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By Nathan Bourne
Pathfinder 

Superintendent's contract not renewed on split vote

Seeley Lake Elementary School Board

 

January 30, 2020



SEELEY LAKE – The Seeley Lake Elementary School Board voted at their Jan. 21 meeting to not renew Superintendent Daniel Schrock’s contract but invited him to reapply for the job. Ahead of the decision, the Board preformed an evaluation of Schrock. He waived his rights to privacy allowing the public to remain in the meeting.

Schrock was awarded a one-year contract last August to replace former Superintendent Chris Stout, who resigned in June. The Board must renew or not renew the superintendent’s contract by February.

More than 20 people attended the meeting with several people speaking and reading letters both for and against renewing Schrock’s contract. The Board also received several letters of support, including one from County Superintendent Erin Lipkind, in their Board packets ahead of the meeting.

At the beginning of the Board’s search for a superintendent, Lipkind recommended only offering a one-year contract, warning the Board that the quality of candidates applying that late in the year would be questionable.

Despite Lipkind’s early comments about the quality of candidates, Schrock won over her support as seen in the letter she sent the Board recommending renewal of Schrock’s contract and offering him a three-year contract.

Lipkind wrote that in his short time at SLE he impressed her by stepping into a challenging position with a positive attitude and relentless drive to usher in a new era for SLE, all for the benefit of the students. She went on to write that Schrock is a hardworking man with character, integrity, a strong moral compass and competence to get things done.

Members of the public questioned if the Board had already made a decision to not renew Schrock’s contract ahead of the meeting.

Board Chair Ryen Neudecker said that she had met with Schrock earlier. She informed him that she talked to the other Board members one–on-one and that she felt the majority of the Board was leaning toward not renewing his contract. However, he would be invited to reapply for the job.

The public questioned the legality of Neudecker’s actions. She replied that the Board’s attorney advised her that she could talk to other Board members one-on-one. Neudecker explained that she wanted to give Schrock a heads-up so he wasn’t completely blindsided at the meeting.

Schrock questioned why they felt he would have been blindsided and took exception to the idea that they had made a decision ahead of the meeting and his evaluation.

Neudecker responded that she probably didn’t word it properly. The board did not vote on it ahead of the meeting.

It quickly became clear that the SLE staff is divided on whether Schrock’s contract should be renewed. One of the letters of support was signed by 18 of SLE’s staff while several other teachers spoke or read letters in opposition. Notably, approximately six tenured teachers were not among the 18 signatures in support though not all of them spoke publicly in opposition to Schrock’s renewal.

The letter signed by 18 staffers drew criticism from several teachers who argued that the Board should disregard it stating that it was signed against policy in the employee handbook. They said staff was asked to sign the letter during their workday without time to read it and sometimes even in front of students. The letter with signature was also left where students could read it including signatures.

Additionally, they felt that the staff was given the opportunity to participate in Schrock’s evaluation through a survey that was provided to the Board. By allowing the letter of support to be shared publicly they claimed the public would only be seeing one side of the issue.

One teacher said she complained to Schrock in an email that passing the letter around was against policy. She received no response from Schrock and the letter was allowed to continue circulating.

The staff division revolved around Schrock’s communications with and support for some teachers. Supporters commended his leadership, interaction with their classrooms, support such as literacy testing tools and bringing staff together. The other side accused him of pushing and pulling staff instead of leading and encouraging, failing to visit their classrooms very often, pushing testing programs instead of working on updating 20-year-old curriculum and further dividing staff.

Schrock’s communications with staff drew a lot of comments and concerns from both staff and board members. In November the board had an executive session where they discussed two staff members’ concerns over the “tone” of emails they had received from Schrock. According to the special meeting’s minutes, the Board voted to not accept either of the staff members’ grievances.

The Pathfinder put in a public information request with SLE asking that the content of the emails be released. The Pathfinder argued that Schrock’s waiver of his privacy during the evaluation should be extended to those emails and that staff and students’ identities in the emails could be redacted to protect their privacy.

SLE responded stating that the emails couldn’t be redacted in such a way to protect the identities of staff due to the concerns raised in the emails. Additionally, since the Board did not find misconduct on the part of Schrock, he maintained his right of privacy on the complaint raised in November.

