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Hastings School Board: Parents oppose teacher nonrenewal

The Hastings School Board's nonrenewal of a kindergarten teacher's contract was met with opposition from some parents at Wednesday's board meeting.

The School Board reduced the hours of one teacher's contract at the meeting and did not renew eight full-time teachers' contracts, including Shantell Brucker, a nontenured kindergarten teacher at Kennedy Elementary School hired in 2016. Two parents of Brucker's students spoke against the firing, a move board members said stood out compared to the usual emails voicing discontent.

"My husband and I feel like we have won the lottery with my son's place in [Brucker's] class," said Jordan Marie Harris. "This is one of the best school districts in the state ... I fear that decision making like this will take a toll on the quality of our education should these sorts of decisions continue long term."

Another parent, Eric Brendeland, spoke in support of Brucker as well, calling her an "excellent teacher."

Tim Collins, district superintendent, strengthened the district's teacher evaluation process when he first took the job, he said at the board meeting. It now includes classroom visits from principals, mentorship and other aspects.

"I support parents who come here tonight and stick up for an individual who they believe is outstanding," Collins said at the meeting. "Having said that, when I first came here I really looked at our evaluation process ... you are who you hire."

Brucker and the other teachers' nonrenewals are not uncommon at this time of year, when the district typically make decisions on nontenured teachers' contracts, Collins wrote in an email.

For example, last year, the board did not renew about five contracts, said Dave Pemble, a School Board member.

This year, the non-renewed teachers range from those newly hired to others previously tenured in a different district, he said. Previously tenured teachers are only non-tenured in a new district for one year.

Collins emphasized the importance of finding the right candidates to be tenured.

"Once a teacher is tenured it is very difficult to move them along if they are not doing a good job down the road," he said.

School Board members emphasized the difficulty in making these decisions every year, but said they trust the evaluation process that non-tenured teachers go through.

The evaluation process is focused on ensuring that the district only employs the best candidates, Pemble said in an interview after the meeting.

"We as the seven [board members] have to look at the big picture for the district," he said. "Your heart goes out to situations like last night ... but it's part of ... how teachers are evaluated."

The amount of teachers non-renewed largely depends on the amount of probationary teachers the district has every year, said School Board member Lisa Hedin. Probationary teachers are within their first three years of teaching and being evaluated for suitability.

"We understand what non-renewing a probationary teacher's contract means for the teacher, it's not an easily made vote," Hedin said. "We let professionals do their jobs and that's what an administrator's job is ... it is probably the most important job they have."

Equity coordinator search

Collins said that the district is receiving about $276,000 Achievement and Integration Program funds — a state program aimed towards creating racial and economic support in public schools. That money will be split between various initiatives, technology improvements and in hiring a district equity coordinator, he said.

The coordinator will help develop training resource for staff, create student groups, review achievement gap data and other aspects focused on equity, Collins said.

The district has opened the application for the position.

Other notes...

• The board approved a 2020-2021 district calendar that starts before Labor Day, due to the holiday being later than usual. The district could potentially adjust it if construction at the middle school runs off schedule, Collins said.

• The board recognized six district workers as employees of the semester: Sarah Anderson, early childhood special education teacher at Tilden Elementary School; Ray Butler, maintenance worker at Hastings High School; Mark Cernohouse, Hastings Middle School technical education teacher; Dave Haveman, the district's director of special education; Jodi Shelhammer, Hastings High School English teacher; and Derek Smith, Hastings Middle School computer tech teacher.

• The board approved the retirements of six employees: Paula Angell, family resource coordinator for 42 years; Becky Gartzke, Pinecrest Elementary School teacher for 30 years; Diane Monson, Hastings High School special education for 20 years; Kathy O'Keefe, Hastings Middle School special education teacher for 23 years; Cathy Prokopwicz, Hastings Middle School special education teacher for 23 years; and Zena Stefani, community education coordinator for 37 years.

• Kristin Moon was hired as a new orchestra director for Hastings' middle and high schools.