The Van Buren Public Schools Board of Education had been tasked with hiring a new interim superintendent, a new Human Resources Director, and a new Transportation Director, the sooner the better.
With the May 11 resignation of Interim Superintendent / Human Resources Director Shonta Langford-Green, the board was left with two big holes in the administration.
Then came the April 29 resignation of Transportation Director Karen Blevin, another important position.
The process is under way to get a new superintendent on the job by July 1.
At a special board meeting April 28, the board named Diane Kullis as interim superintendent, to officially begin the position on May 12, the day after current interim superintendent Green leaves.
Kullis, who was Director of Instruction and now works as Federal and State Grant Coordinator, has been with the district since 2011. She was due to retire in June 2015, but she said Supt. Van Tassel asked her to stay on for another year to train Jeff Moore, the new Director of Instruction, which she did.
Kullis holds a Bachelor of Arts in Special Education, Deaf/Hard of Hearing; Master of Arts in Instructional Development and Technology; Master of Arts in Educational Leadership, with Elementary Principal and Central Office Certification; Director of Special Education Certification; Specialist of Arts – Educational Leadership; and a State of Michigan School Administrator Certificate.
She will be paid an extra $100 a day as interim superintendent after she is officially on the job, similar to the agreement with Green to do the interim superintendent work along with her Human Resources job.
Actually, Kullis will start working with Green immediately to tend to pressing matters. School Board President Brent Mikulski said all the union contracts are up for negotiations and possible layoff notices should have been sent a month ago.
Secretary Kevin English said Green said she would help with the transition. Green was not present at the meeting.
Trustee Sherry Frazier said Green said she would be available to consult with the district. Trustee Frazier said she has received interest from others who were considered when Green was hired. She said the district has a long-term substitute who has Human Resources background.
“We can count on them,” she said of employees inside the district.
President Mikulski said Green will work to help the district and they can use internal staff with qualifications to prepare for May 12, when Green is gone.
He said the Human Resources job has been posted as a permanent position.
Frazier said the position has to be filled as soon as possible and Trustee Kathy Kovach agreed.
“It is no one’s intention to wait,” said Secretary English.
“We don’t want to appoint a cabinet for the new superintendent,” English warned.
“We may be able to have a new superintendent make the final decision for these positions,” Mikulski said.
English praised the considerable background of Kullis.
Frazier agreed and made the motion to approve Kullis as interim superintendent beginning May 12. Kovach seconded and the board unanimously approved the motion.
Frazier said Kullis needs to “immediately start working with Green to work on the immediate fires we have to put out.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Frazier made a motion to add to the agenda discussion and possibly a return to work of the four employees still on paid administrative leave at Savage Elementary School. One teacher recently signed an agreement and is back on the job.
Trustee Alison Bennett seconded the motion and board vice president Martha Toth voted no. The motion passed.
When the discussion began, Frazier said it’s been over 90 days that the teachers have been on paid administrative leave. In addition there has been the expense of payment for substitutes and growing attorney fees.
“It is our prerogative,” she said, stating the board can take control and have them back to work after signing a hold-harmless agreement promising not to sue.
Frazier said board members have been told there with be a report from attorneys in two weeks.
“Another two weeks?” she asked, requesting fellow board members to state why they think it’s OK to wait longer.
Kovach said she seeks the best interest of the students and community.
“I think teachers should come back, but I don’t want to get sued…” Kovach said. “We’re losing so many people.” She said the situation is “crummy.”
Frazier said the board can tell the teachers they can return to the classroom on Monday if they sign the agreement. She said the attorneys already have had 90 days to deal with it.
Trustee Bennett said it’s her understanding the hold-harmless agreement already has been offered to the teachers, so what would this prove?
“If they don’t sign, we know which direction they’re going,” Frazier replied.
“They were offered the same agreement as the one who signed,” vice president Toth said.
“We have the authority to put the teachers back in the classroom,” Frazier insisted. “The reason I’m pushing is because of Green’s departure … a new superintendent, Human Resources, Transportation Director … we have a lot on our plate.”
Frazier made a motion to put the four teachers back to their jobs by May 1, stipulating they have to sign hold-harmless agreements before then.
Toth said there is a seven-day revocation period in the agreement, so Frazier said they could go back to work seven days after signing.
Mikulski said the attorneys are working on it.
“Stop the fees for the attorney,” Frazier insisted. “We have the prerogative to put them back to work… We’ve spent $100,000 out of the instructional budget for attorneys. It’s been our goal to keep attorney fees low.”
When Mikulski mentioned issues with the teachers, Frazier said, “We can force the issue. Either they want to go back to the classrooms … or go off this way … go off dead center or take tenure charges against them. We’re spending time, resources.”
