Archive for Thursday, March 16, 2006

School board meets privately with staff

Concerns raised over plan to fire 2 principals; allegations voiced about possible retributions

March 16, 2006

Reacting to an outcry over the superintendent's plan to fire two principals, the Basehor-Linwood school board met behind closed doors for about 12 hours on Monday and Tuesday.

And the board planned to meet again Wednesday night in executive session before announcing its decision on the principals' fates.

During the past month, Steve Blankenship, Basehor-Linwood High School principal, and Teri Holmes, Basehor Elementary School principal, were informed that their contracts would not be approved for next year.

That's when board members began receiving telephone calls and e-mails from school staff members and patrons.

On Monday -- during their regularly scheduled meeting -- board members met in executive session for nearly four hours. They spent the bulk of that time meeting with several staff members.

On Tuesday, they met behind closed doors for nearly eight hours, until 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, talking with more than 30 staffers.

Some former staff members also met with the board.

And Wednesday, board members were slated to go into executive session again at 5 p.m.

The board's expected action occurred after the Sentinel's deadline for this edition.

However, results of the meeting are available at the newspaper's Web site: www.basehorinfo.com.

Board president Kerry Mueller said Wednesday morning that she expected the board to announce a decision on contracts for Blankenship and Holmes.

"The consensus was that we needed to do the action tonight, like we promised," she said. "That's our goal -- to arrive at a decision."

Mueller and board member Dayna Miller agreed it was important the board hear from staff members.

"I think it's a process that we absolutely had to go through," Miller said. "I'm sad that it's something we were forced to go through. But it's something that we as a school board of seven needed to hear from our employees and our staff. Absolutely. We listened to every person who was there. We want to make a right decision. We want to hear all of the information."

While Miller did not divulge any details about the closed-door sessions, when asked about the mood of the many hours of meetings, she said, "Probably the first word that comes to mind is somber -- and serious.

"It has been a surreal experience."

Not renewing contracts

The experience began several weeks ago, when the board voted, 7-0, to inform Blankenship that his contract would not be renewed for next year. That occurred Feb. 13.

The following day, Holmes said, she was called to the district offices, where Superintendent Jill Hackett asked for her resignation. Also at the meeting were Bill Hatfield, assistant superintendent, and Don Swartz, director of business and facilities.

"They let me know I'd be non-renewed, that it was unanimous by the board," said Holmes, who has been with the district for five years. "I later found out from a board member that there was no such vote."

Blankenship asked to meet with the board in person to discuss his contract. That meeting came March 8. The board met for about two hours in executive session, and Blankenship was in that meeting for about 30 minutes.

"It was at my request," he said. "And it was an opportunity to talk with them and try to reach some understanding and maybe an agreement."

Blankenship, who was expected to meet again with the board Wednesday, defended the job he'd done in the district.

"I haven't done anything wrong, I can tell you that," he said.

Blankenship said he's been touched by an outpouring of support from parents, students and staff.

"I love this community, and based on the support I've received, I would love to stay here," he said. "I don't feel like I've done anything wrong. I've done nothing but what I've been asked to do and would like to continue on in that role."

He said that during his three-year tenure at the school, test scores have risen. In addition, turnover at his school essentially has stopped.

"We were losing 10 to 12 teachers each year," he said.

In contrast, last year the high school lost two teachers, both of whom moved from Kansas to be closer to their hometowns, he said.

"It's a great staff, and I enjoy working with them," he said.

Packed meeting

At Monday's board meeting, nearly 200 staff members and district patrons crammed into the board meeting room, overflowing into the foyer.

At the outset of the meeting, Mueller read a statement, citing the progress of the district during the past three years with Hackett at the helm. Mueller left the impression that the statement was coming from the entire board.

However, during questioning later in the meeting, she said she had written the statement. And she said she had apologized to her fellow board members, who had not seen the statement before it was read.

"I tried very hard to make it objective," Mueller said.

Members of the public and staff members spoke to the board for about an hour. The bulk of the speakers said they supported one or both of the principals -- or were concerned about turnover in the district. However, some staff members said they had no problems in the district and praised Hackett's work.

Angela Payne, a Glenwood Ridge Elementary School parent who also has been a substitute teacher in the district, said she had sent e-mails to several board members about staff turnover.

"There is a big problem there," she said, eliciting applause from the crowd.

She said staff members did not come forward about their concerns, out of concerns about losing their jobs.

Vicki Herbster, building technology coordinator at the high school, said that a year ago a now-former employee was slandered at a board meeting.

"If this was allowed, how do you expect employees to feel safe speaking to you and speaking out?" she asked. "Many employees feel threatened."

She said she supported Blankenship.

"He has made our school a great place," she said. "I feel very privileged to work for him. ... Our staff is overwhelmingly in favor of keeping Mr. Blankenship. They support him, and they appreciate his leadership."

The support for Blankenship extended to students. Nicci Equels, a BLHS student, presented the board with a petition signed by 374 students, urging the board to retain Blankenship.

"I only had one day," she said of her efforts.

She said he's a firm, but fair leader.

"I urge you to consider what is best for the school and our learning community before making any hasty decisions," Equels said.

And fellow student Joe Kelly said he viewed Blankenship as a role model.

"I cannot understand why Mr. Blankenship would be asked to leave after achieving so much in so little time," he said.

Cindy Pedroza, a lifelong community resident who formerly taught special education in the district, said she left the district because of politics.

She said she supported both of the principals, noting Holmes runs her school with order and a firm hand, employing kindness and a sense of humor.

"It's not a popularity contest with her," she said.

And patron Cindy Harvey said Holmes' staff supported her.

"We've had our differences, but she's always worked them out," Harvey said. "There's not anybody that you're going to agree with all of the time."

Broader probe

Patron Jerry Kessee said he wanted an investigation encompassing more than whether the two principals should be retained.

"I am asking for a thorough investigation as to how this district is managed and administered," he said.

But Sandy Guidry, BLHS assistant principal, defended the superintendent. She said Hackett listens to and values the input of patrons and staff. She also noted the district's achievements in standardized testing.

"I know that Dr. Hackett is analytical," Guidry said. "She does not make hasty decisions. ... I have extreme confidence in the decisions she makes because I know they are not made on personal feelings or personal motives."

She said her support for Hackett and other administrators was "unwavering."

Brenda DeGroot, a district employee for 23 years who now is director of the virtual school, said, like herself, other employees have been in the district for a number of years.

"Do what you're told, and you won't get in trouble," she said. ''... I have always felt comfortable saying what I feel, how I feel."

And Tammy Potts, coordinator for the district's YouthFriends volunteer group, told those gathered that she was upset about an e-mail that had been circulated because the return address included a reference to care cat -- which also is the name of a group of student mentors. She had received inquiries about whether she had written the e-mail.

"I want everybody in this room tonight to know that when I write an e-mail, I sign it," she said.

She called for the sender of the anonymous e-mail to step forward and apologize.

And she encouraged the group to work together.

"We can get along," she said. "We can pass bonds. We can do that if the passion we have in this room can be bottled and can be used for good."

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