Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

How things went wrong for the school superintendent and board

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The end of any relationship causes pain, confusion and heartache, but it’s no good staying together “just for the kids.”

“They know it’s over before you do,” said Payson Unified School District (PUSD) Superintendent Ron Hitchcock, soon after his decision not to seek a renewal of his contract in the shadow of disagreements with the board.

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Ron Hitchcock

In the case of Payson, Hitchcock’s courtship, honeymoon and union proved far shorter than anyone would have predicted.

He said the breakup stemmed from waning support from some board members for his sweeping and sometimes emotionally taxing proposals for systematic reform of the district to adapt to state and federal mandates and ongoing financial woes. He said he decided to leave when the board failed to muster a unanimous vote to extend his contract, as the number of split decisions on key issues rose.

However, he said he’s accomplished much of what the board asked him to do when it hired him some 18 months ago. State mandates forced some of those changes, but others Hitchcock initiated on his own.

Under his leadership, the district experienced:

• A shift in principals at every school.

• Adding student achievement teachers to focus on student test scores and help mentor and evaluate other teachers.

• The hiring of a student achievement director to focus on boosting the standardized test scores the state has linked to school funding, teacher evaluations and school ratings.

• Creating volunteer coordina­tors to get parents more involved in the schools.

• Reinstituting all-day kindergarten, despite the elimination of state funding.

• Selling Frontier Elementary School, to eliminate excess capacity and save operating and maintenance costs.

• Updating policies and procedures.

• Upgrading the district’s curriculum, in part to adapt to the new Common Core state and federal standards.

• Overhauling the system for doing teacher and principal evaluations, in part to respond to new state requirements.

What might have caused the rift

In a four-hour interview with the Roundup, the outgoing superintendent talked about the changes he made and how the pace and conviction of his actions might have overwhelmed board members and created a rift.

“When I arrived, I inherited the (school) letter grades and declining enrollment,” he said.

Both have turned around with the middle school rising from a D to a B and the other schools in the district holding their own. For the first time since 2008, enrollment has increased, mostly due to offering all-day kindergarten.

Hitchcock also gave each certified staff member a $2,500 in­crease in their salary this year, plus increased stipends for coaches.

But Hitchcock said no one believed he would do so many of the things the board asked him to do so quickly when he started.

“This district went through a difficult time because the clock struck midnight on July 1st (2012) when I walked in the door,” he said. “The board said to me, ‘We don’t know what it means, but you’d better get us ready.’”

Hitchcock said some of the grumbling and stress in the district stems from the looming state mandates about changes in the curriculum and teacher and administrator evaluations, now based far more on things like student test scores.

“Now when you talk to teachers they say, ‘I don’t agree with that,’ ‘Won’t this just pass?’ (and) ‘I’m going to retire in three years, do I have to change?’” said Hitchcock of his interactions with staff.

Hitchcock said he struggled to bring the PUSD curriculum up to speed because the district has not had a curriculum director or updated its curriculum since Kathy Kay lost her position in 2010 due to budget cutbacks.

To address curriculum, Hitch­cock hired Brenda Case as the student achievement director. Case’s resumé includes time as a turn-around principal and consulting with other districts to improve their performance.

Hitchcock also introduced the Beyond Textbooks tool to address stagnate curriculum. Designed by the Vail school district near Tucson, Beyond Textbooks offers online exercises and assessment tests, in addition to suggested timelines to help teachers stay on track with curriculum.

But some of the biggest reactions came from the decision to reinstate all-day kindergarten and sell Frontier. Those decisions resulted in a crucial shortage of space in Payson Elementary School, although the district still has excess capacity overall. Reverberations from those decisions revealed the cracks in leadership trusting each other.

Reinstating all-day kindergarten resulted in a sharp increase in the number of students in both kindergarten and first grade.

Hitchcock moved to implement plans to sell Frontier for a million dollars and spend the money on building four new classrooms and a multi-purpose room at Payson Elementary School, which is bursting at the seams this year. To his surprise, the board balked.

At its meeting on Aug. 12, board member Rory Huff’s comments brought everything to a screeching halt as the board refused to vote on Hitchcock’s plan.

But Hitchcock said the rift happened before the Aug. 12 meeting.

The fateful meeting

At its July 22 meeting, the board retired to meet in executive session. The purpose, as stated on the agenda, was to evaluate the superintendent and discuss the renewal of his contract.

Hitchcock said his contract was for two years. By law, the board could vote to extend his contract when six months remained. On the agenda, the final action item was listed as “Superintendent’s Contract,” and it was to be led by Barbara Underwood.

But according to the minutes of the meeting, no action was taken. Instead, the executive session went on for hours after the regularly scheduled meeting ended. Yet, an hour into the meeting, Underwood stormed out of the building.

Hitchcock said from that meeting on, the board has had split decisions or tabled items.

“Since the July 22nd meeting, how many action items have we moved on? We generally take 50 percent actions on items on the agenda.” said Hitchcock. “(July 22nd) was the last meeting of consensus.”

FLURRY BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

The Payson Unified School District board has called yet another closed door meeting to consult with an attorney about the resignation of Superin­tendent Ron Hitchcock — only this time they might do something.

The Monday meeting at 5:30 p.m. follows an unusual string of executive sessions with the district’s lawyer.

The law allows the board to meet privately with its lawyer. However, the law also requires the board to give an employee notice if they’re contemplating action that might affect him. The employee then has has a right to seek a public session. The board has not invited Hitchcock to any of the sessions or even notified him they might be talking about him.

The board held executive sessions on Nov. 7, 14 and 20, all since Hitchcock submitted his resignation letter on Nov. 6.

The agenda of the meeting was, “to discuss and consult with the district’s attorney for legal advice regarding administrator’s position/assignment in accordance with A.R.S. Section 38-431.03(A)(3).”

Hitchcock confirmed that the board did not notify him of the Monday executive session either.

According to the agenda, the board will “discuss and consider the superintendent’s em­ployment and resignation ...”

The meeting is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 2 in the District offices, 902 W. Main St.

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