After a spring marked by high-profile complaints from district employees, the Blaine County school board has decided to rewrite the process by which staff can lodge grievances under district policy—including against the superintendent.
The board unveiled the new draft of Policy 476 during its monthly meeting on 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.
But this change specifically aims at grievances against the superintendent, and the idea of revamping the policy grew out of board discussion during executive session in May, according to emails obtained by the Idaho Mountain Express.
During a closed meeting on May 18, the trustees directed then Vice Chairwoman Ellen Mandeville—now serving as interim chairwoman—to work with School District attorney Amy White of the Boise Firm Anderson, Julian & Hull to amend the policy.
The version presented on June 11 would aim to trim a protracted process by requiring grievances to be filed more closely to the events in question, and enforce a timeline for subsequent proceedings. Board members decided to determine exactly how long when they finalize language during their next meeting, after counsel advises what is allowed by Idaho code.
And, it requires that allegations be backed by supporting evidence of wrongdoing.
Those are simple tweaks compared to an entirely new section, which would direct complaints against the superintendent straight to the board of trustees, bypassing the in-between steps previously required by the rule.
Previously, all investigations were funneled to the superintendent or her designee for investigation.
“This is the output of conversations we’ve been having around grievances and evaluations,” Trustee Kevin Garrison told the Idaho Mountain Express. “We have this gap in our policy, and we all agreed we need to fill the hole. It’s a very big change, and a big acceleration of the process.”
The policy, though, can only affect “classified” staff—mainly those in support positions—and not “certified” employees like teachers. The Blaine County Education Association, which acts as the teachers union, gets to negotiate the protocol annually as part of a master agreement that governs working conditions for its members. Currently, the union has agreed to a three-step grievance process: First, initial complaints must be made to one’s immediate supervisor; on appeal, the claim goes to the superintendent; finally, if the employee is not satisfied with the outcome, it goes to a panel convened by the board of trustees.
The district office has been mired in grievances this year, most notably by former Human Resources Director Shannon Maza, a classified staffer who filed three complaints against Holmes between Feb. 25 and March 6, according to a notice of tort claim sent to the district by Maza’s attorney in May.
There, Maza takes aim at Holmes’ handling of those three grievances, claiming that the superintendent’s responses of the allegations “contain facts that … are non-responsive, inflammatory and made in bad faith.”
The specifics aren’t available to the public; personnel files, including grievances and responses, are exempt from disclosure under Idaho code, and the School District denied a public records request from the Idaho Mountain Express to obtain the grievances and accompanying investigations.
Maza’s internal complaints, as well as two separate potential lawsuits and filings with the Idaho Human Rights Commission, were resolved out of court via a $125,000 settlement between Maza and the board of trustees, severing ties (See story Page 1). The terms prevent either party from discussing details underpinning the deal.
Two former employees have been vocal in their critique of the current policy: ex-orchestra Director Rebecca Martin and her husband, ex-communications specialist Kelly Martin. Both claim that protracted grievance proceedings with district administrators prompted their resignations from the district in May and April, respectively.
A request to review the Martins’ grievances was also denied by the district, citing Idaho code. But a separate request turned up some 250 pages of redacted emails relating to their separate cases, outlining the bewilderment and back-and-forth that led to their resignation letters.
Kelly 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.”
“An investigation was held, but it was poorly implemented with no written or recorded notes by Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes,” Martin 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 notes on the investigation with a series of 14 short bullet points describing the steps she took in the inquiry, but 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.
Following Kelly Martin’s resignation, Rebecca Martin, a certified employee, also filed a pair of grievances—including one against Holmes for the handling of her husband’s complaint.
Holmes did not take the grievance, because it bypassed steps required by the master agreement governing certified working conditions. Martin also contacted board members, including Mandeville, who ignored the email out of fear that trustee involvement would preempt and bias the established grievance process.
“While this might not be the process you think is best, it is the Agreement,” Holmes wrote in response to Martin on May 2. “Also, by copying the board, they may not be able to hear your case should it go that far.”
Martin resigned on May 6. She did not follow through on either grievance.
“I have received nothing but dismissal of all my concerns including refusal to accept the grievance,” she wrote. “It is clear that policies need to change and process and procedures need to be outlined so that they are the same for all employees in all instances. As it stands, procedures change to fit the needs of the people who are in power.”
On June 3, Martin took her concerns public during a town-hall meeting in Hailey organized by opponents of the district administration.
“If there are policies in place that are harming staff, the policy committee can revisit those,” Communications Director Heather Crocker said in a statement in response to the meeting. “Retaliation is not allowed. Period. The Master Agreement, developed by teachers, administrators and Board members, has a clear process in place for grievances and retaliation for someone filing a grievance is not allowed. If there’s evidence of retaliation, our staff need to let their supervisors know.”
On Tuesday, Crocker told the Idaho Mountain Express that Policy 476 is rooted in state law—and, in fact, much of the language is taken directly from Idaho code Section 33-517.
“It is typical for a superintendent to be in the chain of command for both student and employee hearings,” Crocker said.
“Grievances must be presented with evidence, not solely allegations,” she added.
The Martins said they intend to move out of Blaine County.
“No matter what, the grievance policy only protects the superintendent and her staff,” Rebecca Martin told the Idaho Mountain Express on June 8. “They were voted on when there wasn’t a problem. Now, all of a sudden there are problems, and we have all these policies that are warped and broken.
“The way it’s written, only one person is in charge: GCH. You either have to deal with it and be quiet, or try to fight it, and make the decision we did—to leave.”