Wrangell teachers told the school board this week they do not feel like they have a safe way to communicate openly with board members.
The Wrangell Public School Board had a full audience at its last two meetings. Teachers and parents expressed concerns about two topics: a lack of communication with the board and the resignation of the secondary school principal.
Stikine Middle School teacher Bob Davis said he would speak for several teachers to address the breakdown in communication between school board members and school staff. He said district employees are afraid to talk to the board.
“Do you realize that the aides in this district have no real safe way of talking to you? The secretaries have no real way of talking to you. Some of the teachers can’t talk to you. Even the principals have to watch what they say when they talk to you, because they don’t have tenure and they have to watch their career,” Davis said. “Please keep in mind, an example has been set.”
Davis told the school board they owe teachers a safe avenue to talk about concerns without having to worry about negative evaluations, letters of reprimand, or their contracts. He said he advised non-tenured teachers against bringing their concerns to the board. Those teachers have less job security.
“I’m not sure why there’s a concern about a safe way to speak openly. I’m not sure what the concern is about that,” said School Board President Susan Eagle.
She said the communication policy that seems to be causing concern was recommended by the Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) and was adopted by the Wrangell School Board earlier this year.
The policy states, “Staff members, parents and community members should submit questions or communications to the School Board through the Superintendent. Board members’ questions or communications to staff or about programs will be channeled through the Superintendent’s office.”
Eagle said people should communicate with the board through the superintendent’s office, but they don’t have to.
“I receive emails, and I receive phone calls from people,” Eagle said. “And normally what I’ll do, is I will forward those on to the district office and other board members, or I will summarize my conversation and email that to the other board members and to the district office so that it can be on record.”
All communications end up in the superintendent’s office.
Eagle said she doubts the policy will change because it came from AASB. She said it is difficult to address the perceived breakdown in communication because she does not know what’s causing that perception.
Superintendent Patrick Mayer, also in his first year at the district, said he does not know why people are finding it hard to work with this policy.
Davis said the policy did not seem out of line when he first looked at it.
“If it had been written last year, I wouldn’t have blinked,” Davis said. “But that was last year. This year it’s a major problem because it’s being conflated with some other issues this district is having.”
Davis did not elaborate on what those issues are. He indicated teachers have information they would like to share with the school board.
Some community members said they would like to discuss their concerns with the school board members they elected, not with the superintendent.
Former board president Janell Privett said the policy makes it seem like the board is not encouraging public participation in meetings.
“They’re making an enclosure that’s just the superintendent controlling the whole circle, and he’s going to be the middle. And all the little areas around him are going to be controlled by him. And that can’t work,” Privett said. “That isn’t public education. Nor is that valuing your educators in any way.”
Wrangell residents and teachers also expressed support for Colter Barnes, the secondary school principal who resigned after less than a year on the job.
Teacher Michele Galla read a letter of support for Barnes that was sent to the school board in March. It was signed by all of the teachers, aides and secretaries from the middle and high school.
“Colter Barnes is an inspired choice to lead Wrangell’s secondary schools,” Galla read. “With his leadership, we are doing more than coping with the changes and obstacles that are being imposed by the state and by financial imperatives. We are implementing solutions to very difficult, potentially detrimental, challenges in ways that will continue to improve the quality of education our students receive. Colter’s leadership has been superb, and he has our wholehearted endorsement and support.”
The school board plans to offer a contract to Kendall Benson of Utah to be the new secondary school principal.
After a tense meeting, the school board went into executive session to discuss a “personnel matter.” Eagle did not elaborate further.