RIDGWAY SCHOOLS Board members clash as resignations are accepted
By Bill Tiedje
Details of a brokered deal among Ridgway School Board members, involving the resignation of board member Bart Skalla in exchange for the resignation of Superintendent Cheryl Gomez and extension of secondary Principal Jim Bob Hobbs' contract, emerged during a special meeting of the board held on April 8.
Formal resignation agreements with Gomez and secondary guidance counselor Rick Williams were accepted by the board Tuesday night, as well as an agreement to hire Steve Smith as interim superintendent.
In a formal statement, board member Greg Lawler said four board members had made written statements asking for Skalla's resignation. The statement also listed Lawler's conclusions about the climate of the board and its workings.
Responding to questioning from community member Darin Hill, Skalla said although he had offered his resignation at one point, he would no longer agree to resign, as the terms of the deal were changed.
"The terms were I would stay on until we have things worked out with administration," said Skalla. "We would have a new superintendent in place. We would have things worked out with all personnel."
"The terms were, we would keep Jim Bob, and you would go," countered board chair Roger Sagal.
Earlier in the meeting, Sagal asserted that he had offered his own resignation in a moment of frustration during the March 19 meeting but had since withdrawn it in order to not abandon the board at a time when leadership is necessary.
"(Skalla's) articulated plan is to undermine the administration and the board," said Lawler.
Skalla said that Lawler's statement was a lie or a vast misrepresentation.
"It's not a lie," responded Lawler. "You are not going to have another board member come up and say, 'Yeah, Greg, you are not telling the truth.' I'm telling the truth."
"You have articulated to this board that you are an insurgent," said Lawler. "You are here to take out this board and to take out the administration. You've said that."
Lawler continued, stating Skalla had previously agreed to resign for these reasons, as well as for violating executive session laws and writing letters for Hobbs to put out into the community undermining the board.
Skalla maintained that Lawler's statements were inaccurate and said the two board members would need to review the recordings of a previous executive session where the discussions took place.
After that exchange, Sagal adjourned the meeting.
During the public input portion of the meeting, the board heard statements from a number of community members that questioned Hobbs' professionalism and job performance.
Former accountability committee member Andy Mueller, reading aloud a letter to the board on behalf of himself and his wife, Kara (former school board chair), pressed the board on Hobbs' failure to meet the requirements of his job description, including: being an instructional leader in school-wide curriculum planning, implementation and evaluation; directing challenging, comprehensive learning; and, use of the district teacher evaluation process to help each person improve professional effectiveness.
"Our experience as involved parents is that Mr. Hobbs fails to meet these goals," said Mueller. "Our experience is that Mr. Hobbs is not pushing or leading our staff and students to continually excel and bring our school and our district to another level."
Mueller cited Hobbs' failure to implement meaningful individual student learning plans and failure to assure teaching methods are challenging for all students.
"All of our teachers need to be constantly challenged to do better for our children and he has allowed some of our teachers to remain mediocre at best," said Mueller.
Mueller also noted Hobbs' lack of professionalism, again citing his job description that includes requirements such as good judgment in discussing school business, equitable treatment for all and ethical behavior.
Mueller noted an issue last year that involved students and parents plastering the school with "Save Jim Bob" posters and improper use of the school computer system to rally support for himself among community members.
Mueller, who spoke out against Hobbs' contract renewal last year, said Hobbs' professionalism affected him and his wife on a personal level when his wife brought concerns about a teacher to Hobbs.
"When Kara followed up on those concerns verbally with Mr. Hobbs, he indicated that there was little he was willing to do and took the opportunity to remind Kara that he 'was aware of your letter of non-support' and ended the conversation," said Mueller.
Mueller also stated that any agreement to extend Hobbs' contract during executive session was a violation of state law.
"No one promised Mr. Hobbs a job," said Sagal, later clarifying, "If that's the way it’s been interpreted, it is an incorrect comment."
"It saddens me to see the direction we are going," Hill said during public comment. "It's not good."
Hill referenced the school's TCAP scores as evidence that the school's performance was declining under Hobbs' tenure.
"There is room for improvement and we are slipping," said Hill.
Hill urged the board to focus on the school's academic performance above all, regardless of Hobbs' support for athletics and his outgoing demeanor.
Williams, addressing members of the community and school board via e-mail after the meeting, had a similar conclusion as Hill in regard to the schools' TCAP scores, noting "declines in cohort performance in each subject."
"I am very disheartened to have learned tonight that my and Cheryl's resignations were part of some grand plan," said Williams in the e-mail. "This kind of politics has damaged the school for many years to come."
Skalla asserted at the meeting that Williams resigned on his own.
Gomez declined to comment.
"You can kiss your accreditation with distinction goodbye," asserted Lawler during his formal statement. "The dropout rate alone will crush that."
"All of us own a piece of this mess," Lawler added. "The climate is nothing short of toxic. Good employees don't work in toxic environments."
Lawler stated that he and other board members had received hate calls and threatening letters in recent weeks.
Skalla reported that he also had received a threatening letter which he reported to law enforcement.
Connie Stapleton, a former board member, recognized the work of four administrative staff members who recently resigned, Gomez, Williams, Dana McCullam and Michelle Pottorff, and thanked them for their service.
Sagal offered a formal public apology for his assertion during the March 19 meeting that Gomez could soon leave the district.
"Ms. Gomez has led this district through tough financial times," said Sagal. "Unless you work with her, you cannot know the effort she put into this school."
In response to questions from board members and members of the public, Sagal responded that while personnel matters were confidential, if Hobbs expressed in writing that he wanted his personnel file to be made open to the public, the board would consider making it public as allowed for in the Colorado Open Meetings Act.
Acknowledging the need for both confidentiality and transparency, Sagal remarked,"I feel very caught between those very valid concerns in our community."
An open records request made by the Plaindealer requesting access to the recordings of a March 12 executive session, which was not properly noticed nor properly voted upon, was directed to the school board's legal counsel, Darryl Farrington, by Sagal.