ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The decision by the USD 410 Board of Education last week not to renew the contracts of two high school teachers approaching tenure has leaders saying the evaluation process needs to be improved.
Meeting in special session Wednesday night, the board approved separate recommendations to “nonrenew” the teaching contracts of Kristi Esquibel, instructor of agricultural education, and Martha Roach, instructor of art.
Both teachers were eligible for tenure beginning with the next school year.
The 5-2 vote was identical for each recommendation, with Board President Doug Weinbrenner and members Brent Barkman, Debbie Geis, Cal Jost and Brenda Enns voting in favor of nonrenewal, and Eddie Weber and Reg Matz voting against the recommendation.
“Any way you look at it, this was an unfortunate way for this to happen,” said Superintendent Gordon Mohn last week.
The issue of teacher contracts had been included in the agenda report for the board’s regular April 8 meeting, but the issue was not addressed in open session.
The continuing contract law in Kansas provides that teachers’ contracts are automatically renewed on May 1 unless a school board takes action to “nonrenew” a contract. Teachers must then notify the district by May 15 if they do not intend to accept the contract for the coming year.
The leadership team at USD 410-which includes the superintendent and the building principals-recommended in the April 8 board report packet that the board take no action regarding the contracts of Esquibel, Roach and three other faculty who are up for tenure consideration: Anita Boese, Collette Burton and Gregg Walker.
Without action, the contracts-including tenure-would automatically be offered.
The prospect of granting tenure appears to have been the reason concerns about Esquibel and Roach were raised at this time, Mohn said.
“Some people think once you give tenure that it’s impossible to have that teacher removed,” he said. “It’s not true. It’s just more difficult, and you have to show just cause.”
The Free Press was able to identify several parents who had raised concerns about the direction of the agriculture education under Esquibel’s leadership, but was unable to identify a parental source for concerns about Roach’s performance.
By the time the board met on Wednesday night, the circle of information had broadened considerably. Fifty-two people-including about 17 USD 410 personnel and more than a dozen HHS students-registered as guests at the meeting.
Nine of those guests-including Esquibel and Roach-asked for and received permission to address the board in executive session.
Mohn and Weinbrenner said board members had received telephone calls for and against renewing the two contracts, but both men, acting upon the advice of the board’s legal counsel, declined to give specifics about the input received or about the issues of concern.
“Because these are non-tenured teachers, our legal advice was that we not give reasons,” Mohn said. “In fact, we told (Esquibel and Roach), we’d like to talk to you about what the reasons are, but legally we’re advised not to do that.
“That’s regrettable, it’s not good PR, it’s not good for relationships with employees, but that’s part of the tenure sword that cuts both ways,” Mohn added. “It provides some protection for teachers, but it also (prevents reasons for nonrenewal from being disclosed).”
Added Weinbrenner: “I know that issues like this upset people. The board has to be careful what we say, and that only fuels wild speculation and rumors. But we’re charged by the people who put us there to make the decisions that in the long term are best for the school district.”
Mohn said the board did receive three written responses in support of the two teachers as part of the public record. One came from “Agriculture Education Supporters” that praised Esquibel’s work and was signed by 23 students, including most FFA officers; one was signed by two students supporting Esquibel; a third letter was signed by two students supporting Roach.
Both Mohn and Weinbrenner strongly refuted rumors that either the art or agriculture programs were in any danger of being cut, or that the board was attempting to reduce expenses by hiring less experienced teachers.
In earlier meetings, the board had discussed the process for evaluating teachers approaching tenure. Mohn and Weinbrenner agreed this incident underlined the importance of moving ahead on that issue.
“I absolutely don’t want this kind of situation to happen again,” Mohn said.
Added Weinbrenner: “I’m not going to say the process is broken, but I will say that it needs to be strengthened. Sometimes when you have a process that doesn’t work as well as it should work, it creates some issues.
“As a board and administrative team, together, we want to tackle this thing, work through it, and make the process work the way it should work.”
Mohn said the answer may be to create a committee or task force to gather information that goes beyond the formal evaluations done regularly by the administrative team. Sources might include fellow teachers, parents and students.
“We’ve got to work on a way for calls to come to administrators earlier so they can deal with (concerns) rather than to call board members-not that it’s wrong to call board members,” Mohn said. “But if they call board members, how does the information get back to administrators? How do we facilitate that communication?”
Weinbrenner said the decisions regarding Esquibel and Roach were extremely difficult ones to make, but the goal of the board is to strengthen the educational program at HHS for the long term. He said he understands why teachers might be shaken by these recent developments.
“Frankly, the board looks at teachers as our most valuable resource,” he said. “We’re in the business of education, and you’re only as good as your teachers. We’ve got great facilities, but that’s not what’s most important. What’s most important is having great teachers.
“I think all of us-administrative team, board, citizens, teachers-everyone wants to have great teachers. That’s what it’s all about. That’s how kids learn.”