The public library in Plevna was filled Tuesday evening with dozens of people waiting for a decision regarding the employment status of a teacher who had become a lightning rod in the community.
More than half of the more than 3 1/2 meeting was focusing on the public comments, discussion and decision regarding the employment status of Paige Boyer, a teacher and guidance counselor at the school.
The meeting was also streamed online using Zoom and brought comments from far outside the small community on Highway 12 west of Baker.
After more than an hour of public comments regarding the teacher, the board struggled at first to come to a decision.
After a motion was made and seconded for non-renewal without cause, the board had two votes in favor of removal with two abstentions and started to proceed. However, the board was stopped by the legal counsel, Andrew Vigeland of the Montana School Boards Association, who forced a halt to the proceedings. He stated that with two votes for and two abstentions, the four-person board could do three things, including table it for a later meeting.
After briefly tabling the motion and announcing plans to take it up in either the April or May meeting, one of the board members who had been an abstention asked for the original motion to be reopened.
After it was reopened, the motion was approved and seconded again, but this time there were three ayes – Chairman Scott Rieger, Will Sparks and with Janet Stickney adding a deciding third vote to not renew Boyer’s contract without cause. Vice chairman Teresa Rieger abstained again.
Within a few minutes after the board’s decision not to renew, most of the people attending the meeting left. But not before many verbally announced they were opposed to the decision not to renew the teacher’s contract without cause.
Earlier in the meeting, Falecia Rader told the board it needed to take a look at the use of political and ideological displays inside the school. “Those things should be used to encourage civil exchange of ideas. I am hopeful that none of them are displayed in a manner that would facilitate ridicule, shame or ostracize.”
Rader posted on Facebook about the meeting and the situation regarding the teacher. She commented that as a graduate of Plevna she felt she had gotten an excellent education because of well trained faculty. She also stated that she was disappointed to see that a teacher at a time when rural communities are struggling to recruit and retain qualified teachers, her contract was not renewed.
In addition to the employment situation of one teacher, members of the audiences also said that there are problems at the school in how the students and the staff interact.
Another parent said his son wrote a controversial Black Lives Matter and anti-BLM because it was part of a first amendment exercise. “It was a class assignment. That article (published information) was like a half-truth. It wasn’t the whole thing. It was a different class. It was a freedom of speech article with two opposing views. It was Trump versus Pence... it was mask versus no-mask... it was gay versus not gay... It was two opposing views in that I can say what I want and you can think what you want,” the parent said. “That is what freedom of speech is.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be a hate thing. I understand that it got taken that way and I am really sorry that it did,” the parent added.
Another member of the audience focused on the impact of some actions by students and faculty in regard to race. “As you can see, there are only two African-Americans in this room.... okay there is three in a state that has .1 percent African-American. I have been talked to by some staff members and some teachers and I have heard the name-calling of some Native Americans. That comes from staff members’ mouths and it is unacceptable.”
“We have been taught through the years that nothing will change. For everybody else in this room, you believe that there is change. I didn’t want to come to this meeting, because I know it is not going to change because in 47 years of my life, I have seen nothing change.”
“Nothing is changing. When my kids go to school they are called the same thing I was called. Nothing changed.
“Why is okay that we have reservations in our area that we play basketball against when we talk about them like dogs. Why is that okay? Teachers accept it. Coaches do it. But why is it okay?”
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but it gets really frustrating to hear that we are not going to address this,” he told the board. “We are almost 60 years out of the civil rights movement, and it is no better than it was then. You can think it is because we live in a bubble, but it is not.”
He added that he has been talked to like a dog because of the color of his skin. “My kids get talked to like dogs, because of the color of their skin. It is not okay.”
“It is not okay,” he said, stressing that it starts with the leadership. “If you are not a leader, then step down.”
At one point, the legal advisor had to make a point in the discussion.
“This a recommendation for non-renewal without cause,” he said, stopping one parent in the middle of a description of an incident. “So general statements of support or opposition are just fine, but if you are talking specific allegations and discussions of work performance – those are things (that) teacher Boyer has the right of privacy. The comments need to remain generic.”
But the board then voted.
In addition to local support, the teacher had people speaking up for her via Zoom during the meeting.
One of her supporters, April Veach of Billings, told the board that she was shocked and disappointed in the way the school district had handled the employee. “About six years ago, I met the staff member in question through a home study. I was adopting my bi-racial niece who had been removed from care from her mother. Paige comes into my home and does my home study and (was) incredibly professional. When this came about and I see this current state of events, it was as a Not In Our Town member. I monitor our inbox. I couldn’t believe that this was the same person.
“I know things come up and I believe this is an opportunity to grow. When you have an opportunity to grow and you have a staff member that has that vast experience and disagreements come up, we can grow from them,” she said via Zoom. “We can heal. Someone said how do we all get along. We heal and we move on.”
“I would like to say I fully support Paige. People can grow and heal together. The community can too,” Veach added.
“As a parent, I would fully support any staff member that has the educational background, but also that compassionate component to look at our students and love them as they are when they have differences, disabilities, religions, LGBT.... our small communities desperately need that.”
“Here in Billings, we have the same struggles, but smaller communities feel it so much differently. I would just ask to please consider renewing her because I do believe that she is a gift,” Veach said. “I fully support her and I fully support the school district. I do believe you have what it takes in due time to heal from this.”
Earlier in the meeting, Veach also told the school board that there were things going on at the school which needed to be addressed. “There are students in your school – African-American, Native American and such. You also have different religions and things that you (the school board) may not be aware of. There are things going on that are obvious … people of color … and things that are not obvious. We want to be mindful of that. How do we help the students feel safe. It sounds like we have faculty issues but also students who are stuck in the middle of this,” she said.
“How can we help our faculty and our students and our students’ families?”
Student safety was a key point the board should focus on, she said. “Especially in a state that has one of the highest suicide rates among our youth to come into a classroom and not feel safe. Our students should come into a classroom and be able to learn freely and be able to trust in teachers,” she said.
One parent told the board that she tries to teach compassion, diversity and acceptance to her children at home, but when the children go to school they hear something different. “They ask me why is it okay at school but not at home – I don’t know how to answer that because it should not be allowed in school,” she said.
A second member of the Not In Our Town group in Billings also offered to help via Zoom. The students need to feel welcome in an environment of learning, Jerry Clark said.
The chairman of Not In Our Town-Billings said the community, the school board and the teachers have a responsibility. “In order for our kids to learn, they have a responsibility. If our students do not feel welcome there, do not feel safe, do not feel appreciated … if they feel bullied, they are not going to be able to have the mindset to be able to utilize their God-given talents. That is why they are there in school.”
He added that he would happy to provide assistance to the community.
A former student at the school said that the teacher who was the focus of the meeting and discussion had helped her make it through a tough time a year ago when she had a close friend die.
Another speaker complained that young students are often hearing things at school meant to degrade them.