If the Ridgway School Board got anything right over the past few years, it occurred the other night when it did not renew the contract of Secondary School Principal Jim Bob Hobbs. Don't, however, mistake this as a sign of being accountable.
This is the tale of how a school board created an environment wherein the hired help called the shots.
Whoever is the next superintendent of these schools would have had a tough time managing Hobbs. He had already shown his disdain for authority over the past year or so, and he managed to be entwined in a scheme with a board member that successfully engineered a plan to have his boss resign. Add to that he thought he was safe when, late on March 19, the board succumbed to pressure and did not take the expected action of not renewing his contract.
In the midst of it all, school board members made arrangements through a shadowy shell game: bumping off a board member in exchange for keeping a principal and forcing out the superintendent. Never mind what was deserved based on job performance. As Clint Eastwood said in "Unforgiven" before blowing Gene Hackman's head off, "Deserves got nothing to do with this."
Sure, Hobbs was popular. He greeted everyone each morning and cooked barbecue for the masses, and teachers said they liked the fact they were left alone to teach the way they saw fit. His results as an administrator were debatable: some questioned student performance and Hobbs debated it.
As an employee, he had his boss and the school board handcuffed.
Last year, you may recall, at a time when his job performance was under review, kids in the school plastered the wall with "We love Mr. Hobbs" and "Save Mr. Hobbs' job" posters. All over the school walls and property. This show of support had absolutely nothing to do with his job performance but contributed to halting talk of terminating his contract early.
Any authority Superintendent Cheryl Gomez thought she had to manage Hobbs and her staff flew out the window that day.
Hobbs recently stated that he had not encouraged the sign-making and plastering last year. "I personally had nothing to do with what any of my supporters chose to do last year," Hobbs said, "when my contract was on the brink of being terminated." He failed to say how he discouraged any of it and left out the fact that he used his school email account and contacts list to send a cry for help to parents and supporters.
Gomez never did get to truly evaluate his performance.
This year, when faced with the prospect of having his job performance evaluated in consideration of renewing his contract, Hobbs again sent mass emails to parents and teachers campaigning for them to attend a school board meeting and show their support for his job renewal. Again, the old shell game at work. Why not? It worked last year.
But ignoring the court of public opinion would have required focusing on the game at hand. And that game is the students.
Not this bunch. This school board, like Hobbs and the posters, never did much to encourage accountability and move the focus back to the students.
Even in the past few weeks, in an attempt to get it right, the board just couldn't help itself. It was revealed that the board went into executive session or had a meeting and made a secret pact, agreeing to school board member Bart Skalla's resignation in exchange for sending Gomez packing and retaining Hobbs.
Colorado's Open Meetings Law prohibits the discussion of the fate of a board member's standing anywhere other than in an open meeting. For goodness sake. He's an elected official. He answers to the electorate, for crying out loud.
When the local paper wins back-to-back annual Colorado Press Association awards for its reporting of how the school board can't follow COML, one wonders if they are purposely ignoring it or just get so caught up in the drama that they forget about it.
Had Skalla resigned, the board, not the public, would have chosen his temporary replacement. Secret votes, backroom deals, smoke 'em if you got 'em. Appoint who you want: talk about a slap in the face to you, the voters.
On March 12, the board went into executive session after an open meeting in which they heard favorable comments from teachers regarding Hobbs. The recording of the open meeting ends before the executive session begins, and nothing is on the record regarding what the executive session is about.
COML requires announcing a specific statutory exception to an open meeting and an explanation of the subject matter in as much detail as possible. The board "retroactively" voted on March 19 to approve the March 12 executive session but even then did not announce the exception or the subject matter.
The Plaindealer asked for the recording of the March 12 "executive session" because we thought it was an illegal meeting, both because it wasn't entered into properly and because a board member's status may have been discussed. (It may have been discussed in the March 19 executive session.) We were refused. That's to be expected because our intention is to hold the board accountable.
And the result? It would be funny if we weren't talking about people's livelihoods. But when Gomez resigned and Skalla didn't, the shells were all revealed and Hobbs was left standing. You can't make this stuff up.
He and Skalla may have survived it all in the end, had Hobbs not bowed up and handed a six-page self-made referendum on his job performance to the board on March 26. In it, he admitted saying to parent Kara Mueller, "Don't blow smoke up my a**, Kara." No posters or mass letters to the public could save that style of arrogant puffery.
What school employee talks like that to a parent and gets away with it? Someone who feels invincible, or empowered, by a school board long overdue in applying accountability.
Skalla took a parting shot at the meeting this week in which the board voted 4-1 to not renew Hobbs' contract. He said you are misinformed if you read the newspaper. This, of course, is from the person who cast the lone dissenting vote, reneged on his backroom deal to resign from the board if Gomez was shown the door and once again "resigned" at this last meeting.
The Plaindealer received a press release written by the other four board members this week. Excuse us for wondering how the board got together and wrote this without holding a noticed meeting. They bring out the skeptic in us. In the letter, the board explains how all this commotion over the past few years has kept it from its true mission: the students.
It would have been nice, somewhere in the release, had the board taken responsibility as managers of this whole, elongated mess.
Alan Todd is Co-Publisher of the Ouray County Plaindealer and can be reached at 970-325-2838, or firstname.lastname@example.org.