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Hold School Board responsible for turmoil

Another Voice

By HENRY BURTON

Special to the News

I have watched the turmoil in the Hood River County School District as more than an observer, but also as a student. What is most disturbing to me is the lack of honesty and openness in the public discussion. No one appears willing to admit the causes of this upheaval.

First, everyone should realize that both the departure of high school principal Ben Kolb and the resignation of Superintendent Jerry Sessions are a direct result of the removal of Glenn Elliott as HRVHS athletic director last year. The removal of Mr. Elliott was unwarranted and mishandled. Mr. Elliott’s position was eliminated and he was dismissed without going through the proper process.

Mr. Elliott had two years left on his contract, but he was not allowed to stay on as athletic director. He was told the only way he could finish his contract was to supplant the least-senior administrator in the district, who happened to be his wife. Naturally, he chose to find another job.

The district claimed Mr. Elliott’s dismissal was a money-saving device and announced that the athletic director would become a half-time position. In fact, HRVHS once again has a full-time athletic director this year (albeit at lower pay.) Mitch Sanders, the new athletic director, is teaching one zero-period class and serves as athletic director during the entirety of the school day.

It bothers me that the district has never acknowledged this to the public, and still claims that Mr. Sanders is a “half-time” teacher.

The removal of Mr. Elliott created many problems for the district. I believe it is safe to say that when Ben Kolb abruptly left this September nobody was sad to see him go. Mr. Kolb had lost the trust of the teachers and staff. I think students and staff at the high school have far more confidence in our current principals.

The second problem created by Mr. Elliott’s improper dismissal was a legal one. Superintendent Sessions’ fatal error was not in making a $49,000 payment to Glenn Elliott, it was in firing him without cause or due process. Mr. Elliott had legal grounds for a lawsuit. The $49,000 settlement saved the district far greater legal fees and the cost of a loss in court.

Clearly, Mr. Sessions should not have kept the payment to Mr. Elliott a secret from the board. But the members of the board should not act shocked and innocent. Some board members even considered demanding that Mr. Elliott return the $49,000. This is ludicrous and foolhardy. It would create even more legal problems.

Rather, the members of the school board must accept their own responsibility for the problems resulting from Glenn Elliott’s dismissal. They have spent the last few weeks playing the blame game, claiming that Mr. Sessions is solely responsible for this disarray. Their job is to oversee such decisions, and so ultimately it is their fault that the district has a leadership void. School Board Chairwoman Jan Veldhuisen Virk herself said, “As a board, we have the last word on how our schools operate.” Who could work with a board that abdicates responsibility when the going gets tough?

Ms. Veldhuisen Virk said that the board hopes to maintain “fiscal accountability.” The dismissal of Mr. Elliott has cost the district far more financially than his salary for the last year on his contract.

She also said that in order to teach good values to students, they “need to demand the same values of themselves.” I agree. In keeping with those values, they must accept responsibility and apologize to the public for the damage they have caused.

The school board has accepted the resignation of Superintendent Sessions. This is justified in light of his actions. But now I believe the public should accept the resignation of all members of the school board, starting with Ms. Veldhuisen Virk. They are not without responsibility for the chaos facing our school district. While Mr. Sessions’ actions irreparably damaged the relationship between him and the school board, the board’s lack of honesty has irreparably damaged the relationship between the board and the public. Ms. Veldhuisen Virk says the board lacks confidence in Mr. Sessions’ leadership. I have personally lost confidence in all leadership above the level of the individual schools.

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Henry Burton is a student at Hood River Valley High School.

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