Two months after first hearing from concerned parents about a shaky relationship between teachers and school administrators, the Whitefish School Board again last week heard from frustrated community members.
Lynn Beck voiced her concerns during the board’s Nov. 13 meeting, saying her own experiences have lined up with other parents’ frustrations.
“It is apparent to me from all the information that I have heard or seen that there is a strong feeling and factual evidence that our teachers do not have full confidence that the administration is supporting them in their effort to do their jobs, and that the issues that they are facing are directly affecting our children,” Beck said. “Please continue to act on the information that you have received, keeping in the forefront that in all decisions being made, our No. 1 priority is to support our teachers so they can effectively teach our children.”
Board chair Nick Polumbus told the Pilot following the meeting that he and other board members have been hearing out concerned parents who have varying opinions while keeping an open mind. However, he doesn’t feel the culture climate issues exist in the ways others have described.
“Not in how it’s been presented to me,” he said. “I think every organization has cultural issues that need to be address and should be addressed, I’m not going to debate that. I hear a lot of different perspectives on that I guess. Examples will be brought up to me by [a parent] and opposite examples brought up to me by other people. Until we can get to some specifics that we can address, then it’s really hard for me to put a lot of credibility there.”
Three parents and the president of the Whitefish Education Association spoke during an open public comment period at the beginning of the meeting last week, and a group of about 20 parents and teachers attended the meeting. Those who spoke shared their concerns on a lack of trust between teachers and administrators, disappointing test scores and a feeling that their frustrations weren’t being heard.
During the board’s September meeting, Rachel Phillips brought similar concerns about the teacher and administrator relationship based upon results of a district survey. Conducted in January and February the annual survey gives the schools a chance to take the pulse of students, parents and teachers and address different areas of concern, according to the school district.
Phillips, who was out of state and could not attend the meeting last week, sent a letter to the board that was read aloud by Rhonda Baker.
Phillips wrote that she’s seen progress in communications between parents and administration since that meeting, but there’s more to be done.
“Since that Sept. 11 meeting, I believe that there is definitely more awareness of the issue. To date there has been some improved communication between our district office and the rest of the staff within our district. It is my hope that this improved communication will develop into positive action,” she said.
Phillips said she recently met with board members and “covered a lot of ground,” but there are still many areas with opportunities for improvement.
“Culture and climate is an ongoing opportunity,” she wrote. “Community members have been told things like there’s no money in the budget for core curriculum support, and core support needs. There seems to be an overall budget cut for all areas in order to funnel money to superfluous programs or pet projects.”
Counselor Kelly Talsma, president of the Whitefish Education Association, said she’s always looking for ways to better improve relationships between teachers and administration.
“We need a way to be able to communicate with you as the whitefish School District Board of Trustees. WEA, which is your teachers, want to communicate with you the things that are going right and need to be celebrated,” she said. “But we also want to bring you the perspective from the trenches, let you know the problems and concerns from our perspectives. WEA wants honest, transparent communication at all levels. We want to work together as a team.”
Polumbus said there has been ongoing work to improve relationships between different parties within the school district, and these efforts weren’t directly prompted by recent parent concerns.
“We have been recently talking about these relationships in our schools between teachers and administrators and trustees and the need to open those up and improve those relationships,” he said.
“I think the important thing from my perspective is that people need to know we are working. There’s a team of people for whom this is their job and they are in the Muldown building working on plans reading scores better and do those things. Honestly, that’s the key takeaway for me. And there will be debate over the methodology, there will be debate over how it gets reported, and these are all fair things to debate, but for me the key takeaway is that people need to know that there are smart educated people who care deeply about our kids education, who are in that building every day working hard as a team to improve.”
A notice on the school board agenda for the Nov. 13 meeting regarding public comment stated that the time was “the appropriate place to make comments about an item not on the agenda but within the Board’s jurisdiction,” and that “due to open meeting laws, the board cannot respond in any way to comments made during the public comment period.”
Parent Darcy Schellinger said she was concerned by the notice and the possible intentions behind it.
“Tonight there was a provision under public comment. This has not happened in the last decade at least. I fear this was added to scare, intimidate or stifle negative info from being shared,” she said.
Attorney Mike Meloy, a lawyer for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, told the Pilot in an email that the board appears to be following a strict reading of the state’s open meeting law, wherein the board is “being extra cautious and opting not to discuss the matter until it’s actually on the agenda and the public has advance notice of the potential discussion.”