Guest editorial: Lackluster leadership

The latest chapter in the Snake River School District’s apparent quest to rid itself of veteran science teacher Elaine Asmus highlights the problems of lackluster leadership. Lackluster leadership is the only thing we can use to explain how a 28-year teacher who never received a critical evaluation from administrators at Snake River High School saying she had a problem with interpersonal communication, was abruptly fired for that apparent deficiency.

We have little doubt that Asmus developed a sense of ownership in the high school and middle school science programs. She developed most of the curriculum and was the senior member of the department.

And sometimes ownership can turn into territoriality when the person who has long been in charge snaps at those who don’t immediately acquiesce. Over the years, Asmus may have developed poor diplomatic skills even though she excelled as a science teacher, with many state science-teaching awards, culminating with her receiving the Idaho VFW’s Teacher of the Year Award in 2011.

But good administrators get on top of complaints from faculty about communication issues. If another teacher is short or impatient with colleagues, the principal can and should solve the issue quickly. Both parties can be brought to the table to develop a plan to eliminate future problems.

That apparently never happened at Snake River High. It wasn’t until Snake River Superintendent Mark Gabrylczyk’s wife, Laura, was hired as a junior-high science teacher in the district last year that allegations of Asmus being impossible to work with became a major issue. Laura alleged that Asmus “yelled at her” over the use of some star-gazing equipment last January.

Because his wife was involved, Mark Gabrylczyk had to turn over the complaint to the district’s part-time attorney, Bryce Lloyd. Lloyd initially set up a meeting between the two teachers to iron out the blowup, but ended up recommending Asmus be dismissed. What followed was a lengthy legal hearing that lasted nearly 15 hours and included the testimony of 19 witnesses with multiple attorneys involved. The price tag to the school district was $61,000.

Snake River trustees decided not to dismiss Asmus last spring. The trustees determined Asmus should be placed on probation due to ethics code and board policy violations, and be stripped of her role as science-department chair and head of the district’s curriculum committee.

It’s the probationary period and conditions that seem punitive. When Asmus was offered her teaching contract for this coming school year, it stipulated that she would be on probation for the entire year. And every week she was in the classroom, Asmus would have to complete a detailed report about any and all communication she had with other teachers and administrators.

That’s a pretty hefty homework assignment when placed on top of preparing daily lesson plans, grading student assignments and setting up lab activities — things all science teachers are expected to do. To expect Asmus to fill out a contact log and write a report about every conversation she had with other teachers or administrators each week and submit it to the principal seems more than a little extreme. It’s as if the district wanted to put an uncomfortable, electronic ankle bracelet on Asmus.

Or maybe they just wanted her to quit.

Asmus objected to the terms of her probation and wanted an audience with the school board before signing her new contract. She was never given that opportunity.

“There were important things that needed to be talked about and the school district didn’t give her the time of day,” said Paul Stark, the Idaho Education Association attorney who represents Asmus.

Instead of sitting down with Asmus to work things out, district administrators gave her teaching position to someone else. The school district is standing by its position that Asmus didn’t sign her teaching contract by the deadline, so she must not have wanted the job.

Sure, and that’s why she secured an attorney and fought through a two-day hearing to keep her job last spring.

It appears administrative incompetence trumps teaching ability at Snake River.

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