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Public takes intense interest in new La Veta School Superintendent contract

LA VETA — A La Veta School Board meeting is typically all business. But hovering at the edges of the February 22 meeting was the specter of a blind petition on accountability that was brought before the board two weeks ago. The petition suggested the jobs of superintendent and principal should be separated, neither of those positions should coach a sport, and a committee should be set up to conduct hiring. Nevertheless, the board chose this meeting to consider a new contract for Bree Lessar as superintendent – a three-year contract with the term “principal” removed. Had it remained, Lessar’s annual salary would have been $97,000, but the new contract specifies $92,500. Board member Joe Albright commented that, if the position is “lessened,” the financial responsibility to the district should be lessened as well. “There are board members who feel that way,” he said. But board member Cindy Campbell answered that, although the title of principal is being removed, the number of duties is unchanged. From the audience, former school board president Sam Law told of working with Colorado Association of School Boards, noting

that CASB members told her how impressed they were with Lessar and their surprise at “how low Bree’s salary was.” Another member of the audience said La Veta School’s superintendent “used to make a lot more” than Lessar is currently being paid. Audience member Jennette Coe told the board, “I don’t see why there’s a hurry or a rush to extend or make that contract.” She suggested the board “give it four to eight weeks” to hear from the community. “There’s no rush. There’s no reason to get the school district into additional financial restraints,” she said. Board president Ed Donovan stated the board had not yet made a decision, so this would be the optimal time for the community to speak. Todd Oberheu told the board, “There’s [support] for what you’re doing,” and Deanna Oberheu, a La Veta teacher, added, “It’s time to move forward with this contract.” But Jeremy Coe, who brought the petition to the board at its last meeting, disagreed, “It’s disappointing to me… I think this is a rush to get ahead of hearing any of those people [on the petition]. I am not against Bree Lessar, but I do not think it is right to not listen to what people have to say. What is [the community] saying? You work for these people too.” Coe said he has a “hard time understanding” why a board would rush it. Donovan responded, “The board is taking your concerns seriously… We are taking those into consideration.” Deanna Oberheu characterized the petition as “inflammatory,” and said she feels that she is seen as retaliatory by some. Kim Eldredge, who has taught at La Veta for 18 years, said she has never felt as though she is not heard, and has never seen a teacher retaliate. Donovan agreed, “We’re proud of our faculty and staff, and proud of their ability to address concerns.” He added that he has no reason to believe that retribution, or the threat of it, occurs at the school. “There’s something here” Speaking about the petition, Coe said, “I have a lot of different thoughts.” He said he “had to take a lot of flak” from many people, and stressed that he is not making things up. “A lot of people have concerns,” he said. Coe added that La Veta is a great school district, and he feels what he has said has been “moved in a different direction.” Coe felt many chose to remain anonymous when they signed the petition because they felt as though they would be retaliated against in the community. “I just know there’s something here,” Coe said. “There’s something in this that people are feeling.” He said he is trying to support a system that fosters more freedom, trust and security, and offers kids a good education at the same time. Audience member Lee Adams suggested that voicing concerns is a way to relieve pressure in certain situations. “They need to be heard,” Adams stressed. Another audience member, who claimed to have signed the petition, said, “I don’t think any of this is about Bree. It’s about breaking down the hierarchy.” “More accountability is always safer,” Coe said, adding that the school needs to let people feel like they have a voice. In a heated response, Donovan said, “I’m really put off by all the accusations.” He said he would have preferred Coe to come to the board with questions rather than accusations. “The way you presented these comments really hurt our school … Don’t come in here pretending you know [what is going on]. The fact that you hear it doesn’t make it true.” He added that the damage done by the “retaliation comment” is real. “I think we’ve said our piece… I feel totally committed to [addressing the community’s concerns].” Coe answered, “I think you’ve made it clear how you’re going to shut me off. I feel like the whole thing was stacked against me tonight. I don’t think you wanted the petition in [the meeting].” He discussed the conflict of interest in the superintendent’s chain of command, saying that it “looks as if there’s an abuse of power.” From the board, Albright agreed with Coe, “There is a conflict of interest… in that area,” adding that those matters will be addressed. “I think there needs to be a lot of healing here,” said Toni Brgoch, noting that everyone is “very defensive,” which occurs when situations are pent up and suddenly dealt with. She advised that people should bring their complaints to the board before they “go viral” and become inflamed, which she felt was what happened with the petition. After tempers subsided, Donovan expressed the board’s desire for the concerns of parents, the community, school employees and others to be addressed. He encouraged a system where problems are dealt with as quickly as possible and stressed the importance of parents attending parent-teacher conferences, whether the student is doing well or poorly. The board’s email is available for contact at boe@lvk12.org . The new superintendent contract was voted on and approved, with board members Matt Dobbs and Albright voting no and Donovan, Campbell and Eleanor Foley voting yes. Board member Suzanne Pierce was absent. Yellow Lights Todd Oberheu commented that he has attended two previous board meetings and “never heard anything positive” from the board. He related that presently there are six schools in southeastern Colorado which are accredited with distinction, La Veta School being one of them. However, he does not believe enough positive light is being shed on the school by the board. “I think [teachers’] confidence is becoming eroded,” he said. Although the school is above average in many venues, he said the board “keeps giving the school yellow lights.” He added that La Veta’s graduation rate is 90.9%, whereas the statewide rate is around 77%; 60% of students in the fourth grade are above average in their grades, whereas the statewide average is approximately 4%. “That’s a gold star, that’s not a yellow light,” said Oberheu. “How do you think that makes those teachers feel?” He stressed, “I hope that you will take this as constructive criticism.” He went on to address the blind petition, saying he believes “at least four” names on the petition were in protest of the petition. “Who is anonymous?” he asked. “Anonymous causes discord.” He urged Coe to “gather people who are displeased,” to talk to the school board. He also told the board they had “gathered a cloud of distrust” by responding the way they did to the petition. Other Contracts On superintendent recommendation, the board approved employment of spring season co-head coaches Rod Falk and Amber Huff for track. The board approved spring athletic volunteers Stephen Kimbrel and Nick Ferrari for junior high wrestling, Fred Ferrari and Lila Cordova-Topping for track, and Heath Higgins and Lester Berry for golf.