Schrock’s Evaluation

The Board rated Schrock on six components in the evaluation with five being the highest and one the lowest rating. Board members looked at results from a staff survey, discussions with staff and community members and personal experience to come up with their ratings. An average of the Board members rating was given.

The following comments from board members are paraphrased from the Board’s evaluation. Positive comments are listed first, followed by areas for improvement and finally Schrock’s responses.

1. Educational leadership to provide a strong academic program - 3.3: Schrock has preformed well considering the difficult circumstances which he came into, that needed a lot of work. He has been working hard to get more testing to assess student progress and short and long-term plans for the school.

Areas for improvement: There is a lack of assessments, lack of collaboration between staff, more consistency needed visiting classrooms and delegation of certain items like a curriculum committee.

Schrock said he is actively working with staff to best use their time and resources. He gave the example that he recently met with teachers from third through fifth grade to collaborate how to best use the extra person who was hired on to assist with third grade while the regular teacher was on maternity leave. They decided to utilize the extra person doing more individualized group instruction to work on literacy deficiencies amongst those grades. Students will be helped based upon assessments of their literacy skills.

As to being in classrooms more, Schrock said he disagrees with the idea that he isn’t in classrooms but added that he has given extra space to teachers who recently filed the complaints that were unfounded by the Board. He said he did this to try and let things cool down so they could hopefully work together better without the recent history interfering.

2. Relationship with the Board - 3.4: Schrock keeps the Board well informed, follows up in a timely manner and has been receptive to feedback.

Areas for improvement: They want more discussion on strategies for upcoming years funding priorities and weekly emailed updates on the everyday goings-on at the school.

Schrock said he has been communicating with the Board on big issues but is frustrated that the Board would want more communication when he has always said his door is open. While he understands the Board members are all volunteers, none have taken him up on his offer and stopped by.

3. Management skills and abilities - 3.3: Schrock came into the year operating with a budget set by the past administrator so Board members found it hard to evaluate that part of his job.

Areas for improvement: More communication and reports.

Schrock said there are several different ways the school communicates including emails, Facebook posts and postings on bulletin boards at the school.

4. Relationship with staff - 2.8: Schrock showed integrity when presented with formal complaints over the tone of some emails. He apologized to the staff that were recipients of those emails.

Areas for improvement: There appears to be inconsistent treatment of the staff. Some receive classroom visits and constructive feedback while others are feeling unheard and not part of the team. He is inconsistent in his communications with staff with some having received harsh emails that were lacking professionalism. These were not isolated to just one or two emails.

Schrock responded that with any new administrator there is bound to be those that disagree with decisions made. He feels that he is raising the game for the benefit of the students and school. He has spent more time with newly hired staff to provide extra support to bring them into the team. When staff has had issues with one another he has worked to facilitate meetings to work on resolving their issues. One email that a staff member took offense to was sent to the entire staff and nobody else took offense to it.

Schrock pointed out that there has been a division amongst staff a long time, way before he was hired. He said he tries to stay positive because there has been a lot of negativity in the past prior to him. Staying positive is a full time job for him.

5. Public relations - 3.3: Schrock appears to have a good overall relationship with the public and community.

Areas for improvement: none given.

6. Professional and personal attributes - 3.1: Schrock stepped into a tough situation and does it professionally and positively.

Areas for improvement: Treating everyone with respect, communication skills and being more available first thing in the morning and after school.

Schrock explained that his contract does not set hours and that he works a lot of hours that people don’t see like holidays and staying late on weekdays. He knows what he has to get done and puts in the time to accomplish this. He even came to work prior to being officially hired because he knew he needed to get the job done.

In closing, Schrock said he didn’t come to SLE for a one-year job. He said if the Board wants a superintendent to be in the community, whether its him or not, they have to support them because the work that needs to get done won’t get done without sustained leadership. He stepped into a mess with the prior supervisor allowing staff to do whatever they wanted whether it was in the best interest of the kids or not. In his opinion only sustained leadership will fix the issues that SLE faces.