Toth said there is a seven-day revocation period and, “I want the agreement, but I don’t agree doing it this way.”
“Are we doing what’s best for the students?” Frazier asked.
“If they sign by May 1, they can be back May 8,” Kovach said.
“We can’t be sued as a district because they’re being returned to the classroom,” Frazier said.
“That’s what’s there now,” Mikulski said.
“The risk is they won’t accept the offer,” Frazier said.
“They haven’t accepted,” Mikulski said.
“It’s already in front of them,” Bennett added.
“Attorneys are involved,” Toth said. “They have to negotiate with the union. There is a contract.”
Frazier said the teachers are employees and they have contracts through June 30.
“You don’t have to involve attorneys at $300 an hour – that’s the average,” Frazier said. “He [Van Tassel] removed the teachers without telling the board. He told me he removed the teachers during the school day because our legal counsel advised him to. Poor legal advice. We were at the end of the marking period and could have waited another week. There was a fiasco on the report cards. Didn’t have anyone to put the grades together…”
“I want the teachers back and I don’t want to get sued,” repeated Kovach.
“I think everyone wants the teachers back,” Mikulski said.
“Then, let’s do it,” Frazier said, accusing the board of letting the attorneys run the district. “We’re the board.”
“We’re not letting the attorneys run the district,” Mikulski said. “The attorneys are in it to protect the district.
“My motion is to direct the teachers to return to their classrooms and sign a hold-harmless agreement saying the district will not be sued. Signed by May 1,” Frazier said. “Then we know where they stand.”
“If we can’t get sued, I support,” Kovach said.
English said the teacher situation is taxing the budget and reputation of the district, but Frazier’s motion is almost circumventing due process.
“I’m not comfortable with that tonight,” English said.
“The board of education is authorized to put employees on administrative leave and to put them back to work, with a signed hold-harmless agreement,” Frazier said.
“If we had it before us, we could approve it,” English said of a hold-harmless agreement. “We don’t have it before us tonight.”
Frazier withdrew her original motion and made a new motion to direct Langford-Green to consult with the attorneys and come up with a hold-harmless agreement by Monday. “It is a standard form,” she said.
And, the motion continued, to direct teachers to sign the hold-harmless agreement by May 2, with seven days to revoke or return to their classrooms. Kovach seconded the motion.
Toth said this circumvents the rest of the things signed by the other teacher who returned.
“There are other provisions in the agreement and I’m not willing to let them go,” Toth said.
The roll-call vote showed Frazier and Kovach voting yes and the rest of the board voting no.
Frazier then asked each board member to give a better idea on why having the hold-harmless agreement wasn’t good.
“I’d like comments,” Frazier said, looking around the board table, focusing on Trustee Kelly Owen next to her. Owen had not spoken at all since the meeting began.
“We’re not requiring other board members to speak,” Mikulski said, nevertheless offering an invitation to board members for comments.
“No one has an opinion,” Frazier stated, when no one spoke up.
“Not true,” Toth replied.
“It’s very disturbing to be working with a board that won’t express ideas,” Frazier said. She said two Sundays ago she contacted board member by email and got no response.
“It was a sign of a totally dysfunctional board,” she said. “The community should be aware of this … This is a reality … The community, the parents, deserve to know our thought processes on this issue.”
She said since her contact, she and Toth exchanged emails, and so did English, Kovach, and Mikulski.
“I wonder about other board members who never talked about it,” Frazier said.
“There’s nothing more than what has been said,” Bennett said, adding there are things in negotiation she does not wish to give up.
“It’s a no-win situation,” Frazier said. “I agree with Mrs. Toth.”
When members of the audience said they wished to speak, Mikulski said they could have spoken before the discussion, but there is no agenda item for that now because it’s a special meeting.
Former school board trustee Scott Russell called out that the bylaws allow public input at special meetings, but he was ignored.
“We could help you,” Russell said.
English announced the state now allows retired teachers to substitute for one year, which should help the substitute sitaution. Frazier asked Finance Director Shareen Barker to present a full report on attorney fees for the year and she said she would.
Toth cautioned that not all the attorney fees are for this issue.
“We made a decision to keep our legal fees down,” Frazier said, adding she would like to see Barker’s figures compared to the previous year.
Frazier said she checked on the Transportation Director situation and found that former VBPS Transportation Director Rhonda Lyons left VBPS and went to Huron Schools in New Boston. Lyons now has taken a job at RESA and she recommended Blevin for her former job at Huron.
A member of the audience called out to the board: “What did you do that was so bad that you are afraid of being sued?”