THREE OAKS — The River Valley Board of Education voted 7-0 to terminate the employment of Chikaming Elementary Principal Heidi Clark in the early moments of Tuesday, April 20, after a lengthy hearing involving multiple attorneys and witnesses that began more than five hours earlier.
At the center of the hearing was a charge from the River Valley administration that Clark (who has been on paid leave since late January) had been dishonest in both a letter to a parent written on April 1, 2020, and during subpoenaed testimony delivered as part of an Illinois custody case between two parents of a Chikaming pupil in November of 2020.
School district attorney Kara Rozin said Clark had described one of those parents, Darrin Smith, as “very volatile during that meeting” in the letter (which was sent to his ex-wife).
“In her court testimony in November of 2020 she likewise described Mr. Smith during that September 21st 2018 meeting as volatile, ‘very angry. He used some swear words. He said the F word. He was yelling. He was very unhappy and he was very unpleasant,’” Rozin said.
During his testimony on April 19, River Valley Superintendent Scott Bojanich said he reached the conclusion that “Mrs. Clark was dishonest in court in November of 2020 and I believe that Mrs. Clark was dishonest … with me in our meeting on January 15th of 2021.”
A recording surreptitiously made by Smith during a Sept. 21, 2018, meeting with Clark at the elementary school figured prominently in the proceedings.
Questions about whether the 14-minute, 33-second recording (which was played during the meeting and contained no audible evidence of Smith losing his temper) had been altered by Smith or was the complete content of the meeting were raised throughout the proceedings. That question also was the focus of three studies by experts in the field, although Clark attorney Rebecca Zarzecki said none could give a definitive answer on its authenticity without examining the original device it was recorded on — an iPhone which she noted “has not been given to us.”
Clark said Smith had begun their unscheduled 2018 encounter (mainly concerning custody issues related to picking up a child at school) “extremely polite and genteel” but “he at one point in the meeting did not like what I was saying and got upset, got agitated, swore at me, and then ended up defusing by the end of the meeting.”
Smith’s account, delivered earlier in the hearing, differed markedly.
He said the audio recording was recorded not to use against Clark, but “because I’ve had to document for the last eight years much of the alienation attempts that have been done by my ex-wife including manipulating other people to lie for her.” He also denied using any profane language or yelling during the 2018 meeting with Clark.
Smith confirmed to Rozin that he delivered an email complaint regarding Clark to the River Valley Superintendent and Board of Education on Jan. 13, 2021.
When asked by Rozin whether he had altered or removed any portion of the recording of the 2018 meeting with Clark in any way before submitting it to the district, Smith answered “No, I did not.”
When asked by Zarzecki about his conversations with Bojanich in January of 2021, Smith said “I apologized over and over for putting everybody in this situation. I did not want to raise any problems. I was just concerned and I wanted to know why this lie was told about me because my ex-wife likes to get other people to lie for her.”
Cory McLaughlin, a secretary at the elementary school, said she was sitting close to Clark’s office when the 2018 meeting with Smith occurred and could overhear parts of the conversation “when they were loud.”
“I heard him raising his voice and he was cursing. He sounded very aggressive,” she said.
A Google Hangout exchange between Clark and McLaughlin that they said took place right after Smith had left the building included Clark writing “I’m so sorry;” McLaughlin responding with “It’s fine. I’m glad it seemed to go well.” (which she said was meant sarcastically); and Clark then writing “Yeah. Sheesh” (which Clark said was an acknowledgment of McLaughlin’s sarcasm).
“It did not go well, which is why I said ‘sheesh,’” Clark said.
The Google Hangout chat went on with Clark writing: “It might feel more dangerous when both parents appear put together and sweet, but paint a different image of the other.”
She explained that “both portrayed the other as difficult to deal with, and I wasn’t sure who to believe, but they both were very believable.”
When asked about the recording that was played earlier on April 19, McLaughlin said “I can’t explain the audio recording. I know what I heard, and I know what happened in that meeting.”
There was much discussion about two meetings Clark had with Bojanich — the first on Jan. 15, 2021, and the second (when she was put on paid leave) on Jan. 27, 2021.
