News & Features

Bigfork School Board to Audit Teacher Evaluations After Dismissal

Parents raised concerns about the process after a popular teacher was dismissed this year

BIGFORK – Parents have raised concerns over the teacher-evaluation process in Bigfork after a popular kindergarten teacher was dismissed without explanation earlier this spring even though she had previously received high marks.

Now the Bigfork school board is creating a committee to audit teacher evaluations over the last five years. The three-person committee is expected to gather in coming weeks and begin opening teacher personnel files to review their number of evaluations.

The issue of teacher evaluations was first recognized by a group of parents when, earlier this year, Kelli Whalen, a kindergarten teacher at the school for the last two years, was dismissed with little explanation. Parents who supported Whalen said they were confused when they found out that Whalen, who taught in Alaska and Bozeman for nearly a decade before coming to Bigfork, had received high marks on her employee evaluations. Whalen, however, had not been at the school long enough to be tenured and thus could be dismissed without cause.

“It seems so strange to me that this amazing teacher was not able to stay at the school and that there is no recourse for her,” said Monica Harris, the mother of a child in Whalen’s class. “We accept this legally, but it does not seem fair.”

Bigfork school district officials have declined to publically say Whalen’s contract was not renewed.

However, parents looking into Whalen’s dismissal found that the teacher had only had two evaluations in two years at the school. According to the school district, non-tenured staff should be evaluated once per school semester and all evaluations must be completed and submitted before May 1. A post-evaluation conference is supposed to be held within five days of completing the evaluation. Bigfork’s elementary school is on a trimester schedule, meaning Whalen only received two of the six evaluations she was supposed to have.

According to a school district document titled “Classified Evaluation Instrument Process and Description,” the teachers are judged using 24 general performance factors, including how they interact with students and colleagues; attendance; and quality of work and initiative, among other standards. The evaluations are intended to help employees understand their jobs, help them develop, and “aid the administration in the selection, assignment, retention and promotion process.”

Whalen received evaluations in February and November 2014 and was found to be professionally proficient, although parts of the second evaluation were incomplete. Regardless, Whalen was surprised when she was informed in February that she would not be returning in the fall.

When parents found that Whalen had not even received the proper number of evaluations, they urged the school board to look into it, which they did during the May 13 meeting. Harris and other parents said they found evidence that other teachers, including tenured ones, had not received evaluations in years.

Vice Chair Paul Sandry said the Board of Trustees would not go into specifics about why it decided not to rehire Whalen, but it did acknowledge the school was not following its own guidelines in regards to evaluations.

“If we have a policy that states we need to do multiple evaluations every year then we need to do that,” Sandry said during the meeting.

Sandry said there was no excuse for the school district to not do evaluations every semester; however, he noted that one reason the reviews have not been completed is that there has been some turnover in the administration. Matt Jensen became superintendent in 2014 after being principal at the elementary and middle school.

The three-person committee made up of Board of Trustees members is expected to report back to the full board later this summer with its findings.

Harris said she was pleased the school board decided to look into the matter, but she believes there should be a standing committee to keep an eye on this issue in the future. She worries that the issue may again fall through the cracks once the board completes the five-year audit.

“I don’t want any other teacher to find themself in Kelli’s position again,” she said.