Future uncertain | SteamboatToday.com

Future uncertain

Knezevich undecided about taking legal action to save his job

Zach Fridell

Steamboat Springs High School principal Mike Knezevich was back at work Tuesday, the day after he learned the Steamboat Springs School Board would not be renewing his contact, which expires June 30. "I just want to thank all the staff and community that supported me," Knezevich said.

— One day after his contract was not renewed for the 2008-09 school year, Steamboat Springs High School Principal Mike Knezevich said he was unsure what, if any, legal action he might pursue to save his job.

The Steamboat Springs School Board voted, 3-2, late Monday night to get rid of the three-year principal. He also served as the school’s assistant principal for six years.

Reached Tuesday at the high school, where he was conducting interviews for new staff members, Knezevich said he has not retained a lawyer. Several potentially challengeable issues arose Monday, including interim Superintendent Sandra Smyser’s lack of an administrator’s license for the state of Colorado, the School Board’s alleged failure to comply with a performance review policy, and ethics questions raised against a School Board member.

“I’m going to have some real heart-to-heart conversations as a family,” he said. His wife, Katie, is an elementary teacher in the district.

“The first thing is just to process through and see where this goes with the state Board of Education,” he said, referring to Steamboat Springs School Board member John DeVincentis’ letter sent to the state’s Ethics Committee. DeVincentis, who voted to keep Knezevich, has accused fellow board member Laura Anderson of improperly meeting with the principal’s critics.

Knezevich’s dismissal came at the end of a six-hour School Board meeting during which he waived his right to hold his employment review in executive session, opting instead to hold the entire process in public. His supporters filled Centennial Hall during the meeting, and many spoke on his behalf during the public comment period.

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“I know that Mike wants to make me a better teacher,” high school staff member Dan Tullius said. “I’m thrilled to work under him.”

Recently retired elementary school teacher Don Schwartz also addressed the board.

“Mike has made progress in the past months,” he said. “I believe you have an ethical responsibility to put aside personal biases.”

Several Knezevich critics spoke out Monday night, saying fear of retribution kept more people from making statements against the principal.

The issue of fear was raised several times during the meeting Monday night as public commentators and remarks from school surveys reported Knezevich to be intimidating and prone to retribution.

Gary Engle, a parent who also coached baseball for the high school for three years, said he held Knezevich responsible after one of his sons did not graduate.

“Mike Knezevich is a bully who uses intimidation and coercion to get his way. I can tell you he is deceitful and he has been untruthful in expulsion and pre-expulsion hearings,” Engle said at the meeting.

During the board’s time for comments, Anderson told Knezevich, “I was taken aback at how often I saw ‘fear’ and ‘intimidation’ in regards to you. You are a very polarizing personality.”

In response, Knezevich said his size may be physically large, but his personality is welcoming.

“I’m a big teddy bear. I’m a crier. I have a heart of gold,” he said.

DeVincentis also disregarded the fear comments.

“Fear is something people use to not stand up and say something, to get back at someone else without their name getting back to the accused,” he said. He later referenced the people who “haven’t had the guts to speak to the principal and haven’t had the guts to speak” to the board.

Although board member Lisa Brown later voted to retain Knezevich, she spoke strongly against DeVincentis’ remarks.

“It is not acceptable for students and staff to be fearful. Ever.”

Another issue raised was Knezevich’s supposed unwillingness to admit his faults.

In her evaluation, interim Superintendent Sandra Smyser said Knezevich has not acknowledged his weaknesses during discussions with her.

“How can we, or a future board, work through an issue when he categorically denies it exists?” she asked.

Knezevich said Tuesday that he thought his responses to the criticisms were enough to show he accepted his faults.

“If there are deficiencies which are identified, and I have an approved plan of action that meets those deficiencies, and I overwhelming demonstrate improvement in those areas, then a fair and rational person would say we need to give this man a chance,” he said.

“When all those things are met and that’s not the case, that’s tough.”

Smyser agreed that Knezevich had made improvements in many areas, and only his lack of professional behavior remained unsatisfactory.

Knezevich’s contract will expire at the end of the month. He will continue working until that time, he said.

“I am principal of this building until June 30. I’ve put nine years of my heart and soul into this building and I’ll do everything I can to make sure the building is ready to go for whoever. I’ll continue to do the things I’ve been paid to do.”

He also said the routine will help him deal with the loss of his job.

“I’m trying to do things as normally as I can. That’s why I was in here at 7 o’clock this morning, like I am every morning. I put in a fair and honest day’s work every day. That normalcy will hopefully help, too.”

– To reach Zach Fridell, call 871-4208 or e-mail zfridell@steamboatpilot.com