Conflict between trustee and SD2 administrators bubbles up

Letter suggests trouble in SD2
2012-03-14T22:05:00Z 2012-03-15T17:11:04Z Conflict between trustee and SD2 administrators bubbles upBy ROB ROBERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Two top administrators at School District 2 threatened last month to file a formal complaint against a board trustee whom they saw as harassing staff members.

Assistant superintendents Josh Middleton and Gail Surwill sent the letter to interim Superintendent Jack Copps, board Chairwoman Teresa Stroebe and vice Chairwoman Kathy Aragon on Feb. 19.

"We request of you to address a problem that is impacting the two of us by the actions of Trustee Pam Ellis and her insulting, defaming and hostile treatment toward us," they wrote.

They also stated in the letter that they reserved the right to retain legal counsel as they navigated the conflict. They wrote that they might pursue legal action if they felt it necessary, but preferred to handle the matter internally.

"We are meeting with an attorney this week to discuss possible legal remedies," they wrote.

Middleton and Surwill cite board policy that lays out the district's Code of Conduct for school board trustees and argue that Ellis' behavior has violated the policy.

"Gail and I have documentation that details the disrespectful and defaming experiences with Mrs. Ellis, who we contend does not follow the Code of Conduct," Middleton wrote.

Ellis acknowledged she has had issues with Middleton and Surwill.

"I have expressed concerns more than once to Jack privately about Josh and Gail and some specific behaviors from each of them I've observed that I feel has been disruptive to effective district function," she said.

Surwill declined to talk about her specific complaints. She said she's frustrated that the letter leaked, putting additional pressure on the conflict. She said she is hopeful the matter can still be resolved internally.

The letter was sent by email to the Gazette on Tuesday from a district parent.

Middleton, in the letter, said Ellis' conduct was a big factor in his decision to no longer pursue the superintendent job at SD2. He was seen as a favorite among many trustees for the job.

On Monday, Surwill will tell the board of her decision to retire.

In the meantime, SD2 is in the middle of a superintendent search with the Omaha, Neb.-based search firm McPherson & Jacobson.

For Copps, it's a real concern. He believes the current troubles on the board brought about by the strong personalities of some trustees will limit the number of applicants for the superintendent job.

"Word is out there," he said of the board's problems.

Like Surwill, he's disappointed that the letter was leaked and isn't eager to see the conflict play out in public, mostly because some progress had already been made in resolving the problem.

Following the letter's delivery, Copps sat down with Surwill, Middleton, Stroebe and Aragon to discuss the issue. Copps and Stroebe then met with Ellis and found ways to begin to resolve the concerns, Copps said.

"I thought we were kind of moving forward here," he said.

Surwill and Stroebe were left with the same impression.

Ellis thought the meeting was productive. She said she agreed in the meeting to limit her interactions with staff to written requests for information and that she'd go through board Clerk Leo Hudetz.

Like the others, Stroebe said she frets that the issue going public will affect progress. She said she also worries about privacy issues.

"It was a personnel issue," she said. "There is a right-to-privacy issue here."

Talk in the letter of possibly filing a formal complaint against Ellis originates from Board Policy 1700, which was adopted by trustees after the teachers' strike last decade.

The policy allows for complaints to be filed by staff members against trustees.

However, it's unclear just what a complaint might lead to or what legitimate action could be taken against an elected official, Stroebe said. As such, she's been in contact with SD2's legal counsel for advice. Ellis is up for re-election in 2014.

Since the policy's adoption, no complaints have ever been filed by staff against trustees, Hudetz said.

For Copps, the issue is simple.

"People need to be respectful," he said. "As we communicate with each other or (talk about) each other, we need to do so in a respectful manner. We have an obligation to model good behavior."

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

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