Medicine Crow Middle School

Medicine Crow Middle School was the site of a candidate forum Tuesday for Billings City Council and mayoral candidates.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

School District 2 trustees fired a tenured Medicine Crow Middle School teacher for poor job performance Wednesday.

Mark Kramlich had taught social studies full-time in SD2 since 2008. District officials laid out a multi-year pattern of poor teaching and supervision, failure to perform basic tasks and an unwillingness to follow improvement plans — including specific incidents like a student climbing out a classroom window and Kramlich calling students "f---ing idiots."

SD2 representatives couldn't recall the last time trustees fired a tenured teacher. Montana law awards tenure to teachers employed for more than four years and requires "good cause" to fire them.

"This is truly an anomaly," superintendent Terry Bouck said. "Mark Kramlich should not be teaching our children."

Kramlich disputed district accusations and presented trustees with a 30-page workplace bullying report, arguing that scrutiny from administrators unfairly targeted him.

"When they say that it's chaos, chaos, chaos, I have documentation that shows differently," he said.

Kramlich represented himself at the hearing. The Billings Education Association, the local teachers union, notified the district before the hearing that it wouldn't provide representation for Kramlich, district officials said. 

Medicine Crow

Administrators from Medicine Crow painted a picture of an ineffective teacher whose failure to supervise students created safety risks.

Associate Principal Tyler Blood detailed an incident during state-required standardized testing when a student removed a window screen, climbed out, and was locked back out by other students. The student went back in through the front door of the school and returned to the classroom. Administrators only found out about the incident because of a Snapchat video.

"How does that happen?" Blood said Wednesday in front of trustees. "That's not OK ... He's not a teacher. He shouldn't be in our building. He shouldn't be in any building."

Of the 117 students in Kramlich's classes, he wrote up 55 of them during the year, Blood said. In a document detailing SD2's accusations, students described disciplinary measures like one student being made to "stand on a chair in the middle of a classroom because he was 'a peasant,' and made people throw things at him." The student was hit in the head by a binder, according to student statements.

In another incident, students said that Kramlich called them "f---ing idiots." When confronted by administrators, Kramlich said he "nearly" used the curse word but didn't finish it.

Blood and school principal Nikki Hofmann said that Kramlich failed to present coherent lessons, grade assignments consistently, keep his classroom clean and provide documentation for teaching practices.

Hofmann, in describing several student and parent complaints, said that one particularly bright student became "very lackadaisical about her work" after Kramlich failed to grade assignments or assigned grades without evaluating work.

Hofmann said that one class of 22 students had a grade breakdown of one F, one A and 20 A-pluses.

"He came on to our radar through parent calls, emails," she said. "You need to take the word of middle schoolers with a grain of salt ... (But) when you start to hear enough of the same thing, you see a pattern."

Will James

Kramlich ended up at Medicine Crow as a chance for a "fresh start," Bouck said. He was transferred to the new middle school after teaching at Will James Middle School since 2008. Kramlich said he requested the transfer.

The district said Kramlich pushed back against attempts to improve his teaching at Will James Middle School, blaming then-Principal Reece Kalfell.

"Kalfel (sic) hates me," he wrote to a union representative in an email.

He continued to argue at Wednesday's hearing that administrators at Medicine Crow, who district officials said were not informed of problems at Will James, subjected him to unfair scrutiny.

"I did not get a fresh start," he said, disputing several interactions described by administrators. He did admit to other problems, like not consistently recording attendance.

In May, Kramlich filed a harassment and bullying complaint with the district, arguing in part that he was being discriminated against for his sexual orientation, his evaluations constituted harassment and that he wasn't given time to show improvement. An outside investigator hired by SD2 found no basis for the claims.

Kramlich was hired in 2008 by then-Will James Principal Lance Orner after working as a substitute.

"While Principal Orner generally gave Mr. Kramlich good evaluation marks, Mr. Kramlich's first years at the District were not without performance issues," according to a document detailing the problems with the teacher's performance. 

Orner dinged Kramlich for arriving late to work and not recording attendance during the 2010-11 school year, according to district officials. During the 2012-13 school year, Orner "reached out to Mr. Kramlich with an increased number of parent and student concerns."

In 2013-14, parent complaints increased and Kramlich failed to complete required professional development classes.

Play

One parent complaint became a continuing reference point for Kramlich. A parent took issue with their daughter "being 'forced' to 'play a lesbian' in a play Mr. Kramlich was overseeing as head of the school's drama club."

District administrators reviewed the play and "it was decided that the play would not be performed." Another play was nixed the next school year.

When addressing trustees, Kramlich opened his presentation citing the play, saying it hadn't been cast yet.

"I don't even know where the lesbians came into play," he said. When asked by Trustee Janna Hafer when he felt harassment by administrators started, he identified the play's rejection.

When asked why Kramlich earned tenure and the district didn't attempt to terminate his employment for several years after documented problems emerged, SD2 lawyer Jeana Lervick, who previously served as director of Human Resources for the district, cited attempts to improve Kramlich's teaching that took several years.

"It's extremely unusual to get to this point," she said. "But it does not mean that nothing was being done up until this point."

Five trustees voted unanimously to fire Kramlich. Trustee Joe Oravecz attended most of the hearing but was absent for the vote, and trustees Mike Leo, Tanya Ludwig and Gordon Klasna did not attend. 

"It's very, very tough to be here," said board chairwoman Greta Besch Moen. "(But) it's a pattern that has spanned years. It's spanned administrators."

Several trustees noted that Kramlich didn't have union representation. Kramlich said he would have preferred representation, and cited "errors" by the union.

MEA-MFT representative Scott McCulloch said Thursday that Kramlich told the union on three separate occasions that he would have his own counsel at the hearing, and the union doesn't provide representation when members retain their own counsel. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.