North Routt Charter to create several task forces, reassess policy, following executive director’s resignation
The North Routt Community Charter School board will form several task forces to revisit some of the schools policies around equitable compensation, internal structures and the complaint process after staff complaints sparked a third-party investigation and the eventual resignation of the school’s executive director.
Kim Smith, the board’s president, said the board got “numerous” complaints in September relating to school personnel that were of “such a character that the board — we just couldn’t ignore them.”
This led to the third-party investigation that spoke to all current and former employees at the school dating back two years, Smith said. Smith said the investigation was confidential, and one person’s comments didn’t carry more weight than another.
The board received results of this investigation Nov. 4, receiving a document called “NRCCS Management Assessment Summary.” A Steamboat Pilot & Today Colorado Open Records Act request seeking this document was denied, though other documents requested by the newspaper were disclosed.
The results of the investigation showed the board that immediate changes needed to take place at the school, Smith said.
“The board became extremely concerned that if there weren’t immediate changes in the way we are leading going forward, that there would be immediate retention risks of our staff,” Smith said. “We had to address leadership issues.”
Smith said the board then met with then Executive Director Brandon LaChance to discuss changes that would need to be made going forward.
“Brandon chose to resign,” Smith said. “This was a personal decision on his part, and we have no further comment about that.”
Just over a week after LaChance’s resignation, the board held a less-formal meeting at the school laying out how they would move forward, forming several task forces and increasing transparency that some parents have passionately criticized.
While the extensive, nearly two-hour meeting did reveal more information about what has been happening at the school, it still left some parents questioning what went wrong and why the executive director, who for some was a reason they moved to North Routt, had chosen to leave the school.
“My wife and I have moved our entire lives up here based on Brandon,” one parent of two children in the school said to the board at the meeting. “Isn’t that the whole purpose of this school to be leaders? Let’s lead, so leading means informing the parents of what is going on with the school.”
Smith used the word “numerous” to describe the number of complaints the board received multiple times Thursday, emphasizing that it was not an isolated incident that led to the board’s probe.
“We got numerous complaints,” Smith said. “They were, in nature, enough that it felt like it needed to be investigated further.”
The investigation, conducted by the Denver-based firm Employment Matters, did not just talk to employees with complaints, instead reaching out to all current and former employees at the school going back two years, Smith said. Members of the board were not involved with the investigation.
Pilot & Today submitted a CORA request to the board Nov. 11 seeking LaChance’s resignation letter, any performance reviews of him and the results and recommendations made by the investigator. The letter was provided in addition to documents outlining goals for LaChance, but the summary of the investigation was withheld from public view.
“We are withholding (the investigative summary) under attorney work product privilege, as the final written report was produced at my direction,” said Michelle Ferguson, an attorney at the Denver-based firm Ireland, Stapleton, Pryor & Pascoe, in a letter responding to the CORA.
The documents disclosed show one goal for this year was for LaChance to “reestablish relationships with different cohorts of staff,” asking him to build stronger relationships with the school’s leadership team, as well as being more purposeful to be engaged in daily events to show them he hadn’t disconnected from the student/staff level of the school.
The school did not turn over any performance evaluations requested by Pilot & Today, saying that those were done verbally, and written documentation with such evaluations couldn’t be located.
At the meeting, two former board members, Nissa Brodman in person and Teresa Van Orden on the phone, questioned why they were not contacted as part of the investigation, as they had done performance evaluations for LaChance in recent years.
“I didn’t know anything that happened here, but I do know that the board was caught off guard, because, when I left, there was nothing but rave reviews,” Brodman said. “We need transparency as parents to know everything we possibly can know. … I know you can’t state everything, but when you can, you have to.”
Some parents said rumors are running around the community, in part being fueled by the lack of communication. They also said the board’s initial communication about the investigation concerned them, providing just enough information for them to raise alarm but not enough to put their minds at ease.
Smith and other board members did not discuss details about complaints made, other than to say there were several, and they did not involve the health or safety of students. Smith also emphasized that LaChance resigned but was not forced to resign.
When asked by Van Orden, Smith said LaChance “is a good person and hasn’t hurt anyone.”
The board did not talk about what the nature of the employee complaints were, even when pressed by parents.
“We’re committed to ensuring that the school complies with all wage and employment related laws, all hiring related laws, all of that, full stop,” said board member Doug Tumminello, who added that that statement did not mean any of those laws were previously broken.
What Smith said she could talk about was how they wanted to move forward after the investigation by forming five different task forces to address various employment-related topics.
Task force topics include compensation equity and legal compensation practices, a transparent and fair employee complaint process, collaborative decision making, how to retain employees and internal organizational structures.
“I think all of us feel we want this to be parent and teacher led, and obviously, the board and administration can be apart of it,” Smith said.
Each of the board members is currently helping with school administration, Smith said. They are also working to fill the open business manager position at the school.
When it comes to the administrative structure of the school, Smith said most charter schools with less than 500 students generally just have a principal and not an executive director.
“We’re committed, 100% committed, to making this better on the other side,” Smith said. “Nothing in the classroom has been interrupted; our top priority is this school, our top priority are your kids.”
Several parents criticized the board for the lack of transparency since the first email was sent out at the end of September, saying that minutes and agendas for upcoming meetings have not been posted as outlined by Colorado’s open meetings law.
The board’s last official meeting based on the school’s website was Oct. 11, though no agenda for that meeting was ever uploaded. The board acknowledged to meeting other times in October and November — including Thursday night’s meeting — but none of them were posted on the school’s website.
State law requires the board to post about the public meeting and the agenda, if possible, 24 hours prior to a meeting. Tumminello said notice of these meetings was posted physically at the school and at the nearby Clark Store.
State law requires the board designate where it posts these meetings in the first meeting of each year, but minutes from January do not reveal if that was decided. The board had posted online about meetings until early October, shortly after it learned of complaints.
Thursday was the first meeting for the board for some time that took place in person, as it had been meeting virtually at 9 a.m. on the second Monday of each month. Smith said they would change the time of the meeting to 4:30 p.m. to allow for more parents to participate.
Smith also said she has added another meeting for Dec. 2 in addition to the more informal meeting Thursday. The online schedule says the board is meeting Dec. 13 but does not post when any of these other meetings are happening or any proposed agendas.
Currently, the board is appointed by itself, with recommendations being made when a seat comes open. Tumminello, who recently joined the board, said he was approached by LaChance and asked if he was interested in serving, and he didn’t know other members before being seated.
One parent suggested it would be more transparent for parents to elect board members.
“There’s a lot of talk about transparency and accountability, and I think a huge step in that direction would be having an elected board,” parents said. “I would say that would give you guys a lot of validity going forward.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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