Documents shed light on Riverside Middle School principal's departure

2014-04-28T12:45:00Z 2014-05-02T15:08:43Z Documents shed light on Riverside Middle School principal's departureBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The Riverside Middle School principal who was removed from her job in March has negotiated a financial deal with School District 2 that will allow her to retire.

Sharon Tietema, who had been principal at Riverside for four years, will receive $130,000 from the district in a deal that ends her employment and prevents her from suing the district or its administrators.

“A final resolution is what was in the best interest of students, the school and Ms. Tietema,” said Jeana Lervick, executive director of human resources for SD2.

For the past two years, Tietema, 53, had been working with district leaders to try to resolve issues between her and some of the staff at the school, who had raised concerns about Tietema’s leadership style.

It culminated in March when the district informed Tietema that it would not renew her contract, terminating her employment.

Tietema had stated she felt district leaders had discriminated against her because of her age and gender, and that she had been unfairly singled out for improvement by certain SD2 administrators.

On March 17, Tietema notified the district of her intent to file a formal grievance against the district, which led to the deal struck by Tietema and SD2 earlier this month.

It was late last year when the issue came to a head. Staff at Riverside held a no-confidence vote against Tietema and in return, Tietema filed a harassment/intimidation/bullying complaint with the district.

“I am feeling harassed (and) held to a different standard,” she wrote.

In the complaint, Tietema said a number of staff members at the school had been pressured by a small group of detractors to support their no-confidence vote regarding Tietema.

The vote, which was held in November, saw over 70 percent of Riverside staff submit a vote of no confidence.

In the letter that accompanied the complaint, Tietema wrote, “I am and have been very upset at the number of staff who voted yes. It is apparent that whatever the reason, we have work to do and I would welcome your assistance in working toward a solution.”

The district brought in Michelle Smith, a neutral party, to investigate the complaint filed by Tietema and interview staff one-on-one. In her report, Smith stated that she found that no teachers had felt “harassed, intimidated or bullied” in the no-confidence vote campaign.

Smith noted that according to her staff interviews, Tietema is “energetic and enthusiastic toward education. She works hard, is open to new ideas and truly wants what is best for her school and students.”

Smith described Riverside staff as “strong-willed” with a “strong commitment” to the school. She also wrote that some staff members were “resistant to change.”

But those interviews also painted Tietema as a micromanager, “accusatory, reactive and controlling toward staff,” Smith wrote.

“Twenty-two staff members feel physically nervous around Ms. Tietema or have recently started taking medication for stress, anxiety or depression. The constant fear of making a mistake is all-consuming and prevents effective teaching,” Smith wrote. Smith said the impasse between staff and Tietema and the atmosphere it created at the school was impacting students.

“Students witness unprofessional behavior and (staff) energy is not available to build rapport with students,” Smith wrote. “The current school climate is not optimum for learning and instruction to occur and is ultimately hurting students.” A climate survey for staff, evaluating job satisfaction and school atmosphere at all 30 SD2 schools, was performed in December. Riverside ranked well below all other SD2 schools in every category.

Tietema responded to Smith’s report, the climate survey and a job evaluation performed by SD2 administrator Kathy Olson in February in a detailed letter to Superintendent Terry Bouck.

She offered a number of counterpoints to various findings in the report and expressed the belief that the report itself went well beyond the scope of a simple investigation into the harassment/intimidation/bullying complaint she had filed.

She noted that she had strong staff support from a number of teachers and that many of the changes she implemented or tried to enforce were voted on and supported by staff at the school.

“Many comments are taken out of context or are exaggerated,” she wrote.

She also responded to the poor performance evaluation she received from Olson, calling it “improper and discriminatory.” “I am being impermissibly discriminated against due to my gender, in retaliation for complaints about the proper use of federal funds and possibly my age in order to deprive me of my full retirement benefits.”

Riverside is a school with a large number of students from families living under the federal poverty line and so receives federal funding.

The deal with the school district will allow Tietema to officially retire at the end of the school year and compensate her $130,000. In return, Tietema agreed never to sue the school district or its employees.

In SD2’s final letter to Tietema before the deal was struck, Lervick wrote, “While you are a truly caring individual with a passion for education, your skills are not suited for administration in the district.”

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