The Ennis School Board reappointed district clerk Ginger Martello at a special meeting Monday night after listening to nearly 45 minutes of public comment commending Martello, her contributions to the community and work for the district.
Nearly 100 people attended the special meeting. All who spoke applauded Martello, who has been district clerk for the last five years.
The special meeting was a result of a tumultuous meeting last week, when the newly reorganized school board voted initially not to hire Martello back. However, the decision was tabled after contentious public comment and outcry.
At Monday’s meeting Shera Konen, an Ennis resident, presented the board with a petition that had been circulated in support of hiring Martello back. Also in the past week, newly hired superintendent John Overstreet spoke to the school board members. Overstreet, who starts as superintendent July1, also spoke at Monday night’s meeting imploring the board to renew Martello’s contract.
Overstreet started by commending the new board members for being willing to serve as leaders in difficult times. New board members are often thrust into situations that require quick decisions before they feel ready, he said.
“You’re in a tough spot,” Overstreet said. “I do appreciate you reconsidering (Martello’s appointment).”
School districts should be run like a business, he said. Given that, it would be a bad idea to replace a superintendent, school board chair and district clerk all at once.
“I really feel we need (Martello’s) consistency to make this thing work out,” Overstreet said.
He has known Martello for several years. When Overstreet was Ennis superintendent in the early 1990s, she was the elementary school secretary. This pre-existing working relationship will be helpful to him as he takes over as superintendent, he said.
“If you give me a chance to work with my team for one year, I think you’ll be pleased,” Overstreet said.
Additionally, reappointing Martello will show the new board is ready to provide leadership moving forward, he said.
The controversy surrounding the Ennis School District has been lingering in the community for nearly three years. It’s led to highly contentious school board meetings, a Montana Attorney General’s opinion, disputed Montana Teachers’ Retirement System decision and a dismissed civil lawsuit.
“People on both sides said it’s time to mend fences, time to move on,” Overstreet said.
Reappointing Martello will be a good step in doing just that, he said.
After Overstreet spoke, school board chair Lisa Frye opened the floor for public comment and was quickly questioned about how last week’s meeting was run and subsequent comments she made in The Madisonian.
In an article published in last week’s newspaper, Frye said she valued Martello’s experience and felt it would be important to bring her back as district clerk. Frye went on to say in the article that the board’s decision last week was made because the new school board members Craig George and Bill Clark hadn’t had a chance to review Martello’s contracts and the people attending the meeting construed that vote as a decision to not rehire Martello.
Former board chair Marc Glines, challenged Frye Monday on what happened the week before.
“I was at the meeting last week and (voting to not reappoint Martello) did not seem like an accident or oversight,” Glines said.
Last week, the board voted on the motion to reappoint Martello before allowing board discussion or public comment, he said.
Frye acknowledged the mistake in not allowing time for comment or board discussion prior to the vote.
“That was my fault,” she said.
Her position concerning Martello has changed since last week’s meeting, Frye said. She talked several times with Overstreet during the past week and trusts his recommendation on bringing Martello back.
“I have complete trust in Mr. Overstreet,” she said.
Glines was frustrated the board took no discussion on last week’s motion and the way Frye characterized the meeting in her statements to The Madisonian.
“I did not think that was a fair and accurate representation in the paper,” he said.
Other people also challenged Frye’s comments in last week’s newspaper article that the new board members hadn’t seen Martello’s contract and didn’t want to rehire her until they had.
“I’m not going to rehire somebody without seeing a contract,” said new board member Craig George at Monday’s meeting.
He explained that last week he voted on the motion under the assumption it was about renewing Martello’s current contract, which he hadn’t seen. Now he’s seen the contract and understands that re-appointing her isn’t the same as signing off on a contract. The board can appoint Martello and then negotiate her contract, he said.
Martello’s current contract expires June 30.
“We’re making progress here this evening,” George said.
But in the future, it would be wise for the board to hold off making a decision until they understand all the implications and have all the information, said Cameron resident Todd Durham.
Science teacher Mellissa Newman echoed this sentiment.
“We have such a riffle of fear going through our staff from what happened at the last meeting,” Newman said.
It’s important that board members prepare themselves for the agenda items they’ll have to discuss, she said. The failure to do so last week left Martello in limbo wondering about the security of her job.
“I think that was very unfair,” Newman said. “I think that was cruel.”
Other public comment expanded from not only rehiring Martello but also addressing the contention and divisiveness in the school and community.
Ennis resident Kay Suzuki said the controversy over the past three years has deeply divided the community. She expressed trust in the school administration saying “They’re totally dedicated to the students and the school.”
However, the school and community need to move forward and find a way through the controversy, Suzuki said.
She understands school board members need to answer to their constituents.
“But your most important constituents start in kindergarten and go through twelfth grade,” she said. “This school is the heart of the community and right now it’s broken. But we have to mend it. We have to.”
The school environment has been difficult the past couple of years, said Madison Valley Education Association President Jay Fredrickson. The MVEA is the local teacher’s union.
However, that needs to change.
“We need to start moving toward a civil discourse,” Fredrickson said.
Through it all the focus of teachers and staff has always been on educating children, he said.
“I’m very proud of our certified staff and I am very proud of our non-certified staff,” Fredrickson said.
The primary filter the school board should have in making decisions is do they have a positive impact on kids, he said.
“Our business is kids,” Fredrickson said. “We may fall along the way, but that’s what our focus is.”
He also commended Martello and said the MVEA fully supported her rehire.
After public comment, the board voted unanimously to reappoint Martello. The decision received a standing ovation.
In other news, the board voted 3-2 to continue to use the services of their lawyer Elizabeth Kaleva. The vote was preceded by a lengthy discussion about whether or not Kaleva had a conflict of interest in working with superintendent Doug Walsh on a job description for a bus supervisor in 2008. Frye contended that Kaleva did have a conflict of interest because the job description was written after inquiries from the Montana Teachers’ Retirement System into Walsh’s employment.
Walsh disagreed with Frye at Monday’s meeting.
Ultimately, Walsh was hired for the part-time bus supervisor position.
Walsh’s contracts with the district dating back to 2001 are the subject of an ongoing case with the Montana Teacher’s Retirement System.
Last year TRS found that Walsh and the school district both owe for retirement benefits that should have been paid into the system given Walsh’s employment with the school district. The decision found that Walsh owed more than $550,000 and the school district owed more than $180,000 to TRS. That decision has been appealed both by Walsh and the school district.
Ultimately, Frye and George voted to not keep Kaleva as the school district’s lawyer, while board members Bill Clark, Mike McKitrick and Jim McNally all voted in favor of continuing to use her services.