Stout questions accuracy of posting, other board members defend chief administrator
By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
Muffled sounds of frustration poured out of Monday’s USD No. 480 executive session, and after only two minutes, Board President Reid Petty exited the meeting, claiming it was “illegal.” He sat at his regular board seat while those remaining continued a discussion that lasted about half an hour and could be heard out in the main chamber.
The spark that set off the emotional response was a Facebook posting by Petty about an issue the board was facing that night that included the addition of 14 additional staff members at an estimated cost of $665,000 per year.
When Superintendent Lance Stout was made aware of the posting only moments before Monday night’s meeting, he requested a 15-minute executive session to address the issue.
Petty’s Facebook post stated, “Garden City cut 27 staff positions last week, yet USD 480 administration wants to add over $600K+ in extra administrators at tonight’s Board of Education meeting. Please contact other board members and encourage them to join me in voting ‘no’ for this irresponsible spending proposal. Their plan to pay for it is a tax increase.”
Stout was incensed because he believed he was the subject of the posting, and requested the executive session to discuss the issue.
Petty, on the other hand, felt he was the topic of discussion, and as an elected official, did not believe the discussion was appropriate or legal since the purpose of the executive session was to discuss non-elected personnel.
As of press time, 21 people had clicked the “like” button on Petty’s post, including a state senator, a state representative and the wife of U.S. Senator Jerry Moran. Other district employees also clicked that they “liked” Petty’s post.
Some comments offered about Petty’s post included, “Sounds like maybe USD 480 should recruit in Garden City instead of recruiting trips to California :) just sayin...” and “Wow! Ridiculous! How about buying enough math books so my boys can actually bring one home to do their homework!”
Liberal High School athletic Director Scott Hinkle also responded on Petty’s post by saying, “FB not the place for school issues. Come spend an entire week at the HS and see if you change your mind.”
Board member, and attorney, Dan Diepenbrock said he feared the district could be liable for Petty’s statement.
“The reason that the law permits school districts and other governmental entities to go into executive session for personnel matters is because a non-elected public employee has a liberty interest in his or her employment,” Diepenbrock said. “If the board or a member of the board states publicly something that puts that employee in a negative light, it can expose the district to liability. Our board president either doesn’t understand that or doesn’t care, because it has been discussed before, and he has done this before.”
But Mike Merriam, an attorney for the Kansas Press Association with an emphasis on open meetings and open records said that board members are elected to oversee and be critical of policy.
“I dont think there’s any liability for criticizing a proposal,” he said. “That is what they are elected to do, to criticize policy. It might be good or bad, but policy is what they are elected to discuss.”
He also stated that using Facebook to expand the discussion was not an issue.
“There’s no problem with Facebook posting,” he said. “It is not a legal issue.”
Petty’s posting specifically called for action against an “irresponsible spending proposal,” not an individual. He also said that Diepenbrock had used the term before.
“People can sue over anything,” Petty said “People sue McDonald’s for spilling coffee. Diepenbrock himself has called proposals irresponsible, like the way the school calendar was set in the past. That was one of many. He chastised it. He used the word ‘irresponsible’ a number of times.”
Once in executive session, accounts differ on what exactly was said. Both Stout and Petty agree that expletives were used, but as to the severity or if it became excessive was unclear.
Petty stated that when he entered the executive session, Stout began to berate him for the Facebook posting and used “profanity.”
Board member Nick Hatcher did not deny that expletives were used, but said they were not used to an excessive manner.
“When that issue was brought up about the Facebook post, the context of the meeting was Stout asking if he was the man for the job,” Hatcher said. “He was visibly upset and rightfully so. Lance doesn’t use profanity. He might have abbreviated BS or say he was pissed off, but he did not in any way use a string of profanities at all.”
Diepenbrock also said that the discussion did not involve any language that seemed inappropriate.
“No doubt Mr. Stout was upset, but he did not say or do anything that offended me,” Diepenbrock said. “What he said and how he said it was appropriate under the circumstances, in my opinion.”
But Petty believed that despite disagreeing with Stout or other members of the board at times, he has never spoken to them with the vitriol or with the language that he believed was aimed at him.
One of two statements in Petty’s Facebook posting that Stout said was inaccurate involved the request for $600,000 for “administration.”
