Summit School District approves administrator contracts without at-will clause |

Summit School District approves administrator contracts without at-will clause

The Summit School District Administration Building in Frisco is pictured on Nov. 12, 2020. The school board decided against implementing at-will employment for district administrators, approving the new contracts at its May 27 meeting.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Following backlash from administrators, the Summit School District Board of Education reversed course at its meeting Thursday, May 27, approving new administrator contracts without the proposed at-will language.

The change, which would have aligned the district with Colorado employment law, caused concerns among administrators because it would have allowed the district to terminate a contract at any time without cause or notice.

At the board’s meeting May 13, several administrators joined for public comment to share their concerns.

Crystal Miller, principal at Summit Cove Elementary, said the contract negotiations team has worked to create structure and stability for the teaching staff, while the proposed language in administrator contracts eliminates security and stability.

“This forces school leaders to function in a place of reservation and hesitation,” Miller said. “We want to innovate, we want to take risks, and we want to push the equity work forward, and (know) that we can do that without being terminated with or without cause. …

“I don’t understand, and my colleagues don’t understand, how this could be best for kids.”

Nelle Biggs, assistant principal at Summit Middle School, said administrators want to see their contracts include some kind of due process, evaluation or coaching as opposed to the possibility of dismissal with or without cause.

“Having an evaluation cycle outlined within the contract helps us have clarity around if we’re doing the right work and in the right way,” Biggs said. “And if we are not, it gives us the opportunity to grow and adjust as needed. With or without cause does not foster a growth mindset, nor does it encourage people to take the risks that are imperative for educational reform.”

Other administrators who spoke out against the at-will clause included Upper Blue Elementary Principal Robyn Sutherland, Snowy Peaks Principal Jim Smith, Dillon Valley Elementary Principal Kendra Carpenter, and Summit Middle School Assistant Principal Jeff Chabot.

The board decided to table its May 13 vote on the policy until it was able to have more in-depth conversations with administrators.

At the May 27 meeting, executive assistant to the board Molly Speer said there were several meetings held with administrators and district leadership to address concerns with the contracts.

“District leadership pretty much went back to the drawing board, and we removed the at-will clause out of the admin contract,” Speer said. “And the things that are in there now are things that are more consistent with what we do as far as their professional development.

Speer said district leadership reached out to the administrative team for feedback on the revised contract. In addition to removing the at-will clause, the district also removed language requiring administrators to go through health and psychological examinations.

Speer added that the contract included in the board’s policy was not the same as the one administrators have signed, and they are now aligned and accurate.

The contract discussion started at the behest of Superintendent Marion Smith Jr. at the beginning of the school year when he learned the district’s administrator contracts didn’t include the at-will language. In a recording of a March 25 school board executive session obtained by the Summit Daily, Smith said he brought this up as one of his first conversations when he started in July 2020.

Smith said in his own contract as superintendent there is an at-will clause, and administrative contracts being at-will is a standard practice in Colorado and elsewhere.

The current contracts could cost the school district, such as having to pay out the remainder of a yearlong contract if an administrator is let go.

In the past few months, Summit School District has parted ways with several administrators, including the former Frisco Elementary School principal and district transportation director. The school board also decided to part ways with Smith, though he will serve out the reminder of his contract through June 30.

In the same executive session, school district attorney Catherine Tallerico explained that administrators are on one-year-term contracts. She said the state of Colorado is strict with the fact that if someone signs a one-year contract they must be paid for the full year.

Tallerico said this is a good and bad thing, because if someone signs the contract they will likely stay for the full year, but if someone is fired early they still need to be paid for the full year.

She said the at-will language would allow any administrator to leave whenever they wanted and would allow the district to terminate their employment without paying out the contract.

“When you have a term contract, you have to pay for that term unless you have your at-will language,” Tallerico said in the executive session.

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