by Sandia Belgrade
Nearly 100 teachers, students and residents attended the November 16 meeting of the Moffat School Board, many carrying signs protesting the fact that Michelle Hashbarger is no longer the principal. 138 residents had signed petitions of no confidence in the Superintendent. If people came hoping for some explanation of why principal Michelle Hashbarger is to be replaced, they received none. The lack of “official” communication has fueled rumors and taken a toll on transparency and trust. Teachers agreed to be interviewed for this article on condition of anonymity and it was from them, several Board members, and the dramatic meeting that some information has been gleaned.
The ignition point seemingly occurred when Superintendent Charles Warren, who has only been in his position since July of 2008, asked the Board to have Moffat School Principal Michelle Hashbarger, who’s been there for over a decade, step down and possibly be reassigned, supposedly on the grounds of “insubordination.” It was at that same meeting, in what may have been poor timing, the Board extended Warren’s contract two years and raised the Superintendent’s salary by $7,000. This situation has resulted in tension and an atmosphere of acrimony prevailing throughout the community.
A decision never fully explained
What was glaring to most people was that the Board seemed to make their decision quickly. People questioned if there was any investigation of the allegations. According to Hashbarger, no school Board member talked to her. Large numbers of staff and residents were also dismayed that there seemed to be no effort to bring in a professional mediator. There was also no clarification of the undefined “insubordination” fueling more speculation. Some teachers felt that at the October meeting the Board had ignored them because they had already reached a consensus, which seemed to disregard the stakeholders whom they serve.
Abundant praise for Hashbarger
It was surprising that no one at the meeting spoke up for Warren, and he never addressed the audience. What was evident was the predominant support and genuine respect for Hashbarger. Speaker after speaker spoke of her achievements. Several times there were standing ovations. Under her tenure with a Reading First Grant, the scores of the elementary grades increased from 50% proficient in 2006 to 89% proficiency in 2009.
One teacher, Helen Martin, spoke of the innumerable responsibilities of “our” principal, with posters delineating professional development for new teachers, data collection, instructional strategies, and a host of other duties which created a safe, happy environment that had earned her respect. The presentation left the audience overwhelmed with Hashbarger’s accomplishments. A feeling of loss was palpable in the room. Who could replace her? Mark Jacobi said “that kind of loyalty can’t be bought.”
The Board’s response
At the Nov. 16th meeting, the Board didn’t engage with those in attendance, making it difficult to know what these well intentioned volunteers were thinking, reinforcing the perception of a lack of transparency. It also caused a disconnect with those who were present. The Board is legally bound not to discuss confidential personnel issues, which accounts for their silence, but they did not reach out and show the concern many of them feel. In the days following this last meeting, however, several Board members clarified their views.
Hashbarger, according to some of the Board, was not happy with the choice of Warren and there was a climate of negativity against him from the beginning. Certainly it had been brewing for some time until it became untenable. When this reporter interviewed Warren, he said he was on good relationships with Hashbarger and the decision was based on school needs. However, Hashbarger and many teachers would not describe it that way. There may have been discussion of her being assigned to another administrative position, perhaps Elementary Principal. But apparently it was her choice to resign; She was not fired according to Michelle Olsen and Sage Godfrey of the Board.
Hashbarger told this reporter that she loved her job and the students, but she did not want to work with Warren. She felt that the Board sided with him and didn’t listen to her, and that Warren was not supportive of her. She stated she has done nothing to warrant this, but did not have the money to fight it legally. Apparently on the Friday before this meeting, the decision was finalized.
This has taken a toll on teachers as well as students. Many instructors cited situations where they have felt intimidation and an apparent lack of honesty from Warren. Many referred to the comfortable atmosphere under Eli Dokson, the former Superintendent. One thing that came up in interviews is the perception of what a school administration represents in terms of leadership styles: boss or servant? Hashbarger is a strong feisty woman who speaks her mind, and many believe there were irreconcilable personality differences.
Amanda Pearson, a Sagauche County judge, was upset at the effect of the situation on students. She said reformation in education was what Reynold Bean and Charlie Warren wanted, but she said it only works when the superintendent can get teachers and community excited about change. Pearson wanted the school to do what it is supposed to do: teach students.
Concerns over fiscal liability
Many are concerned about the fiscal state of affairs this incident has caused. Teachers criticized Warren’s request for additional compensation during an economic downturn. One presenter said the Superintendent’s pay increases alone over the past 16 months jeopardize the fiscal integrity of the district. To go from $73,500 to $85,000 is a 15.65% increase. Another teacher asserted that according Moffat Consolidated School District #2 Executive Limitation #EL-8: Compensation and Benefits which states the Superintendent shall not change his or her own compensation and benefits, except, as his or her benefits are consistent with a package for all other employees. But the teachers may only be getting a 1.2% raise of their base salary. In a memo from Warren to the Board, he acknowledges this Executive Limitation. Two teachers compared Moffat with other districts in the Valley, finding many of them had bigger populations, a larger tax base, and some of the Superintendents had more years of service, suggesting his pay cannot be commensurate with other districts.
There are other real concerns for the fiscal stability of the district. There are lawyer’s fees, Hashbarger’s contract has to be bought out, and there’s the cost of a replacement principal, money not budgeted for. And tragically at least 20 parents have said they will take their children out of the school. Since the school earns $12,000 income for each student, that represents a potential revenue loss of $240,000. Many said these losses cancel out the revenue Warren is said to have brought into the district. Karen Aker lamented that money is being spent on administration costs rather than programs.
The Board’s role, seeking improvements
Eric Frey, a spokesperson for the teachers, said that Sage Godfrey, President of the Board, took time to meet with him to discuss policy issues. His presentation concerned clarification of the Carver Governance and the updating of grievance policies. The present turmoil has raised concerns about how teachers could grieve against the superintendent. Bean clarified that the present wording means that a teacher can go directly to the Board if the grievance is with the Superintendent. There is no blockage. It was one of the few interactions with the Board.
Godfrey is concerned about what has happened and wants to give Warren a chance to turn it around. The Board, meanwhile, is working towards strengthening the high school program. While reading scores have jumped, math and science were not improved to a more proficient level. Warren, as a former science teacher of the year, surely wants more improvement in that area.
Matie Belle Lakish, the only Board member who voted against Warren receiving a two year extension and a raise, has resigned (for reasons not related to this controversty). Thus there is one at-large position on the Moffat Board of Education open.
The National School Boards Association articulated that the Key Work of School Boards is to provide a framework for raising student achievement through community engagement. The Board probably felt under attack at the meeting, but many felt they could have reached out more to the community present. They never showed their caring, and caring in a small rural district builds trust and improves learning as much as working towards test scores. One would hope that after the emotional storm has passed, they will reach out to constituents more.
Perhaps no one could foresee the chaos that would result: a school and community torn apart, an atmosphere of distrust, paranoia, and low morale—hardly conducive to education. As one teacher said, “it is certainly not what we as adults have modeled for our children. There is much reparation that needs to be done to put the school back together again. Warren must tend to building bridges and restoring confidence in him as a trustworthy, competent leader.”
Let the last words be those of a student. Bryon Miller feels the students and public are not getting answers, and the issue is being handled poorly. He has no trust in the superintendent or the process. He’d been informed that students couldn’t speak at the meeting, but was finally allowed to and summed up the situation when he reminded all the adults, “You’re here for us.”
Firestorm over Moffat principal ‘reassignment’
by Sandia Belgrade