SD2 trustees look to set agenda for meeting, likely will discuss Beeman's future

2011-09-17T00:00:00Z 2011-09-26T16:40:11Z SD2 trustees look to set agenda for meeting, likely will discuss Beeman's future

By ROB ROGERS

Of The Gazette Staff

The Billings Gazette
September 17, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The Billings School District 2 board will meet next week to create the agenda for its next meeting. On that agenda will likely be a discussion of what options the board has available for figuring out Superintendent Keith Beeman’s future with the district.

In a 5-4 vote Tuesday night, the board denied a two-year contract extension with a pay raise for Beeman.

Three of the five trustees who voted no — Pam Ellis, Lindy Graves and Teresa Stroebe — have said they see no way Beeman can continue with the district.

The fourth, Travis Kemp, didn’t want to speculate on what steps trustees might take and said he’d like to see Beeman finish out his current contract, which expires in June 2012.

The fifth, Travis Smith, said that if Beeman wants to stay, “he needs to do something great.”

Smith would like Beeman to drop his “golden parachute” — the language in his proposed contract that gives him 50 percent of his salary and 100 percent of his benefits for the duration of the contract should the district terminate it early.

From there, he wants to see the board’s focus move from contracts to students.

“We’re a school district, not a bank,” he said.

Other trustees also didn’t want to speculate on options. Chairwoman Barbara Bryan said it would be inappropriate to comment on what ideas or proposals — if any — she has before she shares them with the other trustees.

The agenda-setting meeting is scheduled for the middle of next week, although trustees are still trying to pin down the exact day. The agenda they’ll be working on is for the Sept. 26 board meeting.

The rapid turnaround in regard to Beeman’s future with the district has been stunning.

As late as Tuesday evening, Beeman seemed to have the support of the majority of the board, although he has become unpopular with some teachers and district staff.

Tuesday night’s contract-extension proposal was explained both as a move to ensure that Beeman stayed with the district through 2014 and a routine procedural action given that he was in the last year of his current contract.

The board had been toying with extending his contract since May.

But by Tuesday night several significant factors — that in some respects hadn’t existed in May — were in play.

The board had just come through a bruising teachers contract spat a few weeks before, which secured steps and lanes raises for teachers nearly two months after their contract had expired.

The victory was a blow to Beeman and Bryan, who had hoped to secure a one-time bonus for all district employees in place of giving steps and lanes raises to teachers and longevity pay to its other two other unions.

While work on the teacher deal crept forward, negotiations with the two other unions never started. That led to a demonstration late Tuesday of nearly 200 SD2 employees and supporters who marched around the Lincoln Center for an hour before packing the special board meeting Tuesday night.

Most speakers during the meeting were frustrated that the board was taking up Beeman’s contract before trustees had settled with the two unions.

Frustration with the contracts had been compounded by low morale in the district that began to grow during the past school year. Teachers and administrators have complained that Beeman’s leadership style was clumsy and heavy-handed.

“It was a slow boil,” Kemp said. “It came to a head that night.”

“I thought the meeting was just awful,” Stroebe said, who had joined the meeting by telephone. “I was just sick.”

Before the meeting Tuesday, the vote on an early extension of Beeman’s contract seemed to be just that, a simple vote. But it became clear soon afterward that the 5-4 rejection had a much deeper meaning.

It was quickly deemed by some as a no-confidence vote on Beeman’s leadership and a referendum on his tenure with the district.

He “crashed, burned and (was) wounded,” Stroebe said.

Past trustee and chairwoman Kathy Kelker — who served on the SD2 board during nearly two decades and helped hire Jack Copps, Beeman’s predecessor, in 2006 — said it was “unusual” the way things played out and changed so quickly Tuesday night.

Typically, she said, a board needs several weeks to work out issues like the one trustees faced Tuesday night.

On top of that, she said, the district is still facing a dire financial future, including millions of dollars in projected deficits over the next two years.

For the SD2 board, it’s been a decade of tough problems, and a decade of struggling to hold on to superintendents to who can solve them.

Jo Swain, who was initially appointed interim superintendent in August 2000, endured a tumultuous 2-1/2 years in the job, including a 20-day teachers’ strike in November 2002. She voluntarily retired from the district in June 2003.

Following Swain, the board hired Rod Svee, who was let go in 2006 when the board voted 8-1 not to renew his contract.

Copps followed in what was initially planned to be a temporary fix while the district sought a more permanent replacement.

Instead, Copps was immensely popular and the board talked him into staying year after year until he finally retired at age 73 in June 2010.

Beeman was then hired, the top pick of five candidates, at the end of an intense four-month search.

“This is a big district and very complex,” Kelker said. “It takes a lot of skill to run a district this large.”

As a trustee, she watched the recent parade of superintendents — from Swain to Copps — and knows whoever comes next for SD2 will be in “the hot seat.”

“It’s not going to be pretty no matter what,” she said.

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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