In a split vote Tuesday night, the Blaine County School District’s board of trustees ordered staff to develop a new communications plan to reach constituents, acknowledging mounting stress from critics over the past several months.

With voters likely to weigh in on at least one levy as soon as this March, the trustees shifted course to create a fresh document outlining the approach, rather than amending the district’s five-year-old strategic plan, which is up for renewal next year. The latter requires a prolonged public process, according to Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes, that wouldn’t wrap until after elections in the spring.

“My sense of urgency is high on addressing the gaps that we have currently,” said Trustee Kevin Garrison, who pushed the idea. “I really believe that this is something strategic and important for us now, not six months from now.”

Recently, some critics have grown frustrated with how board members interact with constituent complaints. As trustees have been asked to adjudicate more cases against staff and students, they’ve said that they fear even casual conversations might arouse suspicions of bias.

After prolonged debate Tuesday, Garrison, Rob Clayton and Ryan Degn all voted in favor of staff drafting a communications plan by their October board meeting.

Along with board Chairwoman Ellen Mandeville, Kelly Green voted against the motion. While she said she didn’t oppose the idea, she thought the timeline was too tight.

Holmes, too, was concerned that the window won’t be wide enough to get constituents involved in the process.

“I do think it’s important to have their voice,” she said. “Not just have [Director of Communications Heather Crocker], or myself, or someone else writing something in the middle of the night just to get it out.”

The board did agree to one of her recommendations: uncoupling the communication document from the strategic plan. That’s a change from what it favored last month, when the majority of trustees wanted to elevate the idea to a districtwide guiding principal.

On Tuesday, Clayton still did.

“This is a pressing issue that we continually seem to have difficulty with,” he said. “We should put it at the forefront and make it a strategic priority. We are entering a period where we’ll be pursuing levy after levy after levy. If we do not have a comprehensive, strategic plan incorporated for communication, we are setting ourselves up for some challenging times.”

A separate document, he said, downplays the need—and accountability when it comes time to follow through.

Developed in 2015, the current plan sets out four objectives for everything the district does. It basically delivers marching orders for staff, and establishes goals for programs. They’re meant to “inspire” intellectual curiosity; “engage” in the “learning community”; “educate” to develop strong problem-solving skills; and “empower” students to make good choices.

Green argued that adding a fifth tenet would further burden employees already struggling to sustain morale.

“I’m worried about piling more on teachers,” she said. “One more thing could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Mandeville said an “11th-hour” addition would create confusion.

“It would not be beneficial to our staff,” she said, “It would not be beneficial to our students, and I don’t support it.”

Holmes, too, favored staying the course, and amending the strategic plan when it comes due in June 2020.

“When you start messing with the strategic plan, you’re sending the message to staff that you’re adding more,” she said. “I’d like to send the message to keep on keeping on.”

If the majority of the board has its way, though, some things will change. For now, it’s not clear what.

Garrison said he believed the district did a good job of reaching students and parents, but not the rest of the community.

As Holmes put it, “How do we find the other 15,000 residents of this county?”

Administrators will work on that in the coming months.

“We’re hearing it again and again,” Degn said. “It almost needs to be bulls-eyed right now. Some great things are happening in the district. Teachers are doing great work. But we’re putting out fires, not building bridges.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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