Members of the Blaine County School District’s administration are standing by its embattled grievance policy, which has seen increased use—and public scrutiny—in 2019.
After adjudicating just two grievances in the first four and a half years helming the district, Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes says she’s seen six this year—including three from former Human Resources Director Shannon Maza directed against Holmes herself.
Those were dropped as part of a $125,000 out-of-court settlement with Maza last month, which also took a pair of threatened lawsuits, and a filing with the Idaho Human Rights Commission, off the table. That high-profile episode—the largest of several to catch the eye of district critics in recent weeks—pushed the school board to consider revising policy about how so-called classified employees like Maza file grievances against higher-ups, namely the superintendent.
The board unveiled the new draft of Policy 476 during its monthly meeting June 11, taking the rare step of rewriting bylaws by itself rather than through its ad hoc Policy Committee, composed of trustees, teachers, administrators and members of the public. Under district policy, all ad hoc committees are chaired by the superintendent, GwenCarol Holmes. The new version would direct filings against the superintendent directly to the board of trustees, bypassing the intermediary steps required by the current policy. Under the policy still in effect, investigations are funneled to the superintendent or a designee, if they have not been resolved by the employee’s immediate supervisor.
In June, trustees asked legal counsel to review the timeline set out in the new draft. They’re expected to vote on the revisions during their regular meeting July 16 .
But last week, Holmes and Wood River High School Principal John Pearce told the Idaho Mountain Express that the current system works as designed—it’s just not designed to work the way most outside the district office expect it to.
Namely, that grievances filed under the policy for classified employees—like those in support positions—or pursuant to negotiated terms agreed to annually by certified staff—like teachers—don’t trigger investigations, Holmes said. When an employee brings a claim to a supervisor—the first step in the grievance process—that supervisor is a judge, not a detective.
“The court doesn’t go out and investigate what’s in front of it,” she said. “It relies on both sides to bring evidence.”
The investigative process—or, lack thereof—was at the heart of both Maza’s grievance, and one filed by former Communications Specialist Kelly Martin, who resigned from the district in May.
The specifics aren’t available to the public; personnel files, including grievances and responses, are exempt from disclosure under Idaho law, and the School District denied a public records request from the Idaho Mountain Express to obtain both sets of grievances and accompanying investigations.
“They’ll almost never see the light of day,” Holmes said Friday. “There could be a joint statement, but that’s probably about it.”
A separate request turned up some 200 pages of emails relating to Martin’s case, outlining the procedural muddle that led to his resignation. Martin stepped down on April 16, claiming that “18 months going through the proper policies and procedures to address bullying, intimidation, retaliation and harassment” led to “nothing but dismissal of my concerns and allegations.”
In those emails, Martin claims that an investigation, though slight, did occur.
“An investigation was held, but it was poorly implemented with no written or recorded notes by Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes,” he wrote in an email to the board of trustees. “The district has policies in place, but the policies are being abused by the people in power. I have been patient with the grievance process just to be let down by those in power dismissing it as trivial.”
On April 12, Holmes responded to Martin’s request for her notes with a series of 14 short bullet points describing the steps she took in response to Martin’s grievance, but she did not provide any supporting documentation.
Martin resigned before his grievance process concluded. Had he continued, the next step would have convened a panel to determine if violations occurred, after which an appeal would have gone to the board of trustees.
“If they want an investigation, there are other policies,” Holmes said—like 506.50, which covers bullying, intimidation and harassment.
Most conflicts don’t amount to grievances, Pearce said, and they’re handled informally. Pearce told the Express that he has overseen one official grievance in his four years at Wood River High School.
“It really has to be a violation of policy,” he said. “You can’t grieve an evaluation. You can’t file a grievance because you didn’t get the classroom you wanted. If I’m not happy with something that’s happening—something within the realm of my duties that I just don’t want to do—I can’t grieve that. Sometimes, people don’t agree with a situation—that doesn’t mean it’s a violation of contract.
“We want people to be satisfied and happy, to best serve kids. But a complaint is different than a grievance, even though they’re often bundled together.”
The language of Policy 222, which covers “Grievances from Patrons,” is somewhat less clear on that; the bylaw uses “complaint,” “concern” and “grievance” more or less interchangeably.
If a parent or patron has an issue, Holmes said, they should take it up directly with staff.
“You can certainly call,” she said. “We will ask that you do it through the chain of command. Most of the time, when people are upset, they go right to the top before working back down to the right level. …
“Make sure you’re coming with evidence. You can’t just bring allegations.”