After weeks of tense school board meetings and demonstrations by parents and teachers, Mesa County’s largest school district has renegotiated a contract with its incoming superintendent, who many in the community worried would be fired by the conservative-majority board before he even started his new job.
When Brian Hill, current assistant superintendent for Mesa County Valley School District 51, moves into the top job on July 1, he will have a lower salary than he and a previous board agreed to in a contract signed last year. But Hill said he’s glad to be done with the process, “so we can get back to the business of what we need to be doing in the district.”
The controversy surrounding Hill and other administrators started earlier this month, three days after a school board in Douglas County fired its superintendent. That superintendent, Corey Wise, has said he may sue the Douglas County school board over the firing.
The Douglas County firing happened on a Friday. The following Monday, Mesa County’s District 51 school board held a special executive session behind closed doors to examine the contracts of three employees: Hill, retiring D51 Superintendent Diana Sirko and Tracy Gallegos, the district’s new director of equity and inclusion.
Fearing these administrators would face the same fate as Douglas County’s superintendent, hundreds of people showed up, many with signs, to support the administrators. They exploded in applause as each arrived at the meeting.
Lisa Adams, a teacher who demonstrated at that first meeting on Feb. 7 said it used to be that schools seemed apolitical, “and now it feels like politics is seeping in, tainting everything we do in schools.”
All of the candidates who lost last year’s school board race also showed up to support the administrators at the Feb. 7 demonstration. Trish Mahre, a former D51 board member, said the new board should be more forthcoming in explaining to residents what they are doing.
“Because this is a sudden special meeting, I think it sets everybody back and makes them feel distrustful,” she said, “instead of the board just speaking frankly about what they’re doing and why.”
The following day, the school board released a statement dismissing “rumors” in the community.
“Yesterday’s executive session was not conducted with any intent to fire any District administrator, and no such future action is contemplated,” the board said.
In subsequent meetings, the board stopped discussing Sirko’s and Gallego’s contracts, but it continued — with the help of lawyers — to look at Hill’s, signed in 2021. Board President Andrea Haitz said the review process “did illuminate that there were some concerns,” but did not go into detail about what they were. In the end, the board and Hill negotiated a new salary, one that’s the same as the outgoing superintendent’s, $221,000 annually, despite the previous contract offering more.
At a D51 board meeting this week where the board voted unanimously to approve Hill’s new contract, two board members voiced their concerns about decreasing Hill’s salary.
Board member Doug Levinson read a statement on behalf of himself and fellow board member Kari Sholtes, in which they said Hill’s new salary was 36 percent below the average superintendent salary per pupil in 10 comparable school districts and that the board had also reduced a penalty provision if the board sought to terminate Hill without cause.
“I think the community needs to understand Dr. Hill made major concessions to accept this new contract,” Levinson said, calling the contract “not in the spirit” of the one signed last year.
He added that if the district wanted to keep attracting qualified candidates, they needed to “fairly and competitively” compensate them.
President Haitz denied Levinson’s characterization of Hill’s new contract and said the board was responsible for being “fiduciaries of the district’s budget.”
She said she would love to offer higher salaries to teachers, “But at the same time, I mean, unlike the government, I can’t just go print money and give it to people.”
In an interview with CPR News after this week’s board meeting, Haitz stood by the review process and said that the current school board is planning to be “more hands on” than those in the past. Haitz, who ran as the “conservative choice” with two other board members last fall, also cautioned against comparing D51 with Douglas County or any other districts in the state.
It doesn’t mean there won’t be “similarities,” Haitz said, “But from my standpoint as a board member, I'm not worrying myself with what other counties are doing.”
Haitz said she’s glad renegotiating Hill’s contract “worked out” and is looking forward to the future.
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