REGIONAL – St. Louis County School Board members approved the hiring of three new principals on split votes after several district residents voiced concerns about the replacement of two popular principals.
Two of the new hires — Scott Hall and Kelly Engman — do not yet have principal licenses while the district will replace two administrators — Rachael Lehman and Erin Cox — who are licensed principals. Installing Hall and Engman as principals will require a waiver from the Minnesota Department of Education, or that they complete their licensing requirements by the time they assume their positions.
Board members Nancy Wall Glowsaki and Troy Swanson both opposed Hall as principal at Cherry School. Hall would replace current principal Lehman there.
Swanson also voted against the hiring of Andrew Bernard as principal at South Ridge where Erin Cox has been principal for the last school year. Glowaski abstained on that vote. Meanwhile, both Swanson and Glowaski abstained from voting to hire Engeman to serve as principal at Northeast Range. Engeman has been dean of students at Northeast Range, while Principal Lehman split her time between Northeast Range and Cherry.
Board member Chet Larson, who also raised concerns about how the interviews were conducted, was unable to attend the meeting.
Tuesday’s votes followed a controversial interview process where incoming Superintendent Steve Sallee’s selection of the top three candidates was supported by the interview committee. Sallee’s top candidates included Hall, who currently works for Sallee in the LeRoy-Ostrander School District.
The committee included several administrators, but only one school board member. Board member Jody Feist had also been tapped to serve on the committee with Swanson, but was unable to attend the interviews due to work commitments.
Superintendent Teresa Knife Chief defended the interview team saying the same process had been used in the past to recommend candidates for principal. But Glowaski questioned the failure to include more board members on a committee that seemed stocked with administrators who would take their orders from the new superintendent.
“This is one area — the hiring of principals — where we can really do a job of oversight We have a lot of responsibility and trust involved and for us not to be involved, I think, is a mistake. I think oversight in a matter like this is extremely important,” said Glowaski. “I just don’t think there was enough.”
At a study session prior to the board’s meeting, Glowaski urged board members to consider “a do-over” where they could have a greater say in the selection of the final candidates. But other board members were reluctant to reopen the process.
Several audience members also expressed their concerns about the new hires. Parent Josh Arvid said hiring a replacement for Cox was “an embarrassment.” He noted that South Ridge had gone through four principals in a year. Cox had been an effective leader at the school and has the school’s best interests at heart, he said.
“Erin Cox has been the one principal at South Ridge who would listen, not interrupt you or shut you down before she heard the whole story,” said Arvid. “She listens and makes her decision.”
He asked the board why, if Cox was not qualified to serve as principal, she hired as the interim principal for the last seven months?
Arvid said the district’s actions have undermined education at South Ridge, which has lost many excellent teachers due to conflicts with administrative personnel in the district. “I’m embarrassed that this is happening to South Ridge and my children.”
Beth Morgan voiced similar concerns about the change in leadership at Northeast Range. Lehman had dramatically improved the atmosphere at the school, said Morgan. “I just can’t say enough about Rachael Lehman. The positive nature that Mrs. Lehman brought to our schools was phenomenal. What happened?”
She added that the district’s actions created turmoil for the new superintendent. “He is stepping into a mucky, mucky mess,” she told the board, adding that the inconsistency in teaching and administrative ranks was creating duress. “We need to do something different,” Morgan said. “It should have never happened that Mrs. Lehman doesn’t have a position in ISD 2142. It’s just unspeakable.”
The issue over the new principals first surfaced at the May 12 board meeting where four board members refused to accept Lehman’s resignation until they had a better explanation of why her contract was not renewed.
That led to a special meeting on May 16 in Cherry, where Swanson and Gary Rantala, who had initially rejected Lehman’s resignation, accepted it. Chet Larson opposed the motion while Glowaski, who had also rejected Lehman’s resignation, said she had not been told by the superintendent of the special meeting. Glowaski had the minutes of the special meeting amended to include her complaint that the superintendent failed to notify her.
Knife Chief said in an email that she had notified all board members, but acknowledged that the meeting wasn’t posted until late Tuesday and possibly Wednesday at some schools. State law requires that special meetings be posted at least three days prior to the meeting. Knife Chief took charge of notifying the board instead of leaving that duty to her executive assistant, as is normally the case.
Knife Chief said the board could have waited until the next regular meeting on May 27 to act on Lehman’s resignation, but she elected to hold the special meeting out of respect for Lehman and to give her more time to find a new job.
There were seven candidates for the three principal slots. Although the committee took part in the interviews, they left the choice of the top three candidates to Sallee. In a letter read aloud at Tuesday’s meeting by Bob Larson, Sallee said the committee agreed that the final decision “needs to be mine since it will have the biggest impact on me.”
He stressed although he identified his top three choices, the final decision rested with the board.
Chairman Larson said the decision wasn’t easy, and noted that four of the seven candidates were already employed by the district when they applied for the jobs.
Glowaski said Lehman had told her that she would have liked to remain in the district, when asked about her resignation after the May 12 meeting.
Holding back tears, Lehman said she was proud of her service in the St. Louis County School District.
“I am grateful for the opportunity given me to serve the Cherry and Northeast Range School communities,” she told the board on Tuesday. “I am proud of the positive impact my deans and I have had on each school and look forward to hearing about continued progress.”
She concluded her comments with a saying that her father was fond of repeating: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”