By Michael Howell
In a process fraught with confusion, the Stevensville School Board of Trustees voted last week not to renew the contract of non-tenured school counselor Katherine Mason for the coming 2014-1015 school year. At a meeting the previous month, the board voted down a motion to accept the school administration’s recommendation of non-renewal of Mason’s contract. As a result Mason’s contract was set to automatically renew on June 1 according to state law.
But that will not happen following last week’s meeting. At the meeting the question was raised again concerning the status of Mason’s contract. The first vote taken was on a motion for non-renewal of Katherine Mason’s non-tenured contract for 2014-2015 per Montana code. That motion failed on a four to four tie vote. Then a motion was made for the affirmative renewal of Mason’s contract. That motion failed on a 7 to 1 vote. A motion was then made to consider again the same initial motion for non-renewal of Mason’s contract and this time it passed on a 5 to 3 vote. Trustee Gary Burgett changed his vote, making it clear that Mason’s contract would not be renewed. Burgett claimed to have been confused about the meaning of one of his previous votes.
Discussion of the agenda item at last week’s meeting began with a motion by trustee Kirk Thompson for non-renewal of Mason’s contract.
Board Chairman Cathi Cook said that she believed that Mason’s right to privacy required a closed meeting to discuss the matter, but Mason, who was present, waived her right to privacy. Cook then stated that the public would be allowed to speak to the issue but each person would be limited to one minute and have only one opportunity to speak.
Mason said that she was a little confused as to why the meeting was called since this was decided at the last meeting.
Dave Severson, a labor assistant for the District’s union, said that he supported Mason. He said his biggest concern was that following last month’s meeting, a school principal apparently offered information to board members off the record.
Chairman Cook interrupted Severson, saying, “Could you please wrap it up.”
Severson questioned whether Mason’s due process rights were being violated because she didn’t have an opportunity to address those issues.
“Your time is up,” said Cook.
Gene Mim Mack spoke about limiting public comment to one minute.
“It’s been judged that one minute is unreasonable for public comment by the state of Montana,” he said. “Three minutes is the least amount recommended and that’s often extended.” He said the one minute limit was limiting public comment on an important topic and he asked them to reconsider the limit.
Stevensville Teacher Association representative Gary Brooks said that the previous month’s vote was clouded by three procedural errors. He said first of all that the meaning of the vote was clear. He said Chairman Cook and others made it clear that if the vote failed it meant that Mason’s contract would be renewed. He said afterward an employee approached the board with information that was not disclosed at the school board meeting, in violation of school rules and state law.
School District Attorney Megan Morris said that complaints about the public process of a previous meeting were not on the agenda for discussion and that those complaints should more properly be taken through the proper grievance process.
Brooks said that his concerns were based on the violations of due process and that a grievance had been filed. He said the way things were going this evening they would probably have another grievance before the board.
“It seems to me that the vote was very clear and that what we are doing now is going to basically be another travesty of the procedure,” said Brooks.
A student also spoke in support of Mason and said that the last vote was clear and it was made clear that it meant Mason would be re-hired.
The motion for non-renewal of Mason’s contract died on a 4 to 4 tie vote. Trustees Kirk Thompson, Cathi Cook, Penny Bertram, and Kevin Beller voted in favor of the motion and trustees Gary Burgett, Roger Bardsley, Greg Trangmoe and Tim Schreiber voted against the motion.
Morris then said that the board’s decision still left the administration without direction.
“You either make a decision by June 1, or she is automatically re-hired,” said Morris. She said the board had not made an affirmative decision about Mason’s continued employment.
Trustee Kirk Thompson said, “The decision we made last month was to not accept an administrative recommendation to not renew the contract. We did not make a decision about whether to renew. The purpose of the meeting tonight is to get an affirmative decision from the board to direct the administration whether to renew or not. Normally we recommend whether to renew or not and we haven’t done that.”
Trustee Roger Bardsley recommended listening to the audio recording of the previous meeting to get clear about what they really did.
“I’m just not sure what we really did,” Bardsley said.
There was some discussion about whether the notice on the agenda for the current meeting would allow such a decision to be made. Attorney Morris said that it was placed under “action items.” She said Mason’s status was still “in limbo” without an affirmative decision to re-hire her.
Trustee Tim Schreiber said that his main concern at this point was about the process. He said, “In my mind anyway, last month’s process worked. We got lots of public comment and made a decision.” He said the board voted against the recommendation to not renew and believed that it meant she would be renewed. He said, in his view, at this point automatic renewal was the way to go. He also questioned the wording of the agenda item and said it was not clear that a vote would be taken to re-decide the issue.
Morris noted that it was listed under “action items” and was an action that could be taken at any time during the contract period but would not go into effect until the end of the contract period.
Trustee Penny Bertram then made a motion to affirmatively approve the renewal of Mason’s contract.
Trustee Greg Trangmoe said that he felt like it was clear last month that a no vote meant continuing Mason’s contract. “I think you are kind of splitting hairs here,” he said.
“The vote at the last meeting was not an affirmative vote,” countered Thompson. He said an administrative recommendation was voted down.
“What we are trying to get tonight is an affirmative vote so the administration knows whether to renew or not renew the contract. That decision has not been made yet,” said Thompson.
The vote to affirmatively renew Mason’s contract failed on a 7 to 1 vote with Trustee Roger Bardsley casting the only vote in favor of the motion.
Following the failed attempt to approve a renewal of the contract, Thompson made a motion once again to not renew the contract.
“What we are trying to do is give the administration some direction,” said Thompson. “We had two motions fail tonight, but another vote could give direction.” Thompson said he was making the same motion he first made at the beginning of the meeting “to see if anyone had changed their mind.”
Some confusion was expressed by a few board members as to what past votes really meant and what any individual vote would mean.
Thompson insisted that the board needed to give clear direction to the administration.
The final vote to not renew the contract passed on a 5 to 3 vote when trustee Gary Burgett changed his vote. Trustees Gary Burgett, Kirk Thompson, Cathi Cook, Penny Bertram and Kevin Beller voted not to renew the contract and trustees Roger Bardsley, Greg Trangmoe and Tim Schreiber voted against the motion.