THREE OAKS — During an April 21 special meeting focused on the subject of former Chikaming Elementary Principal Heidi Clark’s status as a tenured teacher in the River Valley school district, the River Valley Board of Education voted 4-3 to dismiss taking action to revoke that tenure.
Voting yes were Nikki Springer, Mike Ehlert, Gail Freehling and Jennifer Alderink, while Phil Bender, David Whitlow and Vickie Wagner voted against the motion.
Clark was terminated as principal at the conclusion of a lengthy April 20-21 special meeting by a 7-0 vote of the board (for more on that session see the April 22 issue of the Harbor Country News or go to www.harborcountrynews.com).
She had served as a teacher in the River Valley district for 11 years before working an equal number of years as an elementary principal.
During the April 21 meeting, attorney Gordon Gregory said the alleged improper conduct Clark was charged with by the district in her capacity as a district principal made no reference to her teaching duties, qualification or fitness.
“The tenure revocation charges are identical to the dismissal charges, which have been heard, decided and punished. I submit to you that the tenure charges constitute double jeopardy. There’s no cause nor reason to now destroy completely Mrs. Clark’s distinguished career as an educator. It not only discriminates against her, but deprives hundreds of students and families in the community of her dedication and expertise.”
Gregory said Superintendent Scott Bojanich’s proposal to revoke Clark’s tenure “is punitive, excessive, vengeful, egregious, and unrelated to any proven offense.”
Clark also spoke on April 21, saying she has been proud to be a Mustang since 1976.
“It was the incredible teachers, beginning at Chikaming Elementary School through graduation, that inspired my life’s work.”
Clark said she pursued a second master’s degree in Educational Leadership because that was what the River Valley district needed from her and maintained her teaching certificate as an administrator “because my heart is that of a teacher through and through.”
She said since the charges raised against her on April 19 were in no way related to her status as a teacher “I can only reach the conclusion that this action is based on vengeance and pride.”
“I cannot imagine what inspired this body to decide that I lied under oath given that the majority of you have known me for over 20 years and have never known me to act in this manner,” she said.
Clark later said “I cannot imagine what inspired this body to choose to decide that witnesses can be disregarded, that policies only matter when they serve your own needs, that being terminated for dishonesty is not about character. I cannot imagine what might inspire you to continue on this path by considering to also remove my teacher tenure status at this district for which I have poured my heart into my entire life.”
Clark went on to say “I am entirely innocent of wrongdoing.”
Ultimately it was a motion submitted by Gregory to dismiss the charges filed April 19 by Bojanich to terminate Clark as a tenured teacher because none of the charged related to actions taken as principal of Chikaming Elementary occured in her capacity as a tenured teacher that was read into the record by Alderink and supported by Freehling that passed 4-3.
The April 21 special meeting included a public comment period held ahead of the board’s decision on tenure.
Some of the eight people who spoke urged the Board of Education not to take away her tenure status as a teacher. All criticized the action taken to remove her as principal.
Comments included the following:
Amy Graham (an RV graduate who has a child in the district and two younger ones at home) began by saying “Our hopes and dreams of raising three little Mustangs were shattered on Monday night.”
She later said “I no longer want to raise little Mustangs.”
Graham said Clark is “my role model” and criticized the previous meeting as “heartless,” but added “tonight is worse.”
“I will end by saying darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Mrs. Clark’s light will continue to shine now and into eternity.”
Erica Pinette said Clark is honest of character and lives to serve others.
She called the basis for Clark’s termination as principal a “he said, she said situation”
and asked why factual evidence was ignored.
She also said board policies involving confidentiality and information security appeared to have been violated during the previous meeting.
Zoe Noble said she was representing three generations of RV students (including herself, her daughters and grandchildren) and said it seemed on Monday night that members of the school board had already made up their minds “and we were just going through the motions.”
Noble said Clark “chose the children of this district, that’s something I didn’t hear Monday night, not once.”
Shelley Zeiger said she feels most if not all of the board members had their minds made up “before we sat through that five-hour excruciating sham of a hearing” which she said included the playing of a recording that “repeatedly said the name of the child and parents involved.”
