A motion by the Whitefish School Board Monday night to terminate Whitefish High School librarian Chani Craig failed due to a tied vote, likely resulting in the renewal of her contract for the next school year.
The board voted 3-3 to accept a previous administrative recommendation not to renew Craig’s contract. Trustees Nick Polumbus, Anna Deese and Ruth Harrison voted in favor of the motion and Trustees Katie Clarke, Heather Vrentas and Shannon Hanson voted against.
Trustee Betsy Kohnstamm abstained from voting saying she has a conflict of interest because her husband formerly occupied Craig’s current position and still works for the district.
If a vote for a motion reaches a tie, according to Montana school board laws, the motion fails, the district’s attorney Mike Dahlem explained.
Administrators could return to the board again with another recommendation to not renew Craig’s contact, but if not then her contact would automatically be renewed, according to the district.
The decision on Monday appeared to come down to whether trustees felt Craig should be given one more year to show improvement in her role before her nontenured probationary period of three years is up, or if going against the administration’s recommendation would have long term effects on the perceived trust between the board and the administrators.
Craig is a nontenured employee of the district and has been with the school for two years.
Vrentas, who voted against the motion, said she feels Craig could show improvement with one more year.
“Based on what was presented so far and that typically there’s three years of probation, I think that what’s been presented in my opinion these are fixable things, and to not be given the third year to fix them is potentially a waste of the investment the district has made in spending two years with an employee,” Vrentas said. “Onboarding them, bringing them in, getting them into the system. I would say to spend the final year if these students are not at risk of being harmed, there’s not egregious malfeasance, there’s not anything terrible going on, you spend the final year doing it based on the two years you invested. That would be my most compelling reason at this point.”
Harrison, who voted for the motion, disagreed, saying the not renewing a contact for an educator is one way of ensuring the district fills its classrooms with teachers that will fit the district over the long term.
“The nontenured nonrenewal with or without cause is one of the few screening tools that the administration can exercise. When we ask this administration to capitulate or when we overturn them, it has pretty far reaching ramifications that when the rest of our administrators see that this is our stance with regard to their judgment ... then they’re going to think long and hard before ever taking a tough stance in the future. It kind of undermines the authority that we work to keep in place in our district,” she said.
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 two weeks ago voted to table a decision on the recommendation after roughly an hour of public comment.
In the initial meeting explained his decision for recommending not renewing Craig’s contract, WHS Principal Kerry 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, 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.
While nearly an hour of public comment at the meeting two weeks ago saw 26 students, teachers and parents speaking to Craig’s character, the board chose to forgo public comment during Monday’s meeting.
“I feel like we got a lot of good letters and both sides,” Vrentas explained. “I feel like we got a lot of good comment last time, so I’m feeling like we’ve taken a lot of public comment and there’s been a lot of opportunities so I’m feeling OK.”
The board also passed on asking either Drown or Craig any further questions.
A recommendation for non-renewal could be brought up at a future school board meeting prior to June 1, however, if it’s not the recommendation is dropped and Craig’s contract would renew, according to Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt.
Davis Schmidt said she will discuss with administration whether or not to bring the topic back to the board again, but showed no indication one way or the other.
Craig chose to waive her right to privacy keeping both meetings open to the public. Typically, personnel matters are discussed in closed session; however, employees may waive their right.