By ALEX STRICKLAND / Bigfork Eagle
The Bigfork School Board voted unanimously during a special meeting on Friday afternoon to sign a separation agreement with BHS Principal Thom Peck, relieving him of the position.
Peck had signed the agreement on Wednesday, September 3.
The agreement stipulates that Peck, who has been principal at BHS for six years, will be paid his salary of $67,232, along with monthly contributions to his 403B retirement plan in lieu of health insurance in the amount of $1,008.
According to the agreement, Peck is employed by the Bigfork School District as an "educational advisor," whose duties must be mutually agreed upon by Peck and Superintendent Russ Kinzer. The agreement states that Peck must officially resign on June 30, 2009.
About 20 people showed up to the special board meeting, with a few voicing displeasure over the situation, especially noting the timing just before the start of school and the shortage of information.
Marcus Balgos, whose son is a student at BHS, presented a petition signed by residents who could not attend the meeting that asked the board for more time before they made a decision.
"I think you need to take a little more time," Balgos said. "I really think you need to stop and see what's going on."
Bigfork resident Dee Boon questioned the hurry as well as the financial ramifications of paying Peck's salary in a cash-strapped school system fresh off the failure of two bond issues.
The public and the school board were at an impasse, however, over what information the board could release about reasons for parting ways with Peck.
School Board chairman Maureen Averill explained that because proceedings with Peck addressing the concerns and causes for the separation were held in executive session, the board was not free to discuss the contents of the meeting.
Executive session is a special session that a body can call when "the demands of individual privacy clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure" (2-3-203(3) Mont. Code Annotated), which trump open meeting laws.
Trustee Denny Sabo said "We know it's frustrating for you, but it's also frustrating for us."
Paul Sandry, another Trustee, said that while public input is sometimes useful to the board in making decisions, since the public isn't fully informed, "it isn't here."
Trustee Thadeus Jordt said he didn't think additional time would make any difference.
"Everyone one of us has kids who go to this school," he said. "We're not going to come in and create problems. It wasn't easy on any of us, but the decision has been made."
While most of the crowd seemed to support Peck staying, Margaret Stiger was happy to see him go.
"Get this man out of here before he destroys other peoples' lives," she said to the board.
In a later interview, Stiger, who owns the Woods Bay Grill, claimed that her son had been expelled after Peck targeted him in the 2006-2007 school year because of personality conflicts with her. She alleged that hard feelings toward Peck were widespread and that it was high time he was pushed out.
"Everybody I've told that Mr. Peck is gone, they've been happy," she said.
Kinzer declined comment on the situation, citing the district's policy regarding personnel issues.
'I'm going to miss
According to Peck, the string of events that have led to his departure were both unpredictable and swift.
"If you had asked me five months ago, 'How do you work with the school board and the superintendent,' I would have said, 'Great.'" he said. "So all of this was very sudden."
Peck said a string of disagreements with Kinzer began in April regarding district practices concerning staffing policy and procedure as well as "basic philosophy."
One instance in particular that Peck cited was the firing of a teacher in violation of a collective bargaining agreement and state law, that resulted in the teacher getting their job back.
Peck said all of his evaluations during his tenure have been "totally clean," and that he wasn't even evaluated following the last school year. He also pointed out that BHS was one of only three Class A high schools in the state to meet the "Adequate Yearly Progress" standards outlined by the No Child Left Behind program. Peck said BHS has met the requirements every year of his tenure and that it has also placed no lower than fourth in the annual Montana High School Association Academic Excellence Awards among Class A schools, both public and private. He said he had never received a letter of reprimand or discipline during his time at BHS.
The separation agreement precludes Peck from seeking employment with any other public school in Montana this year, though he could work for a private school or other business, though Peck said he will likely spend the time "being the best possible dad and husband" and possibly finishing his Ph.D.
"To be honest with you, I'm rooting for every single kid," Peck said in an emotional interview. "The hardest part for me in all of this is that I'm going to miss them dearly."
But a year's pay for what could amount to next to nothing in service to the school isn't the outcome that Peck said he desired.
"There's no doubt in my mind, I want to be the principal at BHS."