The Summit School District administration building in Frisco is pictured on November 12, 2020. The school board has decided not to implement at-will employment for district administrators, approving the new contracts at its May 27 meeting.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Following the backlash from administrators, the Summit School District School Board reversed course at its meeting on Thursday, May 27, approving the new administrator contracts without the proposed at-will language.

The change, which would have brought the district in line with Colorado employment law, raised concerns among administrators because it would have allowed the district to terminate a contract at any time without cause or notice.

At the May 13 board meeting, several directors joined the audience to voice their concerns.

Crystal Miller, principal of Summit Cove Elementary, said the contract negotiation team has worked to create structure and stability for teachers, while the language offered in administrator contracts eliminates security and stability.

“It forces principals to operate in a place of reserve and hesitation,” Miller said. “We want to innovate, we want to take risks, and we want to advance the work of fairness, and (know) that we can do it without being fired with or without cause. …

“I don’t understand, and my colleagues don’t understand, how this could be best for the children.”

Nelle Biggs, deputy principal at Summit Middle School, said administrators want their contracts to include some sort of due process, assessment or coaching, as opposed to the possibility of termination with or without cause.

“Having an evaluation cycle outlined in the contract helps us be clear about whether we are doing the right job and in the right way,” Biggs said. “And if we’re not, it gives us the ability to grow and adapt as needed. With or without cause, it does not foster a growth mindset, nor does it encourage people to take the risks that are imperative for educational reform.

Other administrators who spoke out against the consent clause included Robyn Sutherland, Principal of Upper Blue Elementary School, Jim Smith, Principal of Snowy Peaks Elementary School, Kendra Carpenter, Principal of Dillon Elementary School. Valley, and Jeff Chabot, vice principal of Summit Middle School.

The board has decided to table its May 13 vote on the policy until it can have more in-depth conversations with the directors.

At the May 27 meeting, executive assistant to the board, Molly Speer, said several meetings had been held with trustees and district leaders to address concerns about contracts.

“District leaders have pretty much gone back to the drawing board, and we’ve removed the at will clause from the administrative contract,” Speer said. “And the things in there now are more consistent with what we do in terms of their professional development.

Speer said district leadership reached out to the administrative team for comment on the revised contract. In addition to removing the at will clause, the district also removed language requiring administrators to take health and psychological exams.

Speer added that the contract included in the board policy was not the same one the directors signed, and that they are now aligned and precise.

Discussion of the contract began at the request of Superintendent Marion Smith Jr. at the start of the school year, when he learned that district administrator contracts did not include unlimited language. In a recording of a March 25 school board executive session obtained by the Summit Daily, Smith said he referred to it as one of his first conversations when he started in July 2020.

Smith said that in his own contract as superintendent there was an at will clause and administrative at will contracts were common practice in Colorado and elsewhere.

Current contracts could be costly for the school district, such as having to pay the remainder of a one-year contract if an administrator is fired.

Over the past few months, the Summit School District has separated from several administrators, including the former principal of Frisco Elementary School and the District Director of Transportation. The school board has also decided to part ways with Smith, though he will serve the recall from his contract until June 30.

During the same executive session, school district attorney Catherine Tallerico explained that the administrators are on a one-year contract. She said the state of Colorado is strict that if someone signs a one-year contract, they must be paid for the entire year.

Tallerico said this is a good thing and a bad thing because if someone signs the contract they will probably stay the whole year, but if someone is fired earlier they still have to be paid for the whole year.

She said the all-you-can-eat language would allow any administrator to leave when they want and allow the district to terminate their employment without paying the contract.

“When you have a fixed-term contract, you have to pay for that term unless you have the language of your choice,” Tallerico said in the executive session.