After some heated comments and banter between attendees at the Ennis School Board’s special meeting Monday night, the board offered superintendent Doug Walsh a full-time two-year contract.
The contract will pay Walsh $105,000 per year, along with two-party health insurance benefits and replace his current contract situation which is one-third time superintendent and two-thirds time bus supervisor.
“People in general weren’t happy with the way the contracts were done before,” said school board member Gary Croy after Monday’s meeting. “It seems that our district’s ready for a full-time superintendent again.”
The board voted 4-1 to offer Walsh the contract. The lone dissenting vote was new board member Lisa Frye, who was elected in May.
At the previous school board meeting Aug. 8, Frye asked the board to seek advice from another attorney concerning several aspects surrounding Walsh’s previous, current and future contracts with the district.
She made the same request Monday night.
“I think we need to speak to another attorney before we offer Doug another contract,” Frye said.
Her primary reason for wanting advice from another attorney is the belief that current school district attorney, Elizabeth Kaleva from Missoula, has a conflict of interest.
“I think Elizabeth Kaleva has a huge conflict of interest,” Frye said after the meeting.
Kaleva represents both Walsh and the school district in the lawsuit filed by Madison Valley resident David Kelley. The lawsuit was recently dismissed with prejudice by Gallatin County District Court Judge Mike Salvagni. However, Kelley still can appeal the ruling.
But in representing the school district and Walsh in the lawsuit, Kaleva could have exposed the district to a financial obligation to cover claims against Walsh that were recently issued by the Montana Teachers’ Retirement System.
Earlier this month the TRS found that Walsh’s contract dating back to 2001 essentially represented full time employment reportable to the TRS. As such the school district owes about $188,000 in employee and employer contributions to the TRS and Walsh owes about $560,000 in benefits he received inappropriately, according the TRS decision.
The school district and Walsh both plan to appeal the TRS decision.
In the Kelley lawsuit, a deposition of Marc Glines said that Walsh acted within the scope of his duties. This language was supported by the order to dismiss the lawsuit written by Salvagni, saying Walsh was immune from suit because he was acting within his duties, Frye said.
The upshot is, because of the language that Walsh operated within the scope of his duties, the school district could wind up being on the hook for the $560,000 owed to the TRS by Walsh, she told the board.
“I believe that we could be liable for Doug’s portion,” she said at the meeting.
Kaleva, who was present for the meeting, disagreed. The school district didn’t have any exposure for the TRS claims against Walsh, she told the board members.
“You’re trying to keep something going that’s been dismissed,” Kaleva told Frye.
At the last board meeting, the board informally agreed to contact another attorney for advice. Board chairman Marc Glines told the board he would call an attorney with experience in school boards.
However, Glines didn’t call another attorney seeking a second opinion.
Frye brought up this point at the meeting, but Glines didn’t offer an explanation.
In an interview after the meeting, Glines said he didn’t think the advice from another lawyer was needed after the Kelley lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice.
“I was at the conclusion our attorney was doing a good job and we did not need to contact (anyone else),” Glines said.
At the school board meeting, trustees Mike McKitrick and Jim McNally both agreed.
“I’m happy with the legal advice we have,” McKitrick said.
The board initially made a motion to offer Walsh a contract for $109,000 a year, but at Croy’s request lowered it to $105,000.
Still, Walsh’s salary would be high for a Class C school superintendent, McNally said.
“Doug would be one of the higher paid ones, but I think you have to take in years of experience,” McNally said.
Also, factoring in is the increased responsibilities with monitoring the ongoing construction project, he said.
The construction project made it even more important that Walsh continue to be the superintendent, McKitrick said.
“I think he needs to help us finish it through and help us get on our feet before we look for another superintendent,” he said.
During public comment on Walsh’s contract, several people spoke both for and against rehiring Walsh.
Jamie Lovett from Ennis said Walsh’s salary would be far out of line with other school districts in the area.
“We must consider how this reflects on the entire district,” Lovett said.
Plus, giving Walsh another large contract would seem to fly in the face of change voters in the school district obviously wanted when they voted against both school levies and incumbent school board member Brett Owens this past May, she said.
“The message they sent was clear in the spring and it’s we’ve had enough,” Lovett told the board.
However, Walsh hasn’t been found guilty of anything and not offering him a contract based on accusations is wrong, said Shera Konen, who is the parent of a high school student.
The public comment at times grew heated as people who supported Walsh argued with people who didn’t want the district to offer him another contract.
Several people voiced their opinion that at least the district should get another legal opinion before offering Walsh the contract.
David Kelley, who filed the lawsuit against the district, implored the board to seek another attorney’s advice.
“How could the lawyer who represents him in district court, represent you?” Kelley asked. “You need a second opinion … Be smart, be wise talk to another lawyer.”
Walsh hasn’t made any decision on accepting the school district’s new contract offer, but said he would soon.
Walsh is in the beginning of year two on a three-year contract package with the school district. The new contract would void his current contract package. He decided to open his contracts at the school board’s request.
“The board wanted me to do it,” Walsh said. “They felt that it was the right thing to do. It really wasn’t up to me.”