After publicly embarrassing two veteran teachers, drawing the ire of educators and administrators, and short-circuiting the process for rehiring staff — and likely creating a negative image of the district in the eyes of prospective teachers — the Sedona-Oak Creek School District Governing Board said, in effect, “Oops, never mind.”
At a special meeting Tuesday, April 11, the board voted unanimously to issue renewal contracts to teachers, including two who had been singled out for possible nonrenewal.
The meeting was necessary because the board on April 4 refused to approve the contract list for the 2017-18 school year. Board President Randy Hawley, Vice President Heather Hermen and Zach Richardson had voiced concerns over teachers they felt shouldn’t be renewed.
Those were the three no votes against approving the list of certified contracts, which included 52 teachers, three counselors and one librarian.
After voting to delay issuing the teachers’ contracts, board members unanimously agreed that it wouldn’t be fair to then approve administrators’ contracts. On that list were principals — Darrin Karuzas, Sedona Red Rock High School; Jay Litwicki, Sedona Red Rock Junior High School, Scott Keller, West Sedona School; and Deborah Jones, Big Park Community School — as well as Finance Director Lynn Leonard and Curriculum Director Deana DeWitt.
Administrators, other than Leonard, are responsible for evaluating the teachers.
Hawley and Richardson were particularly vocal, questioning the teachers’ performance and actions. Neither named the teachers, nor did Hermen, so it was unclear who or how many different teachers were being discussed.
However, two names were included on the agenda for the April 11 meeting for the purpose of possibly not renewing their contracts.
Although their names were included in a public document, the Sedona Red Rock News is choosing not to identify them because there was no discussion by the board specific to them and their contracts were ultimately renewed.
Their colleagues attended the meeting to offer support and give the board an earful about the pair’s qualifications, character and performance.
Other speakers castigated the board for its actions and argued that it did not have a legal basis to terminate the two.
Litwicki, who told the Governing Board that in his 24 years working in the district he has rarely spoken in the public comment portion of a meeting, said, “When I see an agenda item like this, I feel compelled to stand up and speak my peace.”
He began by going after Hawley.
Litwicki recounted the previous meeting during which the board, led by Hawley, refused make an exception to the district’s nepotism policy and allow Lindsay Keller to work as a teacher at West Sedona School where her husband Scott Keller is principal.
Although the plan was for the high school’s curriculum director and certified evaluator DeWitt, rather than Scott Keller, to do Lindsay Keller’s evaluation, Hawley contended that DeWitt, given her other responsibilities and the fact she was at the high school not WSS, wouldn’t be able to spend enough time in the classroom observing Lindsay Keller and getting a comprehensive understanding of her performance.
Litwicki argued that by the same reasoning neither Hawley nor any other board member could make a proper evaluation of the two teachers at risk of nonrenewal, especially not well enough to override the recommendation for renewal that their administrators made.
“If that’s not hypocrisy, I don’t know what is,” Litwicki said.
He also assailed “plucking names off a list” to get rid of them, saying it was using intimidation and the threat of public embarrassment to coerce resignations. He said it created a “chilling effect” for staff and asked, “Is that the message we want to send?”
Litwicki also blamed a “complicit press” for the situation, although he did not elaborate.
Mal Cooper, a photography teacher at the high school, also addressed the board, reading from a prepared statement.
A group of supporters stood as she began her statement, “We, staff of Sedona Red Rock High School, stand in solidarity in support of our administrators, Mr. [Principal Darrin] Karuzas and Mrs. DeWitt, in their professional recommendations for teacher contracts at our site for the 2017-18 school year.
“It is disheartening and unsettling that board members undermine our administrators … especially statements in an open school board meeting and comments made regarding personnel matters that are derogatory, demeaning and false.
“We exhort you to follow established polices and procedures regarding our contracts and evaluations in a lawful, appropriate and professional manner.”
In the course of the meeting, the Governing Board held two executive sessions with its lawyer. The sessions, which are closed to the public, typically deal with legal issues and personnel matters. After the first, the board voted to approve the list of certified contracts, as well as those for the administrators.
Paradoxically, one of the teachers on the agenda to be nonrenewed was on the list that was approved for renewal.
After the second executive session, which preceded the two teachers’ agenda items, the board returned to vote unanimously in favor of offering them contracts.
That was followed by several minutes of mea culpae, self-justifications, I-told-you-so’s, apologies and random observations from various board members.
Board member Karen McClelland, who had voted at the previous meeting to approve the contract lists, said, “We never should have been in this position. I have full confidence in our administrators.
“I don’t think it’s ever the board’s responsibility to discuss a teacher who is continuing … without a statement of charges from a principal ….“Having this on the agenda was a mistake.”
Hawley talked about differentiating the board’s responsibilities when it comes to a teacher’s competency in the classroom and unprofessional actions, but didn’t elaborate.
He also said here was a “glitch in the process that put us on a quick timeline.”
According to him, board members have committed to change the process and there will be training for the board and administrators this summer.
“There was a lot of soul-searching in the closed session that was good for us,” he said, before apologizing.
Richardson opened his remarks by saying, “I appreciate everyone’s emotions,” then talked about the sometimes-confusing previous meeting which he characterized as one of worst in his time on the board.
“It was like that Abbott and Costello routine, ‘Who’s on First?’ except it wasn’t funny, it was just really sad.”
He went on to say there was a lack of communication between administrators and the board and that it was a learning experience for both.
Neither Hermen nor board member Karl Wiseman offered any comment during the meeting’s impromptu post-mortem.