Even given the recent history of contentious Ennis School Board meetings, Wednesday’s meeting was somewhat extraordinary.
It lasted a little more than two hours and was attended by nearly 80 people. They crowded in the doorway, scrunched into plastic folding chairs bunched in tight rows and some just tried to listen in from the hall.
Those who could, heard superintendent Doug Walsh read a letter of resignation, the board discuss goals for improving communications with the community, a final report of sorts about the new school construction, tearful words of support and appreciation of Walsh and his service, and angry shouts and arguments between audience members.
But the biggest item on the agenda was Walsh’s resignation, which came after a nearly 17-year tenure at Ennis, the last three of which have been marked by controversy over the funding of the new school project, which was essentially completed about two weeks ago.
Wednesday’s meeting came five days after a Montana Attorney General opinion that the way the school board used taxpayer money for the new school was illegal. The opinion ironically was issued on the same day the new school was deemed ready for students – Feb. 3.
The controversy around the funding for the new school has been intermixed with controversy surrounding Walsh’s employment contracts with the school district.
Walsh was hired as superintendent in 1995 and retired in 2001, but was rehired back one month later as a one-third time superintendent and two-third time special consultant. In 2009, Walsh’s contract changed from being special consultant to bus supervisor.
Last year the Montana Teacher’s Retirement System found that Walsh and the school district had failed to pay into the TRS properly. The TRS finding said Walsh owed about $572,000 and the school district owed $189,000.
The district and Walsh are appealing the findings to the TRS board and there is a hearing scheduled for August.
Both the school funding and Walsh’s contracts was the subject of a civil lawsuit filed by Ennis resident David Kelley, which was ultimately dismissed last year.
Walsh read aloud a letter of resignation that stated, in part, that the administration and the school board had always done what they could to provide students with a safe educational environment. He called the decisions of the board to build the new school forward thinking and credited the community for supporting the endeavor.
“I can only hope the district is in a better place than when we started this adventure,” Walsh said.
His resignation will be effective June 30 and was accepted unanimously by the board.
After Walsh read his letter, school board member Mike McKitrick read one submitted by several students who supported Walsh and implored the community to behave better.
“If you think Mr. Walsh’s resignation is good for the community, then you are wrong,” McKitrick read.
The students warned in the letter that Ennis High School may lose some of their students because of the controversy and Walsh’s resignation.
The division in the community surrounding the school has impacted students.
“This community is no longer whole,” McKitrick read. “That’s what every community should strive for.”
After McKitrick finished reading the letter about half the people in the room stood and applauded.
The letter reading was followed by several teachers who stood and thanked Walsh for his support and leadership.
“Doug your support has been tremendous and I will sorely miss it,” said science teacher Mellissa Newman. “We’re going to miss you but enjoy the peace.”
English teacher and coach Kurtis Koenig also thanked Walsh for taking a chance on him as a young teacher and helping him improve.
“You made me believe in the power of education again,” Koenig said.
But not all of those who commented on Walsh’s departure were positive.
Kelley stood up to question Walsh’s leadership and ask the board to move forward with his performance evaluation.
Kelley was animated in his voice and gestures and was shouted down by some people in the audience. Still he continued.
The heart of the issue isn’t about whether or not Ennis needed a new school; it’s about demonstrating leadership to students and the community.
“It’s about the kids. It’s about the youth of this country,” he said over jeers. “Anybody who thinks it’s about this lousy building doesn’t understand.”
Ennis resident Melinda Merrill stood and commended Walsh on his service and added a few comments about the controversy.
“It’s unfortunate in Ennis Montana that we have a small group of people who continue to beat a dead horse,” Merrill said, referring to continued criticisms of the school board and Walsh over a variety of issues.
In some ways it seemed the substance of the comments both for and against Walsh lost their significance as this portion of the meeting tumbled on nearly out of control. Those who spoke in support of the school board and voiced their appreciation for Walsh often choked back tears. Those who rose to criticize Walsh and the school board seemed equally earnest in their sentiments. Often school board chairman Marc Glines struggled to maintain order as people directed their comments to each other rather than the board. But finally and grudgingly the comment period on Walsh’s resignation ended.
The search for a new superintendent would begin immediately, the board decided Wednesday. The Montana School Board Association has offered their assistance in the search.
In other news, the school board continued to discuss their goals for the board and the school district.
School board member Gary Croy outlined a lengthy set of goals that included increased communication with the community and staff, progress on meeting new curriculum standards and further board education on budgeting and finance.
Croy worked through the goals with school board member Jim McNally and is looking for input on what groups within the district would be responsible for addressing specific goals. (To see a copy of the school board goals, click here)
Also in other news, the school district’s attorney Elizabeth Kaleva spoke via speakerphone about the recent opinion from Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock that the school district’s funding of the new school project was illegal.
“The attorney general has not changed his opinion that the expenditures were not appropriate,” Kaleva said.
At this point, unless the school district would want to challenge the opinion in district court, there isn’t much to do, she said. Madison County Commissioners or the school board themselves could ask for an audit and someone may try and seek a remedy through another lawsuit.
However, the issue has gained statewide significance, as other school districts in the state have used funds in a way Bullock now says is illegal, Kaleva said.