Steamboat Springs The Steamboat Springs School Board's decision Friday to buy out the final two years of Superintendent Donna Howell's contract brought a needed conclusion to what had become an embarrassing, drawn-out affair for the school district and the community. Unfortunately, we believe it was the wrong conclusion.
The School Board voted 4-0 Friday to pay Howell $270,000 to immediately walk away from her duties. Board member Char Rusk abstained.
Make no mistake, hiring, firing and maintaining a good working relationship with a superintendent is one of the most important duties of a School Board. Howell was hired in 2003 by a previous board, and she was given a guaranteed four-year contract two years later. We criticized the decision at the time, particularly because it was made, in part, by board members on their way out instead of those on their way in.
It would be logical for some of the current School Board members to think they were forced into the decision they made Friday because of that four-year contract. It's ironic then that Howell was dismissed with votes by board members who must run for election in just three months, if they run at all. After waiting so long to act on Howell, it would have been appropriate to wait another couple of months for a potential new board to establish a relationship with Howell and decide for itself whether she should stay or go.
The upcoming election isn't the only awkward timing involved in Friday's announcement. A new school year starts in two weeks, and the district is in the midst of several major construction projects. The temporary Soda Creek Elementary School facility isn't ready for students, and the district lacks a transportation plan for student drop-off, pick-up and parking at "Camp Soda Creek" on Seventh Street.
Furthermore, a new principal at Strawberry Park Elementary School, a new food services director and a new curriculum and instruction director are without a boss to guide their transitions, not to mention the many new teachers and support staff members.
Perhaps we could be swayed with some - any - indication of why Howell's dismissal is in the "best interest of the district," as Board President Denise Connelly said Friday when announcing the buyout. Connelly went on to say it was clear Howell was not a "good fit" after three unsuccessful facilitated sessions with third-party professionals. Those sessions were held in March. If it was clear it wouldn't work out with Howell then, why not move forward with your decision and immediately begin a superintendent search process while the best candidates were still job hunting?
Instead, we're left to wonder why our elected representatives spent $270,000 to say goodbye to a well-respected, accomplished superintendent at such a critical time for our school district. In her four-year tenure in Steamboat, Howell was the guiding force behind the successful school construction bond issue and a mill levy override to increase staff salaries. She was a tireless proponent of the district throughout the community and was instrumental during the past two collaborative bargaining sessions, which resulted in salary and benefits packages that received tremendous support from teachers and staff. A dozen district teachers and administrators spoke in support of Howell at Friday's School Board meeting; none spoke out against her.
The spotlight is now on Connelly and the remainder of the board. We hope, for our children's and community's sake, they have a good plan for the future.