Two weeks after Whitefish High School students, parents and staff packed a district board meeting and offered impassioned support for renewing a popular librarian’s teaching contract, which administrators opted to terminate without cause, a tie vote on Monday night overturned the recommendation and rendered the employment agreement intact for another school year, unless administrators take additional action before June 1.
The fate of librarian Chani Craig’s teaching contract at Whitefish High School has been in the hands of the seven-member Whitefish School Board of Trustees since April 9, when it took up for consideration a recommendation for contract non-renewal by Whitefish High School Principal Kerry Drown and Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt.
The board ultimately voted 3-3 on a motion to accept the administrators’ recommendation for non-renewal, with trustees Nick Polumbus, Anna Deese and Ruth Harrison voting in favor; Heather Vrentas, Shannon Hanson and Katie Clarke voting in opposition; and Betsy Kohnstamm abstaining due to a conflict of interest.
Kohnstamm said her husband previously served in Craig’s position and still works for the district.
According to Montana school board laws, a tie vote on a motion amounts to failure.
The administrators made their recommendation for non-renewal without cause. According to Montana law, the district has the right to non-renew without cause any teacher who has not achieved tenure status. A teacher is awarded tenure on the fourth year of consecutive teaching contracts.
In Craig’s case, Drown told trustees 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 who has had a tremendous influence on students.
Still, Drown said his evaluations showed Craig “was not a good fit” for the position given a pattern of tardiness, a failure 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.”
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 said she’s corrected the problem since her most recent evaluation, and disputed Drown’s assertion that she instructed a night custodian to leave the library unlocked at night.
Trustee Vrentas said her decision for voting against the administrative recommendation was based on her sense that Craig should be allowed a third year of employment to work on any problems identified by her supervisors.
“From what’s been presented, in my opinion these are fixable things,” Vrentas said. “To not be given a third year is a potential waste of the resources the district has already invested. In this case students are not at risk and there don’t seem to be any egregious problems.”
Trustee Harrison, who voted to support administrators’ recommendation, said a recommendation for non-renewal affords the district “one of the few screening tools that the administration can exercise” if it deems an employee a poor fit prior to that employee becoming tenured.
“When we ask this administration to capitulate or when we overturn them, it has pretty far-reaching ramifications,” she said, adding that administrators will be forced to “think long and hard before ever taking a tough stance in the future.”
“It kind of undermines the authority that we work to keep in place in our district,” she said.
Trustee Clarke said the testimony from more than 25 students, teachers and parents describing Craig’s positive influence on the student body offered convincing evidence that she was effective in her job. Clarke suggested that Craig be given an opportunity to follow an improvement plan for another school year.
“So many kids who didn’t feel comfortable in our schools have found a place to feel comfortable,” Clarke said.
Superintendent Davis Schmidt did not indicate whether administrators would again bring forth their recommendation for non-renewal prior to the June 1 deadline.