School district interviews superintendent candidates, Blanding residents voice support for administrator

by David Boyle
News Director
Members of the San Juan school board discussed capital plans, interviewed candidates for the school superintendent position, and heard from members of the Blanding community supporting an administrator at their latest meeting.
Members of the San Juan School Board held closed interviews with four current district employees for the position of the district superintendent at their February 8 meeting.
Current district superintendent Ron Nielson announced in November 2022 his plan to retire from the district at the end of August 2023. 
Members of the school board elected to open applications for the position within the district for six weeks before moving forward with a four-person candidate pool. 
Members of the board interviewed the four candidates at their latest meeting, but did not make any announcements about a decision at that same meeting. 
Addressing the superintendent search at the meeting following the interviews board President Lori Maughan said “We are as a board still dealing with that in house, we are at that point.”
The four in-house applicants for the position include Assistant Superintendents Christine Fitzgerald and Julie Holt, Student Services Director Trevor Olsen, and Bilingual Education Director Brenda Whitehorse.
At the same meeting members of the board heard from members of the public offering their support of a resigning administrator. 
Blanding Elementary Assistant Principal Kory Kowallis has tenured his resignation, apparently after receiving unofficial notice that his contract with the district would not be renewed. 
The decision to renew or non-renew contracts for each provisional employee is not made until the board meeting in March.
Members of the Blanding community rallied support for Kowallis, with social media posts encouraging community members to write-in about positive interactions with Kowallis and also attend the February meeting to voice support.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, eight community members spoke favorably of Kowallis, with more than 20 residents in the audience in support.
Blanding resident (and Mayor) Logan Monson serves on the community councils for the elementary and middle schools in Blanding. He shared worry that the community lacks input to impact education leadership.
“Having different opinions on things is what drives success,” said Monson. “Asking questions about assigned tasks should be seen as a noble trait, taking advantage of experiences and thoughts of everyone involved should be our focus.”
Monson had two requests for the board, one that the board members interview each employee that had been deemed as non-renewable, to hear their side.
Monson also requested that the board evaluate the district policy for a joint evaluation committee which consists of three administrators, three parents and three teachers. Monson asked to know who was on those committees, as well as a copy of the evaluation program, and that the district allow for opportunities to provide feedback in evaluation processes through surveys.
Also at the meeting, Blanding resident Rachel Kowallis asked why the district waits for three years of employment before offering what she deemed as a fair, consistent and equitable performance management process.
“One,” she said. “In which an employee of the district receives clarity on expectations and a plan of assistance with a realistic amount of time to show improvement. Why do we have policies in place that punish those that need the process the very most? In its current state, policy 4510 tells me the district promotes a sink or swim culture.”
Following the comments, Superintendent Ron Nielson thanked the public for providing input to the board, saying the district is better when they receive feedback. 
“You’ve given me some things to reflect (on),” said Nielson. “In my leadership I have tried to build a growth mindset culture and a reflective culture. I’ve heard a number of things from our retention, our onboarding, our stakeholder surveys, our policies. I’ve written these things down. Honestly, we will look at these things and we’ll see where we’re at and where we might have deficiencies and we will chart courses to do better.”
Nielson addressed a concern he has heard multiple times about administrative turnover at Blanding Elementary School (BES). Nielson reported that there have been six principals at BES since 2006 and that the assistant principal position was created in 2018. 
“Our first assistant principal went from BES to ARL (Albert R Lyman Middle School). Our second assistant principal is now the principal. We did have a short-time assistant principal at the beginning of last year and we lost that individual for their own reasons.
“There is not one individual on this list that did not have a contract in front of them to sign when they left. There was not one. There were two on here that signed a contract and then later informed us they were breaking a contract.
“So you need to understand if there’s a feeling of pushing people out at the district level or trying to quickly make decisions to chase them out, I would tell you you are getting misinformation.”
