Sunday, July 14, 2024

West Valley School Board appoints interim superintendent amid turmoil

Daily Inter Lake | July 28, 2023 12:00 AM

Elementary Principal Richard Gross will serve as the 2023-24 interim superintendent of West Valley School District, pending approval of a contract, following a rift between administrators and members of the school board.

He replaces Cindy Risher who departed the district earlier this year.

Gross has held the West Valley Elementary principal position since August 2017. Prior to that, he was a teacher and administrative intern at Hedges Elementary School in Kalispell from August 2011 through June 2017.

Gross holds a Master of Education, Bachelor of Arts in elementary education and a Bachelor of Science in business management with a minor in administrative systems, all from the University of Montana.

“I’m looking forward to creating a positive place where teachers want to be and students want to learn,” Gross said, adding that he anticipated enjoying the experience of “working with a strong board.”

West Valley Middle School Principal Tina Blair also interviewed for the interim position. Interviews were held July 18.

West Valley School Board Chair Marilyn Hedstrom said earlier this week that Gross and Blair were both excellent candidates and it came down to “looking at the dynamics of the whole school.”

Hedstrom said another deciding factor was how easily the board could fill an elementary versus middle school principal position. The first day of school is Aug. 28.

“We’re grateful our principals really stepped up to the plate and came forward. They stepped up to what was a situation that was pretty hairy there for a while,” Hedstrom said.

By this time, administrators typically have already secured employment for the 2023-24 school year.

“One reason we decided to go with an interim was because we knew we couldn’t find a [permanent] superintendent with the current [job] market,” Hedstrom added. “And at this time of the year, it was just an impossible thing.”

THE DISTRICT has gone without a leader since April 16 when former Superintendent Cindy Risher went on paid administrative leave.

Prior to that, on April 10, the board went into executive session to discuss her contract. The board subsequently opted against renewing her contract in a 3-0 vote with Hedstrom and Trustees Stefanie Hanson and Jeffrey Meredith voting. Two board members at the time, Justin Buls, who recently resigned from the board, and Gretchen Knuffke, who also stepped down from the board, abstained from voting. In a May 8 meeting, Knuffke explained why she didn’t vote.

“... I left the meeting because I did not think that there should be any vote regarding that within 30 minutes of me finding out about it. I just felt like it was inappropriate and a violation, and I didn’t want anything to do with it.” Knuffke said.

Risher told the Daily Inter Lake that the April 10 meeting was the first time she was notified her contract would not be renewed, which means she was not given adequate notice under Montana Code Annotated.

According to Montana Code Annotated, trustees must take action and notify the employee in writing of their intent to terminate a superintendent’s services at the end of their current contract no later than Feb. 1. Risher said she did not receive written notice.

Risher, who joined the district in 2022, was roughly two months away from the end of a one-year contract. She said a February evaluation by the board was positive.

“No issues were brought to my attention. I was not aware of any concerns with trustees until that April 10 meeting,” she said.

“I loved that job,” Risher added. “I was excited about the opportunity I had there and the opportunity I had to continue working in West Valley. It’s unfortunate the way things ended the way they did, I hope the best for the school. The school is there to serve the families and students of that community.”

This is not the first time the district has erred in following deadlines. The district ran into problems in the spring when a May 2 mail-ballot election for a $300,000 general fund levy was declared invalid at an April 24 board meeting due to trustees missing a March 31 deadline to pass a resolution stating the exact levy amount in order for the clerk, who serves as the election administrator, to certify ballots.

During subsequent board discussions, it became apparent there was confusion about school elections and the board’s involvement in the process.

The canceled election cost the district around $3,183 in printing ballots and postage.

On June 22, Risher and West Valley School District signed off on a severance agreement, referred to as a “resignation agreement” on the board agenda. Risher said the agreement included paying her salary for the remainder of her contract and an additional four months.

Meredith, Hanson, Hedstrom and trustee Laurel Ekern (who replaced Knuffke) voted to approve the agreement. Buls voted against it, saying the situation was not in the best interest of students, according to unofficial minutes.

Bul’s resignation letter, which was considered at the July 24 board meeting, stated:

“The past few months as a sitting trustee has made me question the leadership, ethics, morals and integrity of the district. I am choosing to step away and not be associated with it further.”

Hedstrom acknowledged during Tuesday’s interview that “mistakes were made” on both sides regarding the handling of the superintendent’s contract and the canceled levy election.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or