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By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Board hires teachers despite recommendation for nonrenewal

Seeley Lake Elementary School Board

 

Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

District Clerk Heather Mincey did temperature checks prior to anyone entering the meeting.

SEELEY LAKE – With three newly elected board members seated at the Seeley Lake Elementary School Board May 19, two letters of resignation were accepted and all teacher contracts were approved despite two being recommended for nonrenewal by Superintendent Daniel Schrock. Since one of the nonrenewals was for the preschool teacher, the board discussed offering preschool next year. They agreed they all wanted to see it available and requested more information regarding funding options to be presented at their June meeting.

The board received resignation letters from SLE maintenance man John Devins and Head Cook Susie Ferdinand.

Devins submitted a letter stating his intention to retire on his hire date July 8. After 23 years in his position he was grateful for the opportunity to work with the students, staff, teachers and the community while taking care of the physical needs of the building and grounds.

"The job has been a great fit and positive comments from students, parents, teachers, administrators and the board over the years have been appreciated," wrote Devins in his resignation letter. "The community has overall been tremendous and I thank them for that."

Ferdinand's letter simply stated she would not return next year.

"I would like to give thanks to everyone for the opportunity I have been given to be a part of this school family," wrote Ferdinand.

Schrock said that preschool for next year has been an ongoing consideration. He said that the program costs $86,000. That has come out of the General Fund and Title 1 funding.

"Knowing that things are tight, the recommendation that I have to the District is to offer transitional kindergarten, because there's funding for it," said Schrock, explaining that there is no funding for preschool. "That funding is tied directly to accreditation by the school and that accreditation is tied to a certified educator teaching that transitional kindergarten."

Schrock said the plan is to offer transitional kindergarten next year through the state appropriation in Annual Number Belonging (ANB) funds to support the program. He is also looking into grant funding.

Board member Kathy Teague asked why the board has never discussed preschool funding in the past? She also confirmed that a certified teacher is needed to get state funding.

Previous board chair Ryen Neudecker said that board members and teachers at the school made multiple attempts to have a preschool conversation. It was in the top priorities at the community crossover. The last board meeting where preschool was discussed by the board was in October.

Schrock recommended not renewing contracts for preschool teacher Jama Mauldin and first grade teacher Rachel Bemis. Both are non-tenured staff.

"My recommendation for not renewing non tenured staff was made for the best of intent and what I believe is best for the school district financially, certainly the team aspect of the staff and ultimately what is best for the kids," said Schrock.

Mauldin spoke in her defense asking the board to deny Schrock's recommendation and to renew her contract pending preschool program development and fundraising decisions with incoming superintendent Josh Gibbs.

Mauldin said this fall she had a plan of study in place to be certified so the school could receive ANB funding.

"Dan Schrock recommended in October that I stop and not pursue this process because the school would not be able to apply for the A and B funding because it was not possible per OPI," said Mauldin.

Mauldin said she then stopped her plan of study because she was paying for it out of her own pocket and using her provisional license to do this for SLE so they could received federal funding.

Since October, Mauldin said she approached Schrock with a possible grant idea and had parents asking how they could fundraise to maintain the program but he refused to meet. Mauldin was told again in a meeting with Schrock, Sheila Devins and Laura Devins on Feb. 20 that ANB funding could not be used to fund preschool.

Mauldin pointed out to the board that six employees have publicly shared negative experiences with Schrock in different ways. The two that are nontenured are being recommended for nonrenewal.

"To be recommended for a nonrenewal feels very much like retaliation," said Mauldin pointing to the documentation she had and a packet of 16 support letters from parents and SLE staff.

Schrock denied the claim that his recommendations for non-renewals were retaliation.

"I provided retaliation training to all of our staff this year to ensure that everyone knew the expectation that it is not condoned in this school," said Schrock. "It's a nonrenewal without cause. It does not require cause."

After significant discussion the board agreed that they were going to try and find a way to fund preschool. Vice Chair Doc Welter pointed out that they had listened to three hours of colleagues and parents saying they disagree with Schrock's recommendation and all he gave the board is he didn't want the teacher back.

"We had 14 people that spoke here tonight, either through Zoom or in person or by letters read and I didn't hear anything from anyone that said there might be a reason why Mr. Schrock has made this recommendation," said Welter.