Following Nielson’s comments board member Merri Shumway provided a public comment asking the board to back-up the process. Shumway noted non-renewals are not finalized until March.
“Nobody has been non-renewed,” said Shumway. “We’ve been asked to reconsider our decision, there hasn’t been a decision. There’s been resignations, but I am not 100 percent convinced that we have done everything in our power, not to place blame on anybody, but to find solutions.
“I’m not 100 percent convinced that we have spent the time and had the resources to properly mentor people who are willing to and want to stay in San Juan School District.”
Later in the meeting, Shumway made a motion to go into closed session to discuss personnel. The motion was seconded by board member Nan Barton. The motion failed with Shumway and Barton voting in favor.
At the meeting, members of the board also heard an update on capital assets in the district. Business Administrator Tyrel Pemberton explained that the district had recently completed fuel site upgrades at the district bus barn.
Additionally, Pemberton shared that the district is drafting procurement documents to hire professional help to plan, prepare and design approved entryway projects, and the new Blanding Elementary school.
For the past several months, the district had asked whether to move forward with plans to design and build a new Blanding Elementary school or spend an estimated $80,000 to study if remodeling the elementary school is possible at a lower cost.
While the district and board decided in January to move forward with a new school rather than remodel the 70-year-old structure in Blanding, Shumway had asked the district to reconsider at their February meeting.
“I wanted to consider what we really do need in Blanding,” said Shumway. “Can we remodel and put more money into a facility for a gym for a high school? I believe that may be a bigger need that we need to look at at this point. What we have in Blanding Elementary is a structure we could possibly work with.”
Shumway noted that events at the gymnasium are often crowded and asked for a needs assessment of the community.
After months of discussing whether to spend $80,000 on a study or to move forward for a new elementary school, Nielson said the district administration finally made the recommendation for a new building after hearing overwhelmingly from those who sought the district out that they’d like to see a new building. 
Nielson added that while that feedback was largely in favor of a new building, it was not formal and that the district could certainly administer a survey.
Pemberton said that if the district moved forward with $80,000 to explore a remodel, it may miss a funding opportunity from the state legislature.
“I don’t know that we would have the time to do an evaluation of the building and have a firm design a new build if we still decided to go that route by the time the next funding opportunity rolls around,” said Nielson.
The prior state legislative session saw $50 million in new funds for capital projects in 13 districts in the state. San Juan School District will likely be awarded $3.3 million for a $5 million safety upgrade to several school entrances. While the legislature may refill the fund this year, its future is unknown.
Board members asked Blanding school principals about the need for a new gymnasium to serve the Blanding community. San Juan High Principal Ryan Nielson said the community feels like they’ve outgrown the gym.
“We’re probably the only 2A school without two gyms in the State of Utah,” said Ryan Nielson. “It makes it where involvement is hard when you have practice at 5:30 in the morning, you have practices at 5:30 at night with bus students because we want to give everybody we can be involved if we have the opportunity.”
Board member Nelson Yellowman added while he understood the need for more gym space, he sees a greater need at the elementary school
“Blanding Elementary is a great need as well,” said Yellowman. “Of 180 school days a year, how many days or nights is the gymnasium being used out of the whole year? at full capacity vs the elementary?”
Principal Nielson added the gym is used year-round with the gym at Albert R Lyman Middle School getting lots of use as well.
Members of the board did not make a motion on the issue at their February meeting.
Members of the board also heard about an invitation to join other Utah school districts to enter a class-action lawsuit against social media companies for their role in damaging youth wellbeing.
The board did not vote to enter the lawsuit but did motion for administration to bring additional information and a future discussion at a future meeting.
The board also approved a two-year contract with Business Administrator Pemberton, and approve their meeting schedule for the next academic year.
The district also recognized two employees with a San Juan Sweet Job award, including San Juan High girls basketball coach and substitute teacher Kade Palmer as well as Whitehorse High counseling office support Robin Henderson.

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