By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – Hot Springs’ three school principals, who learned last month that their contracts would not be renewed for next year, all say their biggest disappointment of what happened is the process in which the decision was made and then how they learned about it.
High School Principal Mary Weiss, Grade 3-8 Principal Liz Baker and Grade K-2 / Special Ed Director Kelly Bilbrey said in a recent interview that they wish either the school board or Supt. Kevin Coles would have communicated to them prior to the board meeting on Jan. 13 to let them know the board was considering not renewing their contracts for the 2020-21 school year. Weiss, who has been the high school principal since 2000, even went so far as to say that had she known the possibility of her non-renewal was going to be voted through publicly at the board meeting, she would have chosen to either turn in her resignation or announce her retirement.
Principal Baker said based on the precedence of process in past years, any drastic changes to staffing at the school came about through communications amongst the principals and the superintendent. She said the superintendent would then make his or her recommendation to the board, just like what was done last year when it was recommended that Baker and Bilbrey split the elementary school principal duties following the resignation of then-principal John Fitzgerald.
When asked to comment on why the principals were not given advanced notice about the majority of the board’s desire to not renew their contracts, Hot Springs School Board President Bob Preuss said that due to the issue concerning personnel, and involving lots of discussions that were held in executive session, not much can be shared that hasn’t already been stated at previous board meetings. Preuss however was able to comment on some other specific questions, including whether or not the principals would be allowed an opportunity to resign, instead of having their non-renewal be put on their permanent record.
“It is my understanding that if the individual principals feel that their best course of action would be to resign versus a non-renewal, they would submit a resignation to Superintendent Coles to be officially brought to the board,” Preuss said.
All three of the principals said their most recent performance evaluations, conducted by Supt. Coles in the spring of 2018, were void of anything that would warrant their non-renewal.
In addition, based on the school board’s explanation following their vote, the administration restructuring also did not appear to be motivated by any budgetary shortfalls, as has been the case with some other recent personnel changes in which the school board was tasked to reduce the budget by a targeted dollar amount.
Preuss confirmed that neither job performance nor budget were the primary motivating factors for the restructuring. He said, while the board is very conscientious of the budget in all that they do, “budget was not the primary determining factor and therefore no targeted numbers.”
“The decision was not based on performance,” Preuss added. “As previously stated at board meetings, it was based on the recommendations of the principals to realign the positions. Superintendent Coles was in attendance and involved at various meetings.”
Baker acknowledged having conversations with board members to the effect of recommending a change from the current structure, but never was it suggested to them that the three of them were not wanted as part of the future restructuring. She said during those conversations, the need for other positions were also discussed, including a School Resource Office, an additional Counselor and a full-time Tech position.
Not addressed in the board’s explanation of their decision to not renew their contracts is how they plan to address Special Education.
Current SpEd Director Bilbrey said that while some East River schools combine SpEd as part of the duties of a principal, none of the schools in the Black Hills area do that, as all have separate SpEd Directors. Bilbrey said this is due to the high needs of area’s SpEd students, especially in the Hot Springs School District where there are a total of 121 students in Special Education, including 11 to 12 with autism that require even greater attention.
Bilbrey said she is worried that the putting the complex compliance duties of SpEd on the shoulders of someone who is also a full-time principal will be too much for one person to do.
In relation to how the school board plans to address the district’s SpEd program, Preuss said, “The necessary administration of our Special Education Program will be considered in the Hot Springs School District Administration redesign. The delineation of those duties will be determined by the incoming superintendent and the candidates’ talents and qualifications that are available.”
Baker said there is great concern amongst the school right now on the timeline between when a new superintendent will be hired and when he or she will then hire the new principals for the two new positions.
Preuss said, per Tom Oster with Dakota Ed Consulting, the firm doing the Superintendent Search, the candidates will he presented and selected by the board at the March 4 Special Meeting. The selected candidates will then be interviewed on March 11, with the offer being made and expected acceptance on March 12. The incoming superintendent would then begin their process of reviewing applications and interviewing candidates to fill the restructured positions. A recommendation on who to hire for what positions will be made to the Board and those openings will then be filled in a timely manner for the 2020-2021 School Year.
“It is my understanding that the school has already received applications from six parties and been contacted from more expressing interest in applying,” Preuss said. “At this time the board hasn’t been apprised of the applicants experience or qualifications. We will continue to receive applications and the new incoming superintendent will be involved in the hiring and restructuring of the administration.”
Both Baker and Bilbrey said that they have each submitted a letter showing their intent to apply for one of the two principal positions, but neither had officially applied at the time. Both however expressed their hesitancy to apply after what happened, with the board indicating, by their vote to not renew, that they are not wanted here.
Weiss said she is not intending to apply for the Hot Springs positions but has instead begun applying for jobs elsewhere, including several that are out of state. Her husband Jonas, who is also a Hot Springs High School alumni and a teacher in the Hot Springs School District for nearly 30 years, teaches both woodworking and welding. He too will be leaving the school next year and is applying elsewhere, which has made him fearful with what will happen to the woodworking and welding program in Hot Springs after he leaves, he said.
“Jonas has 28 years in the district and I had 20 years,” Mary Weiss said. “We grew up here and had some great years here in the school.”
“Considering how many years we’ve been in Hot Springs, I just didn’t like how it was handled by the board. I wish I would have had the opportunity to retire from Hot Springs how I wanted to,” she said, adding that she is trying not to be bitter about it and taking the board’s decision as a sign that its time to move on and pursue other aspirations.
“This decision didn’t just effect three principals but also three families,” Baker said, as she described how her family moved to Hot Springs six years ago with plans of one day retiring here as well. Baker has a daughter, Kylene, who is currently a sophomore at Hot Springs High School.
Bilbrey said she and her husband had also planned to retire in Hot Springs one day.
Despite the recent experience of being publicly surprised by their contract non-renewal, Baker said they are not going to let it upset the educational process during the remainder of the school year.
“We’re going to principal on the last day just like we did on the first day and carry on our professional responsibilities,” she said.