Board Chair almost resigns
By Michael Howell
A little over two weeks ago each Stevensville School Board trustee and the clerk received an anonymous letter with no return address full of critical comments about the performance of current School Superintendent David Whitesell. Then a “personnel issue with the Superintendent” was placed on the board’s agenda at a special meeting held on December 17 to discuss the matter.
At the meeting board chair Cathi Cook introduced the issue and said that the meeting would be closed due to employee right to privacy concerns. Whitesell waived his right to privacy and the meeting was continued in the open.
The anonymous letter was full of spelling, grammar and typographical errors. It purports to be “from staff” and uses the pronoun “we”.
“As you will see the staff feels Mr. Whitesell is not the right person for the District,” states the letter. The author(s) claim that since he was hired, “the District has gone downhill.” The letter accuses Whitesell of causing problems with the administration, supervisors and staff. The letter’s author(s) claim that he told a teacher’s union representative that he had no experience in developing a budget and must have lied about it in his job interview. The letter also accuses Whitesell of never being at the district or in his office and that he tells everyone to call him on his cell phone. It states that he is not committed to the district and the morale is suffering because of it.
The letter states that Whitesell has conducted a survey asking supervisors and staff to evaluate his administrators and suggests that a survey should be done to evaluate Whitesell instead. The letter accuses Whitesell of being unable to make any critical decisions. Then it claims that he approved a fund raiser for the Key Club that would raise money by selling beer at a local brewery. It is claimed that High School Principal Brian Gum did not approve of it but was forced to approve it.
The letter also accuses Whitesell of giving up his involvement in the Main Street Association because he “has no time for them.”
“If something is not done the district will lost (sic) administration, teachers and other staff,” the letter states. “Please do something soon or this district will be (sic) have a two page report in the Ravalli Republic talking about how terrible the district is doing and then it will take years to put this district back together again.” It is signed “Concern stall (sic) and community members.”
Board Chair Cathi Cook said at the meeting that it was not an evaluation (one is scheduled in January) but to talk about allegations contained in a letter. Cook went on to say that some of the allegations are issues that she herself has, such as the superintendent’s lack of attendance and only being available by phone. She said it was “unacceptable.”
“I haven’t seen a superintendent that has not been here from 8:00 to 5:00. It seems like you are out a lot,” said Cook. She said she also had concerns about how the budget was developed. She said she was still not sure about the fundraiser with beer and called it inappropriate.
“I’m also concerned about his relationship with administrators. I’m concerned that there is no leadership,” said Cook. “My concern is with the morale of the district.”
Most of the other board members did not jump on the bandwagon, however, and stated that they found the letter inappropriate and thought that it should not be given any credence.
“I can’t give any credence to this letter,” said one board member. “The morale problem was here before (previous Superintendent) Kent (Kultgen) left, but it wasn’t talked about. When Dave got here he gave everybody a way to speak out, so now we are hearing about it… I’d like to see us work in a positive way to give direction to the superintendent.”
“I’m concerned about how we got here tonight,” said another board member. “We need to look at the board too. We can’t lay blame without looking at ourselves too. I don’t think this letter was appropriate.”
Whitesell said that he generally does not give any credit to anonymous letters and they usually end up in the trash. He said that he did not call this meeting because there is a school policy that anything not signed and dated will not be accepted.
“In effect we are suspending that policy,” said Whitesell. “This is not an evaluation,” he said, “but evaluations are being made.” He said that he had no problem with open evaluations and that his upcoming evaluation would be in the open, “and the authors can skip their newspaper ad and come down and discuss it.”
Whitesell said that he cannot sit still for long and that his management style involved lots of walking around. He said he believed in transparency and that if there were issues about him that the board needs to address then the board needs to discuss them.
Whitesell said that he had an idea about who authored the letter. He said he believed the letter had been “dumbed down” to cover up the fact that it was written by a very intelligent and well-educated person.
He said that he does make difficult decisions and that he made one recently involving an employee and he called the letter, “a knee jerk reaction.”
Whitesell said that problems with morale at the district were evident when he arrived and as a result a School Improvement Team was put together to address the issue, consisting of three high school teachers, three K-8 teachers, three from the administration and himself. He said one of the committee’s biggest concerns was fear of retaliation and retribution should complaints be expressed by employees.
Whitesell said that he would not bad mouth the previous superintendent who had a huge building project on his plate that was very time consuming.
“I have come in on the human side of things,” said Whitesell. He said he was focusing on the morale situation, “because I know if you have happy teachers, you are going to have increases in student achievement. There’s a direct correlation.”
Concerning the budget, he said the board “should not shoot the messenger.”
“This is the most transparent budget that we’ve had in years,” said Whitesell. He said that when he arrived he was told that the district needed to start looking at using reserve funds and needed to look at a general levy. He disagrees.
“We have money available,” said Whitesell, “but it is hidden.”
He noted, for instance, that in the past budget over $250,000 was budgeted for energy costs when the actual costs were only $114,000.
Whitesell said if the goal of the board was to handle things the way they had in the past, “then I think maybe we need to separate. That’s not what I signed up for. I signed up to try to do the best that I can. It doesn’t mean I lock myself in my office and sit at my desk from 8 to 5. That would kill me in a month.”
“Do I run my district from a cell phone? It’s not a cell phone anymore. It’s a computer. My documents and everything else are on it,” said Whitesell.
Whitesell said that he believed the survey that was conducted about the administration had a positive effect.
He also said that the Key Club fundraiser did not make money by selling beer. He said that he was approached by the Key Club sponsor about the potential fundraiser but did not do anything with it. Later, he said, he was approached by Gum and asked again about it.
He said he did not direct Gum to do it, but instead said that he didn’t think it would be a problem if they weren’t selling alcohol.
He said he does not generally give directions to administrators, but offers them advice and information.
Whitesell said that as far as working with Main Street Association, he found the Tuesday meeting time was on one of the district’s busiest days and he talked to the Main Street board about it suggesting Wednesday could work. He said Main Street did change its meeting date, but to Thursday. He said that was another difficult day for him so he has arranged for another school representative to be at the meetings.
No action was taken by the school board over the issues discussed.
However, on the following morning, Wednesday, December 18, board chair Cathi Cook submitted her resignation. But by Friday she had withdrawn it. School district policy allows that any resignation may be voluntarily rescinded within 72 hours and Cook did so by letter on Friday.
Cook told the Bitterroot Star that she has been on the board for seven and a half years and was wanting to spend time working on the business that she and her husband operate. She said that some differences of opinion between her and the board also contributed to the decision.
Cook said that afterward she was contacted by a few people who asked her to change her mind and continue her work on the board and she re-thought the matter and rescinded her resignation.
“I decided that I should finish out my term,” said Cook. “I want to finish what I started and I’m going to keep doing the best that I can.”