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Non-renewal of school counselor’s contract draws protest

Stevensville High School Counselor Stephen Coop (standing center) offers a comment in his own defense as the Stevensville School Board mulls over a recommendation to “non-renew” his contract without cause. After hearing nothing but accolades for Coop’s performance from students, former students, parents, teachers and others, the board decided to non-renew his contract in a 4 to 3 vote that left many in the audience in tears.

Above, some students at Stevensville High School were not going to accept the non-renewal of their beloved school counselor sitting down. Instead, they held a protest in front of the school pleading for his reinstatement. Michael Howell photos.

By Michael Howell

Despite an overwhelming turnout in support of Stevensville High School Counselor Stephen Coop, a majority of school board members voted last week to follow the recommendation of school administrators and not renew his contract for the coming year. Coop has served as the high school counselor for the last three years.
It was standing room only at the meeting, held last Tuesday, May 9, and Coop delivered some prepared remarks on his own behalf, stating that “this job to me is not a job, it’s a pleasure.” He said that he has worked hard to provide the services needed by students and staff to help the students get through 9th to 12 grade.
“But it doesn’t stop there,” he said. “I want to make sure you are positioned to pursue whatever your future goals are, regardless of personalities, regardless of your last name, regardless of your disability, regardless of what it is you plan to do. I do my best to support you in everything I’ve done.” He said that to date, he had not received a negative performance review and was proud of his rating in the six formal evaluations that he has received.
“I don’t intend to walk away easily,” said Coop, who had already filed a formal grievance against the administration’s recommendation. “I certainly will not walk away light hearted if that is the decision made by the board this evening. But I am asking you as a board who has the voting ability to make this decision to consider what I have done for these kids, my passion for the kids, and the fact that I am not a short-timer here despite moving from Portland, Oregon. I came to Stevensville for a reason. I love this community, I love this school district and I love the students here.”
More than 25 other people spoke, including present and former students, teachers, parents and other professionals, all of them in support of Coop. Many of them had to fight back tears as they spoke. A petition signed by 138 students in support of Coop was presented to the board as well as a letter of support from the Teacher’s Association signed by 30 tenured teachers.
Many students and former students spoke passionately and eloquently about Coop’s service as counselor and how he helped them personally. Some he inspired and motivated to learn and achieve in school. Others he inspired and motivated simply to live when they were contemplating suicide. All of them had nothing but words of praise for Coop and many stated that they had not ever heard any negative things said about the man by anybody.
Grade school teacher Nancy Fisher, who has worked at the school for 39 years, said, “Our students need and deserve a counselor whom they know they can depend on. They also need consistency by having the same counselor over time so they do not have to re-tell their stories year after year… I find it interesting that he is the second popular counselor that [High School Principal] Mr. Gum has decided to dismiss prior to receiving their third contract.”
She wasn’t alone in questioning Principal Brian Gum’s and Superintendent Robert Moore’s recommendation for non-renewal.
“I don’t have any idea what prompted the administrator to let him go,” said Janet Schott, K-3 secretary. “It seems that if the administrator has a personality conflict with one of his staff he just doesn’t renew their contract. This seems to be a pattern. There are other staff that have been written up more than once for their job performance or behavior, yet they still have jobs.”
Since Coop was not tenured, the recommendation not to renew his contract was made “without cause” and no reasons were given by the administrators nor were any reasons discussed by the board.
Board member Tim Schreiber spoke at length in support of Coop. He began by quoting from the reports about the school’s achievements over the past year submitted by the principal and the superintendent, including national recognition for being the third best school in the state and high rankings for high graduation rates, low drop-out rates, Advanced Placement classes and SAT scores.
“This is what we are striving for,” said Schreiber, “and Mr. Coop may not be solely responsible for all that, but he’s certainly a large part of that. A very large part of that.”
All things considered, said Schreiber, “it just doesn’t add up. How can we get here and have all this recognition and have a key cog in that team being non-renewed?” He pointed to all the positive remarks made in support of Coop by teachers, parents and students and the lack of any negative comments or any poor evaluations. He said that everything he knows personally about Coop and everything he has heard from the community speak to an outstanding performance as counselor.
“He is one I want on my team,” said Schreiber. “If I’m picking a team member, sign him up.”
Schreiber said that he could not simply accept a recommendation for non-renewal without cause in the face of such overwhelmingly positive evidence and testimony from the community that Coop is doing a “stellar” job.
“In the past I’ve been a proponent of that,” he said. “Right or wrong, that’s where I’ve been. I’m not there on this one. I think we need to vote no on non-renewal. Then we have to vote yes for a renewal.”
“I suggest an honest look for an underlying issue be identified and steps taken to make this critical position successful,” he said.
Board member Sarah Armijo said that the fact that this was the second counselor in a row to be non-renewed without cause “raised a red flag.”
Board member Lucas McCormick said, “I respect the passion, but this is obviously something very negative for all of you and I’m not going to comment on it. So I would ask you all to reverse this and come together in positive ways too. Negative things always seem to be the things that draw people together, so try to find some positive things to come together about.”
Board chairman Greg Trangmoe said he was amazed at the passion and the eloquence displayed by the students that evening.
“The difficult thing that we have to do tonight is a non-renewal without cause,” said Trangmoe. “By definition it means there will be no cause to the reason we do this for or against. Regardless of which way it goes, it is not supposed to be based on cause or performance. There are legal reasons for that. It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid. Everybody is frustrated. But it’s the way the law is written and it’s the way it works in every district across the state. As a board, that’s what we have to do.
“You ask for reasons. We don’t know the reasons. We aren’t given the reasons because if we were that wouldn’t be what we are here for. So we are given no information as to why these decisions are made. We have to place our faith in the team that we hired. All the great things, the recognition and achievements mentioned, apply to these administrators as well.
“It’s a difficult decision. It sucks for everybody. It sucks for us, obviously. It sucks for all of you. And it sucks for Coop to be in this situation. I can’t change any of that. Ultimately what it comes down to is there are two people in charge of making this decision and when they come up with it, I’m going to honor them. It needs to be done to maintain the district and the faith we have in our administrators.”
A motion to not non-renew was twice defeated on a 4 to 3 vote. The final vote to approve the non-renewal without cause was approved by a 4 to 3 vote with Trangmoe, McCormick, Lenahan and Cook voting in favor of non-renewal and Schreiber, Armijo and Bertram voting against it.

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