She said it seems that most members of the board seemed to believe they had no choice but to fire Clark “when in fact you had many choices,” later saying “Monday night you decided that two of your longtime employees were more likely to be lying than a parent you don’t know and a superintendent you haven’t known for long.”
“However tonight’s choice is very simple. Do you really think that Heidi deserves to have her tenure taken away?”
Zeiger said to make that choice “would be unnecessarily cruel and vengeful and serve no purpose.”
Rebecca Burnette called for Clark’s tenure to “remain uncompromised tonight.”
She said the handling of the disciplinary action, which she later called “a dog and pony show,” was “botched from the onset” by the superintendent, and asked board members to “move to dismiss the superintendent from his position.”
After saying that the board had “placed the district in a position that is dangerous both legally and morally,” Burnette said they “have lost our trust and confidence.”
“Your blatant disregard for fairness, transparency and your inability to ensure that a fear-free workplace exists are grounds for a recall vote,” later saying members of the school board “can spare us that pain and additional expense and tender your resignations tonight.”
Garry Lange (a retired River Valley Elementary principal) said he believes the school board was “derelict in relying on a recording provided as a copy.”
Lange said he learned while working on the “It’s Elementary” radio show at River Valley that software can be used to delete dead air, delete misread scripts, insert recordings from another file, elevate or reduce a speaker’s pitch, tone and volume.
“The entire edited piece can then be remixed onto a new file and appear as it if was the original. I became pretty good at it, and so did a few of my students,” he said.
Lange said one of those students who now edits audio recordings for about 33 hours a week told him you need the original device to tell if a recording has not been altered.
“Clearly, if you don’t go back on your decision, you need to change the policy to require the original device be tendered in cases of discipline. This avoids situations like this and protects employees.”
Katie Keolisack (who described herself as an alumni, a community member, a parent and a staff member) said she was “embarrassed to be called Mustang.”
“It is heartbreaking to see what your decision from Monday night has done to this community. I ask you tonight to please consider the amazing impact Mrs. Clark has had on this entire community. She was my fourth-grade teacher. Her guidance, dependability, honesty, kindness and leadership has stuck with me for 21 years. She is the reason I chose the career path I did.”
Keolisack asked board members to consider the positive impact Clark has had on many students, staff and community members in her 22 years at River Valley before making a decision on her tenure status.
She said the Chikaming teachers and staff (“the true face of River Valley”) have continued to show up every day for the kids, adding “this is single-handedly the only reason I am choosing to keep my children in River Valley.”
Rachel Lang said since the April 19 hearing she has heard calls for actions such as unrest and social disobedience, adding “this is not what we need right now.”
“We need to focus our anger and our frustration on things that we can do to change this awful thing that has happened.”
Her suggestions included calling for changes to policies that will protect staff, teachers and administrators; seeking change in the district’s policies involving recordings (such as recording all meetings with parents and requiring the original device); demand accountability of officials such as the superintendent; demand that the board make the initial decision to put an employee on leave; and “our community can seek redress by calling for a recall of the school board.”
“We don’t know we have problems until we find a problem. So in everything that’s happened this has given us an opportunity to fix some major, major issues that we have uncovered in our school district if our school district is going to survive.”
Lang also urged the board not to terminate Clark’s tenure.
One Building Proposal
During the Board of Education’s April 26 regular meeting, Bojanich presented the idea of renovating the existing middle/high school building to “fit all of our students K-12,” noting that funding is available for the project.
“We unequivocally could put all of our students in the high school. There’s enough square footage there, under a renovation project of course,” he said.
Bojanich added that the project new hearting and cooling along with the ability to separate elementary students from those in higher grades.
“We would vacate Three Oaks Elementary and Chikaming. We would provide classrooms with much better infrastructure, much better technology.”
And he said the district has “the existing funds to do that right now, without going to our community.”
Bojanich said if the move to place all of the students under one roof is achieved, the district stands to see “roughly about a $1 million savings per year in perpetuity that we can use for any projects or anything we wanted as a school district based on priorities.”