In Neudecker’s final comments on the evaluation she praised Schrock for stepping into a difficult situation, for his love for kids, initiative in reaching out for grants, improving school safety and working to change discipline of kids. Instead of sending them home he’s keeping them at school and having them do something to redirect their behavior.

Neudecker said she has a hard time believing that the problem of division in the school is a result of the teachers. She said she didn’t think someone was needed to come in to fix the teachers but that opportunities to unite people have been missed. She felt that Schrock should not avoid teachers that he’s had confrontations with and that he should work to treat all staff equally.

In looking at the staff survey and talking to staff, Neudecker said it is apparent that some have great communication with Schrock while others can’t get a response from him.

While Schrock maintained that he has never turned down a meeting, one staff member in attendance said she had tried repeatedly to set up a meeting and hasn’t gotten a response. At some point during the year, Schrock apologized saying that he was avoiding her because he didn’t know how to tell her that her job might not be funded next year.

Board Trustee Gary Wayne echoed Neudecker’s concerns, saying that he thinks the staff needs to all feel like their leadership is hearing their voices and right now some of the staff does not feel that. Wayne said he felt that Schrock should go out of his way to open channels of communication that he may or may not even know are closed.

Wayne said that a team could only move as fast as its slowest member. Instead of complaining about that person, the administrator should find out who that slowest person is and work as a team to build them up.

Trustee Jenna Boltz said she has seen the positive things Schrock has done. However it is a sizable group that is experiencing problems in communication and treatment from Schrock.

“It’s not just a tone in an email, there is straight up unprofessionalism that I’ve seen,” said Boltz. “I’ve worked in some pretty stressful environments and I’ve never seen a leader talk to people that way, quite frankly.”

Trustee Todd Johnson said that the staff division was certainly there before Schrock came and that part of his job is one of his biggest challenges to overcome. Johnson felt that five months to do that was asking a lot of Schrock.

Johnson saw the email issue a little differently in that he felt that some were simply mistaken due to the words Schrock used. He felt the tone issue could be resolved by speaking directly to the person instead of through emails.

Johnson said this was the hardest evaluation he has ever done in his 20 years on the board because he has never had to do an evaluation after such a short amount of time.

Board Vice Chair Kyle Marx said despite some miscommunications and misunderstandings, he felt Schrock has done a pretty amazing job. Marx didn’t think it was fair to expect all the problems to be solved in five months especially some of the problems that require funding to fix because the budget was set by the previous superintendent.

Marx didn’t think the Board has put forth a plan to remedy the issues raised and the Board hasn’t given Schrock their expectations.

“I think if we don’t give him a chance and don’t put forward what we expect, we do a disservice to all,” said Marx.

Wayne motioned and Boltz seconded to not renew Schrock’s contract and to invite him to reapply for the position.

Wayne explained that he felt Schrock had done some really admirable things but that he would like to see some changes and evidence that Schrock is making progress by the time of hiring the position. Seeing those changes and rehiring Schrock would be Wayne’s best-case scenario.

Boltz wished the public could see the emails so they could see why it wasn’t just an issue of tone but a lack of professionalism. She said there might be a better candidate out there or Schrock may be the best but she agrees with Wayne and hopes Schrock can show them in the coming months that he is the best for the job. She felt that by not renewing his contract it was giving him a chance to make changes while it left the Board able to hire someone different if he didn’t make changes.

Marx felt that spending $8,000 on reopening the position is a tremendous waste of money, time and resources instead of giving Schrock a chance by simply offering him a renewed contract right now. Marx reiterated that he thought, given direction, Schrock could remedy the issues presented.

Johnson said he could certainly understand why people would think they might have better candidates than they did within the short time frame Schrock was hired, but they might not and Schrock might not apply for the job again. Johnson felt six months was too short in which to base an evaluation.

Neudecker said she was basing her decision on Schrock’s performance over the last six months and it wasn’t just about a couple of emails. She felt that his treatment of staff differently was a real concern and that she wanted to see him in everyone’s classroom working will all the teachers, not just the ones with which he has a good relationship.

Neudecker, Wayne and Boltz voted in favor of non-renewing Schrock’s contract and inviting him to reapply. Marx and Johnson voted against it.

The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is Feb. 18 at 5:30 p.m.

 

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