The request made by Stout was for two assistant principals, a law enforcement officer, five technology coaches, five grade school teachers and an AVID program coordinator.
“The plan calls for two administrators,” Stout said. “(Petty) was aware of that.”
By adding the two assistant principals at LHS, the ratio of students to administrators will be 300:1. In comparison, Dodge City’s ratio is 200:1.
Stout said that the five technology coaches, law enforcement officer, five K-3 teachers and an AVID coordinator were not administrative positions.
Petty said his statement did include the technology coaches as administrators since they would not have direct contact with the students, and the law enforcement officer, since there was only one, as the safety administrator. He also included the AVID coordinator as administrative.
While Petty agreed that the teachers were not administrative, and that he would have voted for the safety officer if it was separate, he said his posting of $600,000 was his estimate of what the eight positions he claimed were administrative would cost when including benefits.
Still, the entire proposal had more than administrative positions, and that was not included in Petty’s Facebook post.
The other statement made by Petty that offended Stout was the characterization of the proposal being “irresponsible.”
The reason Stout made the proposal was rooted in a mandated study performed by the Kansas Learning Network.
When South Middle School’s testing scores consistently fell below standards, the district was required to hire a consultant, evaluate the district and make recommendations for improvement.
The KLN made several recommendations, including a human resource director that was hired last year as well as indicating other needs in the district, including a gap between the technology available and the ability of the teaching staff to use it effectively.
KLN’s evaluation included input from administration, staff and parents.
While South’s scores improved, and the school was removed from the watch list, future steps could have included the dismissal of the entire staff and an eventual takeover of the district by federal overseers.
Stout took the results of the study as well as other district feedback to formulate his plan.
“We looked at it and thought about bringing in 12 technology coaches and nine teachers,” Stout said. That would have brought the total positions to 24. But Stout said that the 24 positions would have been too many to add.
“At a minimum, nine teachers were necessary,” he said. “Through the process, we whittled it down from there. I knew it wasn’t fair to take that into consideration.”
In the end, Stout proposed 14 positions, only two of which he said were administrators.
“The technology coaches will be on the teacher’s salary schedule,” he said.
Stout said the district complied with the mandated assessment by adding the HR position last year, and the AVID program to help raise test scores.
Responding to the needs assessment, Stout believes, will keep the district moving forward in the right direction by meeting the academic challenges.
By reducing the request from 24 to 14 demonstrated responsibility Stout said.
“I do believe in being a conservative spender,” he said. “Maxing out our LOB is not in the best of interest of me or the school district or the community. I am aware and conscientious of that.”
Liberal uses the lowest LOB of any school in the Western Athletic Conference. If the new budget is adopted with the increase Stout is requesting, Liberal will still be the lowest by four percentage points below Garden City.
“I certainly think, in the best interests of our children and teachers, to utilize a few of those dollars for this initiative, to support and impact them in their classes is worthwhile,” Stout said. “It is important.”
Petty, however, questioned the results of the study and the motives of KLN.
“They are a needs assessment group,” Petty said. “They go in and tell you where you need to improve. They can go in to the best district in Kansas and find needs. That is their job. Of course they will find needs. I don’t disagree that we have needs. This proposal is so pricey and involves hirings that will not have direct contact and involves cutting those who do have direct contact. We may have to cut aides to pay for tech coaches. High school band support staff won’t be able to assist anymore after doing so for more than 30 years.”
Hatcher said he believed the plan demonstrated responsibility.
“Mr. Stout is acting upon those critical issues that were pointed out and has found a way to cut some of our budget to offset some of those costs,” Hatcher said. “At the same time, he proposed a small increase to be able to meet some of those critical areas where we were deficient. I have to commend him for stepping up and proving to be a leader to make tough choices and tough decisions on where we need to go. I feel like it is time to support our superintendent. He and his staff are doing a remarkable job. If I didn’t think so, I would be the first to initiate a correction.”
Petty also said that his attempt was to head off an irresponsible plan and spending, but that his concern for the plan was not a repudiation of Stout’s leadership.
“I believe Stout does genuinely care about education, and he wants the district to succeed,” he said. “Just because I think this proposal was irresponsible does not mean I think he is irresponsible.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — The Leader&Times will be researching and evaluating each of the proposed position groups in upcoming editions to inform the public on why the positions were requested.