Teacher protests hiring process at Up-Island school committee meeting
Despite their policy of non-involvement in personnel matters, Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee members heard a long, impassioned appeal from West Tisbury science teacher Karl Nelson, who described a hiring process that he said was unfair to him. Mr. Nelson was an in-house candidate last summer for the job of interim assistant principal at West Tisbury School. He was not selected, and he attended the committee's meeting Monday to discuss the decision.
Tribal education issues were to be the main focus of the meeting, which was held at the Wampanoag Tribal Administration building in Aquinnah. Instead, the school committee spent 45 minutes in discussion with Mr. Nelson. After committee members listened to his points and asked him questions, however, they held firm in their stance that personnel matters are beyond their purview and would be deferred to superintendent of schools James Weiss' judgment.
In a phone call with The Times on Tuesday, UIRSD school committee chairman Marshall Segall was asked whether it was appropriate to bring Mr. Nelson's issues to the committee for discussion. Mr. Segall said he thought of it mainly as a courteous act in response to a letter sent by Mr. Nelson, in light of his excellent performance as a teacher.
Mr. Segall said school committee members discussed the letter at a previous meeting and agreed they had no jurisdiction over appointments, which are the privilege of the principal and superintendent involved. Mr. Segall said they also agreed to inform Mr. Nelson that if he wanted to discuss possible procedural inaccuracies, which they would be interested to hear about, they would respond as they could with the understanding that they had no power to undo what happened.
When asked whether this would set a precedent for future school employees unhappy with hiring decisions to request the school committee's review, Mr. Segall said, "I suppose that it could set a precedent. I think it's one of the costs or prices we pay for being responsive to Mr. Nelson's request for a hearing. I don't regret that we did it."
Mr. Segall said the school committee had already spoken with the school administrators. "We had discussed it and we were satisfied after hearing both from Dr. Weiss and from Donna Lowell-Bettencourt, the acting principal involved, that there had been no malfunction of the procedures, that the procedures were authentic," he said. "But we nevertheless agreed, and the acting principal and superintendent agreed with us, that we could invite him to make his presentation."
In a phone call Tuesday, Mr. Weiss said he personally did not think it was appropriate for Mr. Nelson to take his issues to the school committee.
"But they felt they wanted to give him an opportunity to state his case, so we of course thought that was a good thing to do," Mr. Weiss said, adding that he met with Mr. Nelson on at least two occasions.
One of Mr. Nelson's complaints to the school committee was that he was not given a clear explanation of why he did not get the interim assistant principal's job. "Donna told him and I told him, but obviously not to his satisfaction," Mr. Weiss said.
Mr. Segall began Monday night's discussion by acknowledging Mr. Nelson as a "teacher extraordinaire." Mr. Nelson has taught at West Tisbury School for 19 years and currently teaches eighth-grade science. He recently received recognition as the teacher whose class ranked number one statewide in MCAS science scores this year.
Mr. Nelson applied last summer for a one-year position as interim assistant principal at West Tisbury School, a position left vacant by Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt. She was promoted to interim principal after Bob Lane retired in June. Mr. Lane, the school's former assistant principal, was named interim principal following a selection process after principal Michael Halt was deployed to Afghanistan in January as a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves.
Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt and a hiring committee reviewed applications and interviewed the candidates, including Mr. Nelson, for the interim assistant principal's job. Mr. Weiss agreed with their recommendation and hired Sean Mulvey, a guidance counselor and department head at a high school in Colorado who has several years of experience as a private school administrator.
Mr. Nelson said he received a call about four days after his interview from Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt in which she told him he gave an excellent interview but wasn't hired because he lacked experience and didn't meet her needs as a candidate. He subsequently wrote a letter to the school committee about his dissatisfaction with the process. The committee responded with the suggestion he talk to Mr. Weiss.
"And my real issue was that I was given no reasonable, cogent explanation for not being hired, none that I could swallow with satisfaction, as I've done many times before," Mr. Nelson said. Instead, Mr. Weiss reiterated what the hiring process was, and said the committee had made its decision and given him a recommendation that he agreed with.
In a second letter to the school committee Mr. Nelson said he believed the hiring process was tainted in some way.
He took issue with Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt's assertion that the committee put Mr. Mulvey's name forward as the final candidate and said he "gleaned from a conversation" with her that Mr. Mulvey was her choice. Although Mr. Nelson stopped short of calling her a liar at the meeting, he told Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt, "I have to question the veracity of your comments."
"The hiring committee only recommends a candidate; it isn't actually empowered to choose the candidate," school committee member Daniel Cabot reminded him.
"We asked Dr. Weiss if procedure was followed, and he said yes — that's the limit of our scope," Mr. Cabot added.
Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah and several school committee members expressed their appreciation and gratitude to Mr. Nelson for his work as a teacher.
"I don't think we can change where we are but maybe we can move forward in a more productive, positive way and find a way to maybe heal a little bit," she told him.
"I'm not naïve enough to think that any changes can be made at this point, and I don't need healing, but I do appreciate those kind words," he said.
When Mr. Nelson requested that the hiring committee members be asked what candidate they recommended, Ms. Ackerman drew the line.
"We are done with this process," she said. "This is beyond our purview."
In other business, the school committee received an update from Wampanoag Tribe education director Heidi Vanderhoop, who announced she recently resigned to be a stay-at-home mother. Tribal administrator Tobias Vanderhoop said he would serve as the acting education director until a new person is hired.
Ms. Vanderhoop apologized for the low turnout at the meeting, due to the omission of a notice in the Tribe's newsletter. She said the Tribe continues to operate a tutoring program in which any Native American school-age child may participate.
School business administrator Amy Tierney provided a first draft of the UIRSD fiscal year 2012 budget. The school committee will hold a budget workshop at 7 pm on November 8 at Chilmark School. A regular school committee meeting and budget workshop will be held at 5 pm on November 15 at West Tisbury School.
The UIRSD school committee bid a fond farewell to Mr. Segall and long-time member Susan Parker, who was absent from the meeting. Neither is seeking reelection on November 2.