Following several motions on the table, the board unanimously voted to renew Mauldin's contract pending funding out of 0.5 FTE and pending certified licensure.

Bemis presented 20 letters of support, seven from parents, eight from staff and five from community members. Bemis said her only observation from Schrock was in September. He wrote her an email that was "rave reviews" and led to hiring her as a mentor for a new teacher. However, he never did a formal evaluation for her personnel file.

The teacher Bemis mentored wrote her a letter of support and was renewed. Bemis has seniority over two nontenured teachers at the school.

According to MCA code 20-4-206 section 3 states in part: (1) The trustees shall provide written notice by June 1 to each nontenure teacher employed by the district regarding whether the nontenure teacher has been reelected for the ensuing school fiscal year... (3) Subject to the June 1 notice requirements in this section, the trustees may nonrenew the employment of a nontenure teacher at the conclusion of the school fiscal year with or without cause.

In addition to the MCA, Montana rules governing school board of trustees 10.55.701 section 4 states that the evaluation system used by a school district for licensed staff shall, at a minimum: be conducted on at least an annual basis with regard to nontenure staff.

Bemis told the board about two different incidences that happened on the same day. Prior to Jan. 16, Schrock visited her room every day. However, Jan. 16 was a turning point when she had a conflict with a staff member and a petition of support for Schrock was circulated in the lunchroom that Bemis chose not to sign.

"I have never publicly spoken against him or for him. That was strategic again not because I'm against him but because I do not feel that that's appropriate," said Bemis. "I have focused on my students. I have focused on curriculum. I have tried to stay out of the drama even though Dan has never returned to my classroom since that day."

Bemis said she is direct, she asks questions and she is confident in her professional ability.

"I think it is unfortunate that he considers my directness and the fact that I expect a supervisor to be able to answer questions and respond to attempts at communications as hostile and bossy," said Bemis.

Bemis said Schrock has never called her in to work on her behavior. She is working on her Master's, so she is costing the school a little bit more than other nontenured teachers. Schrock has also never spoken to her about a negative interaction with parents or students.

"Why have I not been given an opportunity to resign if there's an issue? This will be detrimental to my future and he knows that," said Bemis. "His job was not done to evaluate me."

Board member Gary Wayne spoke in favor of rehiring Bemis. He shared stories from personal experience about her ability to work with dysfunctional and special needs students.

"Having a teacher that knew how to work with sped kids and cause them to come back into great academics and then excel, I don't know if there are many teachers that could have done that," said Wayne.

Board member Kathy Teague took issue with her inability to work well with others.

"She said she had one staff conflict. One staff conflict to me is one too many," said Teague. "I don't want to lose her as a good teacher. But I don't want others to be afraid of dealing with her."

"We heard from 18 people in person or via letter by others that state that she's an adequate, if not outstanding educator. Mr. Schrock simply states that he does not want her to come back next year and that is his right as superintendent without any cause," said Welter. "It is uncomfortable for me to ignore the documented supports provided for her without having any understanding...if there is something more nefarious I would love to hear it. All I'm hearing is 'I just don't want you back here next year' and we've got 38 people that said we want you back."

The board approved rehiring Bemis with four votes in favor. Teague abstained.

In other business:

• Kyle Marx is the new Chair and Doc Welter is the new vice-chair. Heather Mincey was appointed District Clerk.

Nathan Bourne, Pathfinder

SLE Technology Director Dean Phillips facilitated the public's remote access to the meeting through Zoom.

• The board unanimously approved hiring of all certified, classified and administrative staff recommended for rehire by Schrock. They also hired Janet Morgenstern for music upon successful completion of a background check. This will be a split position with Seeley-Swan High School. Preschool aide Laura Devins not included on any list.

• The strategic planning results discussion was tabled.

• The 2020-2021 school calendar was adopted. School will start Sept. 8 and end June 8. While the start and end days don't match with Seeley-Swan High School, the breaks line up. Thanksgiving break runs Nov. 25-27, winter break is Dec. 21-Jan. 1 and spring break is March 15-19.

Preschool funding options, fall opening procedures and budget resolution will be discussed at the next board meeting Monday, June 15 at 5:15 p.m. Information regarding how the public can participate will be provided ahead of the meeting.

 

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