Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect scheduling changes surrounding the April 22 board meeting.
Dozens of Whitefish High School students, staff and parents packed a standing-room only district board meeting this week and offered emotional testimony in support of renewing librarian Chani Craig’s contract after administrators opted to terminate it without cause.
Whitefish High School Principal Kerry Drown told members of the Whitefish School Board of Trustees — which must either approve or override the administrative recommendation — that his reason for not renewing Craig’s contract included her failure to align with the school district’s “core values of excellence,” even as students, parents and fellow teachers described Craig as an exemplary employee whose skills transcend the traditional role of librarian.
“The situation before us tonight is an unfortunate one,” Drown told the seven-person Board of Trustees, as well as Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt, during its monthly meeting on April 9. “The decision was not an easy one or one that was arrived at frivolously or hastily. A lot of thought and consideration using a wide lens of perspective has gone into arriving at this decision.”
Drown proceeded to list a host of reasons that led administrators to conclude Craig “was not a good fit” for the position, including a pattern of tardiness, failing to uphold the school’s electronic device policy, failing to secure the library, and a failure to uphold the “job responsibilities in relation to the core values within the school culture and climate.”
Under state law, the probationary period for a non-tenured employee is three years. During that time, the employee’s contract can be terminated with or without cause. Craig has been a staff member for two years. A teacher employed in Montana receives tenure after accepting a contract for the fourth consecutive year at a district.
Craig acknowledged she was late to open the library on three occasions since her last evaluation in January, but never by more than three minutes. She also disputed Drown’s assertion that she instructed the night custodian to leave the library unlocked at night.
“I strive to create an inclusive environment and to build relationships with students and staff based on trust and empathy,” Craig said. “My goal is that every student that comes into the library knows that I am there for them. And this is something that you cannot teach. I can check all the boxes, I can do all the details of the Dewey Decimal System, I can collect all the fiction books that are important for people to read. But the real passion in teaching is to be there for the students and I think they know that I am there for them.”
Following an hour-long public comment period during which numerous students, parents and staff spoke in favor of renewing Craig’s contract for a third year, the board voted 5-1 to table the action item, with one trustee abstaining and another, Anna Deese, voting in opposition. Board members missed a procedural opportunity to directly question both Craig and Drown, and with pressing questions they opted to delay a vote in order to revisit the opportunity next month.
However, on April 12, Superintendent Davis Schmidt announced a special board meeting would be held April 15 to once again take up the item. According to the Whitefish School District website, the meeting has again been changed to April 22.
Throughout the lengthy public comment period, 25 attendees described Craig as serving an integral role in the academic community and beyond, including providing counsel to students at difficult times, offering yoga instruction to the football team and sharing valuable skills and insights with other staff members, all the while upholding her responsibilities as librarian.
Lindsay Jordan, who provides mental health and counseling services at Whitefish High School, said she met Craig at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year when they were both new to the district and shared nearby office quarters.
“Students gravitated immediately to Mrs. Craig as a result of her outgoing and welcoming personality. As I got to know more of the students on campus and established therapeutic relationships with them, Mrs. Craig was always a person students identified as an individual who students feel safe talking to and going to for support,” Jordan said. “I can attest to the sheer number of students she has impacted, as evidenced by how many are here tonight.”
She continued: “On several occasions Mrs. Craig has referred students to counseling support who trusted her enough to disclose their personal struggles. These students were either self-harming or considering suicide when they reached out to Mrs. Craig. Without her support and dedication to their wellbeing these students would not have received the support they needed. I personally do not want to consider the alternative outcome had she not intervened on their behalf.
“Sadly our high school has been affected by suicide on two different occasions this school year and staff like Mrs. Craig are valuable to the health and wellbeing of our young people. Hearing that Mrs. Craig’s contract is not being renewed for our next school year is both disappointing and distressing for me.”
Sarah Scott’s role at Whitefish High School includes facilitating the district’s goal to become recognized as a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), and she said Craig has been instrumental in helping meet those goals.
“The more I have come to know Chani, the more I recognize that she embodies all the pillars of MTSS. Her understanding of social and emotional learning is amazing. She knows all of it,” Scott said. “In this last year we have really pushed for social and emotional support, something that is really lacking in this high school. The idea of losing Chani and all of the knowledge she brings and her ability to help all of these students is overwhelming.”
Whitefish Middle School Librarian Dana Carmichael said she’s collaborated with Craig on multiple occasions, and has learned valuable skills and applied the new criteria to her own library.
If Craig isn’t cut out for the job of high school librarian, Carmichael asked, who is?
“I just wonder if a veteran teacher and librarian with a master’s in library science, which I do not have, can’t do the high school job, maybe no one can do it well,” she said. “I really appreciated having conversations with Chani. She pushed me to do things that I hadn’t thought about doing in my own library.”
A stream of students also spoke in support of Craig, often through tears.
Whitefish High School junior Walter Pearson said Craig’s support helped him navigate difficult times both in his personal and academic life.
“I came out as an openly gay man during my second semester as a sophomore. There is no place I would call home more than her library,” Pearson said. “She makes me feel welcome and loved and there is no other teacher that I would call my family but her. I have worn heels to school because of her and this year I would not have had the courage to wear a dress, makeup and heels to the 2019 prom unless it was her giving me the courage and strength to go in there and be myself and be who I am.”
Kyle Fedderly, an English teacher at Whitefish High School, characterized the district’s move to terminate Craig’s contract as an affront to its mission and vision.
“This erodes the culture of our school and it contradicts the vision and mission of this district,” he said. “Ultimately to me it comes down to one question — what are we modeling for our kids? Chani Craig was told she is not a good fit for our community. Not only is this blatantly false, but it also points to a very narrow vision of what we mean by community. That we whittle people down to fit into a very small box rather than expand the boundaries to encompass everybody who is a member of that community. Kids do not come in one-size-fits-all. Neither do teachers, board members, librarians, or anybody else in the community. One of our district’s goals this year was to build a culture of trust. If you are trying to build a culture of trust, you don’t do things in secrecy that cause good people concern, and you certainly don’t try to suppress them from expressing that concern.”
School Board Trustee Shannon Hanson said overriding an executive decision not to renew an employee’s contract is a difficult one that the board takes seriously, but without answers to certain questions — including learning more about other instances in which trustees overturned an administrative recommendation, and what steps Craig will take to correct shortcomings identified by her supervisors — he was reluctant to move forward with a vote.
“I do not believe that Mr. Drown arrived at this decision capriciously, but I don’t know why,” he said. “I do not in any way take overriding an administrator lightly, I want to be very clear. We put them in there to do their job.”
Prior to voting on Monday, trustees will have another opportunity to ask those questions and others, such as if the district will hire a second librarian in the future as the 2019-20 budget allocates.
The Board of Trustees will reconvene April 22 at the District Board Room at 600 E. 2nd Street at 5:30 p.m.