with writing the district's plan on future technology use, was accused of plagiarism. According to board chair Ben Baratto, West used almost verbatim passages from two published sources, yet wrote them as his own.
Included was a 127-word quote that originated in a 2013 manual written for a private chain of Christian schools. The second passage was almost 700-words long. West's work read nearly identical to what the Waltham Public Schools had published in 2014.
West countered, charging he was the victim of a "witch hunt" by the likes of the Winona Post, which wrote about the plagiarism allegations. He also threatened to vacate his post at the end of the calendar year.
Then an unnamed local professor shared with Post reporters Laura Hayes and Sarah Squires some interesting discoveries. The academic had retrieved a copy of West's 2009 doctorate dissertation. And it turned out that more than 70 percent of the 107-page work mirrored a 2007 dissertation written at the University of Georgia.
The reporters brought the new facts to the university.
"Mr. West does not hold a doctoral degree from [St. Mary's]," it responded in a written statement.
Repeated attempts to contact West by phone Thursday at his district office were unsuccessful.
"He's unavailable," the receptionist repeated.
Messages left for school board members were not returned.
Winona and West officially parted ways last night when the school board approved a "separation agreement."