Clark said she thought the first meeting was “over a parent concern” that she guessed was going to be about mask wearing because that issue had come up recently. When Bojanich played the recording of the 2018 meeting supplied by Smith, she said “it leaves out the piece where he was angry with me” and found it very confusing because it “didn’t match what happened at the meeting.”
Clark went on to say she went into the Jan. 27 meeting thinking that the district might be supplying her with legal representation.
“I sat down across the table from Mr. Bojanich, he apologized that he was going to come across as cold and said he’d be reading a script … I at one point looked down and saw the words ‘recommend termination’ and honestly focused more on not crying or throwing up the rest of the meeting.”
Bojanich said he had asked Clark to supply information that would support her side of the story on Jan. 15, later saying that nothing was provided (Clark said her hand-written notes were missing from the school). Bojanich said Business Manager Bryan Brown was present at both meetings while Rozin also was there on Jan. 27.
In response to a question about why he had given credit to Smith’s allegations over Clark’s verbal response, Bojanich said “In my judgment when you looked at the totality of the scenario, the clarity of the audio recording, the fact that Mrs. Clark didn’t dispute that that was her on the recording, the interaction between her and Mr. Smith, I concluded that Mr. Smith’s version of the story was accurate.”
The attorneys debated whether Clark should have been offered the option of representation or prior notice that the January meetings were disciplinary in nature.
The two sides also wrangled over the district’s use of a recording made secretly (and thus in violation of a River Valley policy) as a major piece of evidence against Clark.
In her closing statement Zarzecki said much of what Clark did (including notifying Chikaming Township Police Chief Todd Taylor of her concerns about Smith returning to the school for conferences shortly after the 2018 meeting) stemmed from her responsibility to look out for students and staff.
“Mrs. Clark had no motive against Mr. Smith. She doesn’t know the family. She’s concerned about safety at the school,” she said.
Clark also was represented by attorney Gordon Gregory.
John Gierak served as hearing officer for the meeting. He rejected having several witnesses for Clark testify including retired River Valley Superintendent Will Kearney and a man who Zarzecki described as a “prior employer” who has information about Smith’s “ability to alter recordings.”
In the end several board members indicated they believed the recording to be authentic and persuasive.
Board President Dave Whitlow said “this decision has been the toughest decision I have had to make in my adult life,” adding that the two forensic experts who reviewed the recording for the district concluded there were no edits.
“How can you explain your version which is so very different from the recording? Thus we must choose which evidence is the best to rely upon,” he said.
Vickie Wagner said it wasn’t until a month after the Jan. 15 meeting that the recording was challenged.
“Professions have boundaries that must not be crossed because they affect children’s lives so profoundly,” she said.
Jennifer Alderink said she doesn’t think this is a character issue, people just make miscalculations and misjudgments.
“I think if we didn’t have this recording and the experts, Mr. Smith probably would have been written off, and that’s probably what happens most of the time.”
Phil Bender said he doesn’t understand why the 2018 meeting wouldn’t have been ended on the spot if it had gotten that volatile.
The “Board Resolution of Termination Charges as Principal” that was passed unanimously by the Board of Education included the following language: “Whereas Superintendent Scott Bojanich filed termination charges against Heidi Clark in her capacity as principal of Chikaming Elementary School on April 18, 2021, with the secretary of the Board of Education seeking her termination under her written employment contract for the reasons specified and the charges.”
The resolution goes on to say that “Mrs. Clark failed to be entirely truthful on at least two occasions when acting on behalf of the district in her capacity as principal” and that her termination or her employment as principal would be “effective immediately.”
The meeting began on April 19 with a public comment period during which six people spoke in support of Clark, who began working in the River Valley District as a teacher in 1998 and has been a principal for the past 11 years.
During a Wednesday, April 21, special meeting focused on the subject of Clark’s tenure status as a teacher in the River Valley district, the Board of Education voted 4-3 to dismiss taking any action to revoke that tenure.
Voting yes were Nikki Springer, Mike Ehlert, Gail Freehling and Alderink while Bender, Whitlow and Wagner voted against the motion.
For more on the April 21 meeting, which included public comments and a statement from Clark, see next week’s Harbor Country News.