Tempers flared and comments grew heated Monday night at the Ennis School Board meeting as some called for the resignations of board members and the superintendent, while others voiced their support.
The bulk of the comments came during the public comment portion of the meeting and highlighted what has become a deeply divisive issue for the residents of Madison Valley.
“I was kind of hoping Doug Walsh would step up to the plate and turn in his resignation and we could start from scratch,” Ennis resident Bill Clark told the school board.
His comments were met with applause from about half of the nearly 40 people in attendance.
Cindy McKittrick, whose husband Mike is a school board member, spoke in favor of the school board and her disappointment with the community.
“I’m just so disappointed in this community,” McKittrick said. “You guys (school board members) have done such an amazing job.”
Her comments were also met with applause from about half the room.
Ennis teacher Marilyn Jenkins took a more moderate stance in her comments saying the teachers within the school are focusing on the students in spite of the controversy.
“We have held to the task and will continue to hold to the task,” Jenkins said. “We know it’s all about the kids.”
The comments came at the regular monthly school board meeting and less than a week after a Montana Teachers’ Retirement system ruling determined the school district owed contributions for superintendent Doug Walsh’s salary since 2001 and that Walsh owed for retirement benefits paid to him since 2001. The findings concluded that Walsh owed nearly $580,000 to TRS, which the school district owed nearly $190,000.
The school board is planning to appeal the decision, their lawyer Elizabeth Kaleva said Monday.
The TRS decision comes amid two other related controversies surrounding the school board and Walsh.
Board members (except for board member Lisa Frye) and Walsh are embroiled in a civil lawsuit with Madison Valley resident David Kelley over the financing of the new school building project and Walsh’s employment contracts. (This lawsuit was dismissed by District Court Judge Mike Salvagni on Wednesday. Read about it here.)
Additionally, Madison County Commissioners and the County Attorney’s office have asked the Montana Attorney General to investigate the school district financing of the new school and other budgeting concerns surrounding several of the district’s budget funds including adult education, transportation and flexibility funds.
Monday’s comments to the school board came as the board deliberated changing Walsh’s contract with the district.
Currently, Walsh is a one-third time superintendent and a two-thirds time bus supervisor. His contract as bus supervisor has been central to Kelley’s lawsuit with the district.
At the meeting Monday, board members Jim McNally and Marc Glines presented their initial discussions and research about revising Walsh’s contracts. However, neither was prepared to present a proposal for the board’s consideration.
The idea is to give Walsh a three-year contract starting this year to make him a full-time superintendent again at $116,000 a year, McNally said.
Walsh retired as superintendent in June 2001 and then in July 2001 was hired back by the district as a one-third time superintendent and two-thirds time consultant. The way Walsh’s retirement was handled is central to the TRS claims against him and the school district.
Making Walsh a full-time superintendent again would void his bus supervisor contract with the school district, McNally said.
The contract he and Glines are working on with Walsh would also include two-party health care, three additional personal leave days and annual performance evaluations, McNally said.
When someone in the audience asked why the district needed a full-time superintendent now after having a one-third time superintendent for the past 10 years, board member Gary Croy spoke up.
“Some of what we need to do here to clear up some of the issues we’ve had is go back to a full-time superintendent,” Croy said.
However, board member Lisa Frye wanted to get an attorney’s opinion on possibly voiding Walsh’s current contract in light of the findings by TRS.
“I would like to seek another attorney’s opinion,” Frye said.
Her problem with the school board’s current attorney, Elizabeth Kaleva, is that she may have a conflict of interest, Frye said.
Evidence presented in the Kelley lawsuit implies Kaleva met with Walsh without the school board’s knowledge to draw up a bus supervisor job description and advertisement back in 2008, she said. That same year Walsh was hired as part-time bus supervisor.
“It is my belief that Elizabeth Kaleva has a conflict of interest in representing this school district,” Frye said.
When contacted after the meeting Kaleva denied any conflict.
“I’m not aware of any conflict,” she said. “I’ve never personally advised (Walsh) in regards to his contracts … I’ve only prepared documents at the request of the district.”
Croy voiced his concerns that trying to hire a new superintendent would be challenging given all the controversy surrounding the school district.
Board member Mike McKittrick seemed to agree.
“I think it would be nice to keep Doug in here long enough to get this school built and things smoothed out,” McKittrick said.
However, the board didn’t see the conflict in seeking advice from another attorney about the situation and whether or not to hire Walsh back as full-time superintendent.
“We’re still going to have to make a decision,” Croy cautioned.
He also expressed interest in seeking advice from an attorney versed in school board issues.
Board chairman Marc Glines said he would talk to the Montana School Board Association about who would be an appropriate attorney to get a second opinion from and then call him or her.
The decision on Walsh’s contract was tabled until a special meeting scheduled for Aug. 22 at 5 p.m.
Also tabled was discussion about a job description for a grounds and transportation employee. The position is vacant and the board has been working this summer on revising the job description. However, since the job would answer to the superintendent, the board felt it appropriate to iron things out with Walsh’s contract before finalizing the job description.
However, they did vote to move forward in advertising the position and discuss it further at the Aug. 22 meeting.