Tenured-teacher contract renewal usually is a routine item that the Ketchikan School Board approves each year without a lot of discussion. On Wednesday though, it turned into a lengthy, contentious debate before the list of contracts eventually was approved.

Every year around the month of March, the list of tenured teachers to be offered contracts for next year appears on a Ketchikan School Board meeting agenda.

The Board doesn’t have to approve the list – tenured teachers are guaranteed a contract per state statute. That guarantee – not the teachers on the list – was the source of angst for School Board members.

Fawn Mountain Elementary School. (KRBD file photo)

Here’s Board President Trevor Shaw, who said he’s had a problem with that state rule for a long time.

“Whether it’s something like this or other unfunded mandates, it always bothers me that the state said, ‘OK, this is what you’re going to do; you’re going to carry it out for us. So, although you’re a local, independent, autonomous school district, you’re going to carry out these ministerial actions as essentially an administrative arm of the state, and that bugs me to the bitter end. So, I’m going to vote no.”

Shaw also said the tradition of tenure itself may no longer be needed.

“Tenure really is an arcane process. It was implemented in the 1920s to protect against racial and gender discrimination, specifically… So, the process of tenure as it was originally intended, I think is not what it is nowadays due to modern discrimination protections.”

Board Member Kim Hodne said he believes Alaska’s public school tenure process is too easy. He referred to tenure as a “golden ticket,” and said the time needed before achieving tenure should be raised from three years to five years.

Board Member Matt Eisenhower said he has no problem with tenure itself, but he does agree that local boards should have more say in the process.

“I guess if I was a teacher, I would want tenure to mean something. I would want something more than just a rubber stamp.”

Eisenhower also indicated he would vote against the motion.

Superintendent Robert Boyle, who remained silent for the first part of the discussion, then had some strong words about the message the Board would send by rejecting the contracts.

“A no vote is insulting to our staff; it’s insulting to your administrative team, and it causes undue burden to your administrative team, as well. We have these contracts already written and ready to go. They’ll all have to be redone if this is voted down.”

Boyle said the district has a challenging evaluation process for teachers leading up to tenure. He said there are teachers every year who the district chooses to not retain before they reach tenure, because they didn’t meet evaluation standards.

Eisenhower seemed taken aback by Boyle’s comments.

“To imply we’re intentionally disrespecting our teachers is not at all what this conversation is about.”

“Nor do I think it is appropriate,” added Shaw.

Boyle did later apologize for his choice of wording, but before that, he said if the School Board wanted to take a stand, it could work through the Alaska Association of School Boards or directly lobby the Legislature.

“But having it in this … context, directly connected to someone’s livelihood, their security within this community? That’s what this is: This is their contract.”

Hodne pointed out that the contracts wouldn’t be threatened if the Board rejects the list, because those contracts are automatically renewed.

Boyle said it still sends a negative message from the School Board to district employees.

And, Human Resources Manager Rick Rafter pointed out that the contracts don’t get renewed automatically by the state until mid-May. So, yes, the teachers know that they have a job if they want it, but what if they don’t want it? Teachers by law have 30 days to sign and return the contracts to the district, indicating that they agree to return for the next school year.

If the district waits until May 15th to send out the contracts, administrators could be suddenly trying to fill open positions in mid-June.

“So, now you’re into 2 ½-3 weeks at the end of June, advertising for a position and trying to hire somebody in July. So, one of the reasons these contracts are in the board packet early is to get people committed to us, as well as us being committed to them.”

That argument swayed Eisenhower back to approving the contracts. Hodne, too, seemed to be headed back in that direction.

Board Members Misty Brown and Alma Parker agreed in part with other board members that the state’s process was flawed, but they didn’t think voting against the contracts was the right way to send the message.

From the discussion, it looked like the motion would pass by a narrow margin. But when it came time to vote, it failed. Shaw voted no, and Hodne abstained without explaining why.

Eisenhower, Brown and Parker voted yes; and Board Member Diane Gubatayao abstained because of a conflict of interest. A motion must have at least four yes votes to pass, and this one had only three.

Immediately after the vote, Shaw called for a break. During that break, he and Hodne left the room for about four minutes. After they came back, Shaw and Eisenhower left for about a minute. Then Shaw and Hodne left the room again for about a minute.

When they all came back from break and resumed the meeting, Shaw called for reconsideration of the motion, and a unanimous yes vote put it back on the table.

Shaw said he would never put the teachers’ contracts in jeopardy.

“I want all of these people back next year. They’re a fantastic staff doing a great job. They’re passionate, and they want nothing but the very best for our kids. I do think the point is well made that we do want to see a change.”

The tenured teacher contract renewal list passed unanimously with Gubatayao abstaining.

During Board comments later in the meeting, several board members reiterated that they didn’t want to let the tenure issue go, and they’d like to revisit how to make their thoughts known to state officials.