Board postpones decision on contract for WHS librarian after hearing from students, other educators

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Following an hour of impassioned testimonials from students, staff and parents, the Whitefish School Board Tuesday delayed a decision on whether to renew Whitefish High School Librarian Chani Craig’s contract.

Whitefish High School Principal Kerry Drown made the recommendation for nonrenewal of Craig’s contract to the board. Craig is a nontenured employee of the district and has been with the school for two years.

Drown explained his decision to the board and a standing-room-only crowd in the school district boardroom.

“The situation before us tonight is an unfortunate one. The decision was not an easy one, or one that was arrived at frivolously or hastily,” Drown said. “When determining this we consider how an individual is upholding the job responsibilities in relation to the core values within the school culture and climate. It’s not my intention to berate or humiliate Ms. Craig.”

Members of the public spoke to the board on Craig’s character, and her professional knowledge and experience.

Commenting on Craig’s professional experience, Whitefish Middle School Librarian Dana Carmichael said she’s learned a lot from her high school counterpart.

“I just wonder if a veteran teacher and librarian with a master’s in library science — which I do not have — can’t do the high school job, maybe no one can do it well,” Carmichael said. “I really appreciated having conversations with Chani, she pushed me to do things that I hadn’t thought about doing in my own library.”

Craig chose to waive her right to privacy keeping the meeting open to the public. Typically, personnel matters are discussed in closed session; however, employees may waive their right.

The probationary period for a nontenured employee in Montana is three years, during which their contract can be terminated with or without cause. A teacher employed in Montana receives tenure after accepting a contract for the fourth consecutive year at a district.

The school board voted 5-1 to table a decision. Trustee Anna Deese voted in opposition and Trustee Betsy Kohnstamm abstained from voting.

Drown pointed to instances of tardiness, leaving the library unsecured, failing to uphold the school’s electronic device policy and lacking accountability for students’ academic performance in her class as reasons to not renew her contact, and concluding that Craig is “not a good fit” for the school.

Craig disputed the number of times she was late to work and denied Drown’s claim that she had asked a night custodian to leave the library open through the night. While she acknowledged Drown’s tardiness concerns, she also said all of his issues had been addressed at a recent evaluation earlier in the year.

“As far as looking at a list of things that may indicate a broader picture of a deficiency in myself as an employee, I do not see a pattern that is consistent with something that you are witnessing,” she said. “I strive to create inclusive environments, to build relationships with students and staff built on trust and empathy, and my goal is that every student that comes into that library knows that I am there for them ... The real passion in teaching is in being here for the students, which is why I am there. And I think they know that I am for them.”

Twenty-six members of the public spoke in support of Craig during public comment.

Kacy Howard, executive director of the Nate Chute Foundation, noted Craig’s experience level as well. In particular, Craig’s experience with social emotional learning topics is an asset to the district, Howard said.

“The experience she brings from her past school district is unprecedented in this Valley,” Howard said. “I have not encountered somebody who has her level of knowledge in the area. I keep hearing how Whitefish is prioritizing these things, and we need to put our money where our mouth is.”

Members of the public attested to Craig’s impact on students in areas outside of helping with research within the library.

Lindsay Jordan, a Comprehensive School and Community Treatment worker at the high school, said students trust Craig enough to voice their issues openly.

“Out of respect for student privacy … I can’t list specific students who have been positively affected by Mrs. Craig. However, I can attest to the sheer number of students she has impacted, and [that’s] also evidenced by how many are here tonight,” Jordan said. “On several occasions Mrs. Craig has referred students for counseling support who trusted her enough to disclose her personal struggles. These students were either self-harming or considering suicide when they reached out to Mrs. Craig. Without her support and dedication to her wellbeing these students may not have received the support they needed.”

The students themselves spoke to the impact their librarian has had as well.

Anna Cook, reading a letter written by student body president Grace Benkelman, said she believes Craig embodies the values the school stands for.

“Whitefish High School has been blessed over the years to have such an incredible staff, with no exceptions. But since my time here I’ve encountered few staff members who care as much as Ms. Craig does,” she said. “She is passionate, hardworking, dedicated, kind, strong, witty, intelligent. If the qualities that Ms. Craig possesses do not fit the values of Whitefish High School, then I think we should seriously reconsider where we are headed.”

During the board’s deliberation period following public comment, Trustee Ruth Harrison noted how difficult a situation like this is.

“It really puts the board in a very awkward position. Because we are actually being asked to evaluate Ms. Craig and override our administration, which I am not want to do,” Harrison said. “I don’t see how you can build the trust that we all talk about and can set aside our administrator that we should be trusting to make these calls, that’s why we hired them.”

Trustee Shannon Hanson agreed, noting that he did not think Drown would make his recommendation “capriciously.”

“I do not in any way take overriding an administrator lightly, I want that to be very clear — we put them in there to do their job,” he said.

The motion to table a decision came as a result of the trustees not being able to directly ask Craig or Drown questions. The appropriate time for questions would be after Craig and Drown’s opening statements and prior to public comment, Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt and Board Chair Nick Polumbus explained.

By postponing a decision and revisiting the topic next month, the trustees said they will be able to ask questions before voting. Questions such as how would Craig’s behavior change if given one more year, why one more year is not being given to evaluate performance, and whether the district will hire a second librarian at the high school in the future, as the latest preliminary budget for 2019-20 suggests.

Update: The Whitefish School Board will hold a special meeting on Monday, April 22 at 5:30 p.m. to consider whether to renew the contract for Whitefish High School librarian Chani Craig. The board meets in the district board room in the basement of Whitefish Middle School.

This meeting at previously been set for Monday, April 15 but was rescheduled.

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