by Sandia Belgrade
In a special meeting on December 15, the Moffat School Board went into executive session with the Moffat School District’s lawyer to finalize the personnel matter regarding Superintendent Charles Warren. When the Board finally reconvened in open meeting before a filled room, they announced their decision to have the lawyer negotiate a termination of his contract. The superintendent was put on paid professional leave on Dec. 14 and the details of his termination are being worked out.
Victory for protestors
Sage Godfrey, President of the Board, announced the words so quietly that it took a few minutes for the import to sink in. Since it was called as a special meeting, the lawyer advised the Board about not speaking or taking questions or comments from the audience who, of course, wanted the Board to reach out to them more. But the teachers and community got what they had worked hard for: after weeks of input from teachers and the residents, the Board finally realized that the superintendent did not have the support of teachers or the school community. Apparently it was a mutual decision, for without that backing, things couldn’t move forward. Godfrey acknowledged the community’s role, and certainly they kept the pressure on until the Board had taken steps for the welfare of the school. Godfrey said she
was very impressed with the interest parents have taken in their children and how responsive they have been in attending meetings.
How did it reach this point?
The drama embroiling Superintendent Charles Warren has consumed the Board, school and a concerned community for the last several months. The controversy began with the ouster of Principal Michelle Hashbarger which outraged students, community and faculty. They have kept the pressure on the Board, and significant events occurred indicating that some change had to happen. A volatile December Board meeting in which a Board member pounded the table and audience comments turned to shrill invective may have allowed some of the frustration to peak. There was also a convincing vote of no confidence in the Superintendent and Board: 33 no confidence; only 2 voted yes.
Former principal speaks
Michelle Hashbarger finally spoke to the community and was able to clarify some of what had transpired from her point of view. In a public memo dated December 9 Warren stated that he and the Board had decided to move her “to an administrative position in the elementary school with no change in compensation.” However, Hashbarger said she was not offered an elementary position, and presented copies of another letter given to her by Warren, dated Oct. 12, stating she was being removed as principal. In the second memo, she was told it would be short term position for the remainder of the 2009-10 school year which would be revaluated before determining whether she should continue or be transferred to a teaching assignment. He advised her that she’d need to renew her teaching credential. Hashbarger pointed out that when you make a principal a creditable offer of an administrative position, you don’t offer it as “short-term.”  She maintained that she would not have resigned if she had been offered to stay at Moffat in an administrative position in the elementary school.  The Board was getting different takes on what he had presented to her.
Credibility concern
What repeatedly came up at school board meetings and in interviews with teachers over the last few months was their feelings of distrust in Warren for apparent incongruities in what he said and did.  According to the Board, Warren had found Hashbarger to be insubordinate; yet in a personal interview with Warren, he told this reporter he got along fine with her. Warren’s credibility problem with the teachers may have contributed to the lack of confidence and trust teachers had in him. Several teachers referenced the lack of consistency in day-to-day occurrences. Others wonder if he has a problem or was he just an over-worked person who sometimes forgot?
One of the straws…
Events away from the public eye also occurred that may have turned the tide. One night in December there was a problem with students and a domestic issue that occurred at the school, incidents that prompted a call to the sheriff. It was reported that Warren left the building with all that was happening, saying he had a meeting. He told the secretary to call 911—but she is not someone who is certified to be in charge. Warren returned later with several Board members. The next week the Board put Warren on Paid Professional Leave. They maintained that the leave was for Warren’s protection.
Balancing compassion with scores
Principal Hashbarger reminded the group that reading in Elementary school is crucial,  the water that raises the ship. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) supports her: “literacy achievement and strategies have been shown to improve not only reading and writing skills but achievement in math, science, and other subjects.” The University of Maryland, for example, says most middle and high school teachers and administrators are not trained to deal with literacy issues. They think the problem is solved in earlier grades and that students naturally progress. Yet, one in three high school graduates need to take remedial reading when they enter a Maryland college. So the problem is not Moffat’s alone, and Hashbarger’s work with reading was critical to the school achieving high standards. Recently Godfrey was apprised of the rising writing scores at the Moffat middle school level and congratulated them on this achievement.  Now it is time to focus on the high school, she said, and give them the attention they so well deserve.
The Board’s role
Amanda Pearson, Saguache judge, considered filing a law suit against the Board for breech of the Colorado Sunshine Law, though it happened unintentionally. There was a meeting of the Board with the Charter School Governing Council at the Desert Sage, which had not been publicly posted. It was followed by a meeting in which more than two board members were present.  The Sunshine Law legislates that all meetings of two or more members of any state public body where any public business is discussed must be open to the public. A gathering of three or more individuals of a local body constitutes a meeting. Sage Godfrey says it was an inadvertent mistake, and she feels badly about it, but stresses that no decisions were made.
The Board has shown by their termination of Warren that it will respond to the community. Mediation had been recommended by staff and at least one former Board member in the October and November meetings during the “citizens addressing the Board” part of the agenda. The Moffat School Accountability Committee formally recommended mediation in the December meeting. Also the Hashbarger situation has been tabled.
While the community remarks made to the Board have been angry and sometimes venomous, they had  justifiable concerns. Many in the school and community wished that the Board could have reached out and offered more acknowledgment to the concerns of the people who had come out for the meetings. At the same time the Board,  a volunteer group sincerely wanting to serve the community,  took a long time to really hear the teachers and residents. They were often unresponsive, and it appears they often used the rules governing Board conduct at meetings as protection. There are, however,  two good signs for the future: the community and teachers persevered, and the Board finally acted sincerely in accordance with the realities presented by events and testimony. There is an at-large position on the Board open, and Godfrey is encouraging interested people to apply. She feels this is an opportunity to move in a new direction, and she welcomes input. If the Board really follows through on their statements about moving forward, it will gain the trust of the community.
Time for healing
Several people have said it’s a time for healing and many want to know how the community can move forward. All the players—the school, the Board, and the community— should feel very empowered by what they have accomplished. They face the next semester with a chance for a fresh start. At present Moffat has no superintendent and no principal. Linda Stagner and Karen Hazard, the Business Managers, were named as the temporary interim co-superintendents. The current search is for an interim superintendent for second semester.  That person will set up a committee to help select a new principal and then a full-on search for a permanent superintendent will happen this spring.
The children shall lead us
While many are concerned with scores as a measurement of student learning, Eric Frey, one of the teachers said, “You can’t measure compassion or creativity.” As it turns out, the students know as much as the adults about what truly matters. Student Council President, Jahil Bragassa, presented a letter on behalf of the Student Body, the gist of which says that the school is continuing the tradition of lighting a candle at the holidays and letting students speak. The letter went on to say that the students are inviting the community to make donations to families who go without at this time of year. Of all the words that have been expressed, those of the students are most hopeful. The letter ends with the following statement showing how resilient they are:
“The students would like to thank the staff and faculty for their integrity and endurance during this difficult semester. You have displayed great compassion and concern for the students and the school.”