School board adopts policy changes despite objections

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The Whitefish School Board last week approved two policy updates that had previously been met with criticism from teachers and administrators.

The board updated the district’s Personal Conduct Policy and its Staff Wellness Policy during the meeting.

The Personal Conduct Policy earlier in the year was updated to show a $50 limit on gifts received by teachers, aligning with a Montana state law, but the update drew criticism. The new policy removes the dollar limit and now states that “an employee should not dispense or utilize any information gained from employment with the District, accept gifts or benefits, or participate in business enterprises or employment that creates a conflict of interest with the faithful and impartial discharge of the employee’s District duties,” and that an employee should disclose any possible conflicts of interests.

The policy references state law, which mandate that school officers do not act as agents in a sale or supply of goods or services to a district, and various rules of conduct for public employees. The policy also references the definition of “gift of substantial value” from state law, which “means a gift with a value of $50 or more for an individual.”

When the initial policy change was suggested in the spring, it was met with backlash from teachers and parents, according to Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt.

“So I sent this back to the school, mostly Muldown, and [second grade teacher] Lisa Bloom was kind enough to work with the staff on addressing it,” Davis Schmidt said. “I think the whole point of the staff was [they felt the policy said] ‘We can be trusted, we’re accepting gifts that are appropriate, why do you need to put a $50 limit in the policy?’ So ultimately we just scrapped the whole idea of a gifts to employees policy. It didn’t really seem necessary, and yet to clarify to our staff what the state law says, we identified these two laws that actually indicate that information.”

However, teachers attending the School Board meeting last week said the semantics of the policy missed the point.

Sarah Akey, a third grade teacher at Muldown, said she wishes the time and energy spent on the policy would have been instead invested in things that matter more.

“A lot of the reasons that this came off as such a negative thing I guess for a lot of us is that we just feel that there’s a lot of other issues, and to spend time on this — and it’s a law, and great, we know that now — there are so many other things,” she said. “I would love to see a policy on class sizes. I wrote down as many times as we heard today that our priorities are academic, and our focus is academic improvement, meeting the needs of individual students, and I would love to see our energies focused toward that. There are so many people that feel like this could have been spent on something more important.”

“If it’s a law, it’s a law,” she added. “But I guess I would hope in the future we’re spending time looking for ways to improve our students and not faulting our teachers for having a very warm community.”

Trustee Darcy Schellinger noted that the Montana law prohibits gifts “that would tend improperly to influence a reasonable person ... to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of the person’s public duties,” so the $50 limit may only apply when something is expected in return.

Marni Thomas, first grade teacher, voiced her frustration with the idea that the policy was again becoming “vague.”

“I can’t believe we’re discussing this. I don’t live in Whitefish, because I can’t afford to. I barely can live in Kalispell. There is no gift that’s going to change my life,” she said. “I’m offended that I’ve not only been to a policy meeting, but I’m sitting here at 10 p.m. having gotten to school until 7:30 this morning and I’ve been at school until I walked in this meeting tonight. My students aren’t going to get the best of me tomorrow because I’m going to be tired.”

Changes were also made to a second policy removing a section of the Staff Wellness policy that previously stated the district “will encourage a culture of wellness by giving certified staff the opportunity to leave for physical activity at the conclusion of the student day after completing any assigned duties on days with no other school obligations.” That paragraph, suggested in a June memorandum, had come under scrutiny by teachers and administrators who use time before or after school to be available for extra student help or parent meetings.

Davis Schmidt said instead, the staff wellness committee set aside different scheduled times where teachers can pursue physical activity while leaving other time slots open for student or parent time.

“We agreed that the best way to proceed was to instead identify three specific, flexible start and end time options for teachers that would capture the same goal for the teachers but would also maintain some level of consistency across staff usage,” Davis Schmidt said. “It would make sure we were clear about when staff could be accessed by parents, whether it was before school in the mornings whether it was after school. It really took care of both of those challenges.”

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