School board agrees to confidentiality compromise

By Sarah Pridgeon

At a special meeting of the Crook County School District Board of Trustees on Monday, a compromise was reached that will allow the board to review a packet of evidence compiled in support of a petition that was presented at last month’s regular meeting. The petition called for an investigation into the conduct of Superintendent Lon Streib, accusing him of, among other things, misconduct and harassment.

The meeting was called specifically to respond to the petition, said Chairman Todd McInerney as proceedings began. “It wasn’t called as a sneak attack – we have 30 days to respond according to the law and the next regular meeting would have been 33 days,” he explained.

Jennifer Nehl, representing the petitioners, asked to present two letters as public knowledge before the meeting began. She then noted that the supporting documentation remains confidential and is available for the board in the aforementioned evidence packet.

The first letter, from ex-teacher Cynthia Klinger, claimed she had been forced into retirement from Hulett Elementary last spring, despite having been looking forward to finishing out her last three years. Her letter further claimed that she had been chastised for contacting parents regarding the behavior of students and “diagnosing” them, when her intention had only been to “ask questions and seek solutions.”

Saying that she felt she had been “accused falsely” and that her superior, Mrs. Lougee, appeared “eager for me to leave,” Klinger’s letter went on to describe the “mysterious” disappearance of a journal she had been keeping in her day book, documenting all she had witnessed going on at the school. Claiming that Mrs. Lougee had been seen in her classroom “looking for something” at the time of the disappearance, Klinger maintained that the journal was later returned with all pages of documentation missing and questioned, “Why was administration so concerned about what was in there?”

The second letter was written and read by Elise Fowlkes, ex-Spanish teacher at Sundance and Hulett, and detailed the reasons for which she believes she was forced into resignation at the end of the 2010 school year.

Fowlkes claimed to have been in “total shock” to be given news that her contract would not be renewed, and that the principal wasn’t allowed to tell her why. Saying that all her evaluations to that point had been excellent and none had indicated any kind of problem, she stated that she “received an excellent evaluation the day before receiving news of my non-renewal.”

Fowlkes maintained that she was told that the reason “wasn’t related to the classroom or to my performance as a teacher” and questioned how that could be the case. She claimed that the superintendent had denied her request to make copies of anything in her personnel file that “originated with the district” until she brought a copy of the State of Wyoming Employee Records Policy to his attention; when looking through her file, she found “nothing out of the ordinary.”

“I want to make it clear that resignation is not what I wanted,” said Fowlkes. “Rather, it was a choice I was forced to make. I was forced to choose between being fired, for reasons so secret not even I was allowed to know what they were, or resigning.”

Fowlkes claimed that she had been told by the board’s attorney, Mark Hughes, at the board meeting during which she handed in her resignation, that from everything he had heard she is an excellent teacher and should have no problem finding another job. She stated that he then told her it would be better if she didn’t try to fight the situation as he’d “seen teachers get black listed and left unable to find a teaching job.”

The written reason for Fowlkes’ termination, sent by Superintendent Streib, was that she is “a difficult person to work with for the superintendent, principal and other staff,” she continued. She called this a “black and white contradiction” of every evaluation and conversation she has ever had with her principals that “attacks my character, my professionalism, my integrity, and is damaging to my reputation.”

Following the reading of the two letters, Nehl informed the board that packets of supporting evidence had been sent to the board along with confidentiality agreements, which had been signed by four board members. Saying that this had been done under the direction of the Attorney General’s office, she stated that the confidentiality was vital to protect the names of teachers and community members who do not trust Streib and Hughes and fear the repercussions of coming forward.

Hughes told the audience he had advised the board not to sign the agreements and that they are under no legal obligation to do so. Explaining that such an agreement subjects each member to potential litigation, he said that it goes against the district’s policy of taking problems to one’s direct supervisor.

Elizabeth Nelson questioned what people are supposed to do if they are scared of the superintendent and fear the repercussions, but can’t be guaranteed protection.

“If you honestly think that, if there were repercussions for coming forward, the board would stand by and do nothing, then you have severely misjudged this board,” responded Hughes.

“All we’re asking you to do is not share names with Streib and Hughes,” said Nehl. She told the board that some people who have contributed to the evidence packet “almost backed down” in fear of reprisal because, “from what’s happened in the past, they don’t feel protected.”

Chairman McInerney commented that conducting an investigation would be difficult without access to the evidence and the names within. “We can’t just say, ‘somebody said you did something’,” he continued.

The board then retired into executive session for three hours, inviting Nehl to join them for a portion of the time. Upon their return, a motion was passed that, in response to the requirement that action be taken and given that the documents were not made available until recently, the issue would be tabled until September’s regular meeting of the board to allow an informed decision to be made.

McInerney explained that a compromise had been arrived at during the executive session that would allow her to provide the supporting documentation without privacy problems. He told the audience that the board plans to set up times to meet with the appropriate people over the next three weeks and that, hopefully, all parties will be happy with the compromise as it causes no legal issues for the board while protecting everyone involved.

Board member Kenny Rathbun then commented that, “Irregardless of what board members may or may not sign, we are legally bound not to carry information out of executive session. I, for one, take that seriously, and so does the rest of the board.”

McInerney concluded the meeting by stating that the board intends to resolve the issue as “quickly and fairly as possible.” He commented that the motion passed by the board would give them time to perform an investigation, as “you all have better things to do on a Monday night than wait for us to make decisions in a back room.”

September’s regular meeting of the board is scheduled for September 17 in Moorcroft. The regular August meeting will take place in Sundance on August 20.