RIDGWAY – At a packed, emotional meeting in the Ridgway Elementary School Library, the district board of education on Monday night took no action in the rumored firing of Secondary School principal Jim Bob Hobbs.
The board did decide to let the public vent about what had become a community-wide story.
Most if not all of the 70-plus parents, teachers and students present had come to support Hobbs, who, following February meetings with District Superintendent Cheryl Gomez, believe his contract was about to be terminated and took the unusual step of sending an open letter to the community asking for its support.
In response to Hobbs’s letter, and the talk it engendered, the board drafted a letter of its own, which was widely circulated prior to the meeting. In it, the board stated unequivocally that “the superintendent will not be presenting a recommendation to the board regarding the RSS principal at the March 4 meeting.”
At the start of the meeting, board member Roger Sagal elaborated, saying that over the last few days, “the board got involved in direct discussion with the administration. Call it an intervention. We’re not going to have the crisis people were fearing a week ago. In the next week, we’re going to reach a resolution.”
Sagal apologized for being vague, but because it is a personnel matter, the board must be circumspect in addressing a presumed conflict between Superintendent Gomez and Principal Hobbs.
“In the spirit of tragedy narrowly averted,” asked Jon Kornbluh, a father of two RSS students, “what caused this potential crisis? The fact that at a single meeting you could have taken a vote [terminating Hobbs’s contract] – that led to crisis. A single vote without input from the community. Please assure us that we will have a voice in what goes down.”
Sagal agreed that process – the policy, timing and procedures for contract renewals – should be, a part of the ongoing resolution talks.
Many who spoke cited figures from Hobbs’ letter regarding the dramatic academic improvement made by high school and middle school students since Hobbs’ hiring four years ago. One 2012 statistic ranked Ridgway fifth out of 327 high schools in Colorado for academic achievement. And, speakers pointed out, the four schools ahead of Ridgway were either private or charter schools.
Several teachers stood up in defense of Hobbs, despite expressing fear for their own jobs as the result of speaking out.
Social studies teacher Jason Gunning suggested that “differences in managerial style” were at the root of crisis. “Jim Bob Hobbs is one of the main reasons Ridgway Secondary School performs the way it does,” he said. “Where is the evidence that [his managerial style] isn’t working?”
“To the kids in the back,” Gunning said, addressing students in the back of the classroom, some of whom had come to deliver a petition supporting Hobbs, “this is what democracy looks like.”
Board President Jeff Synowic wanted it “absolutely clear that any teacher can come and speak out.”
To which board member Steve Larivee added: “No teacher need fear for their job. Come to the meetings and talk to us.”
Parent Kelly Reed, a school health aide and a parent, said she had received an “almost threatening” email from Superintendent Gomez cautioning against talking in school about the firing rumors.
Gomez clarified that she had been asked by the board to send that missive, and that both school policy and common sense dictate teachers and staff cannot discuss personal, or political, issues during “instructional time.”
Dean Skalla, a retired businessman and grandfather of RSS students, lectured the board about “learning from the business side. If you have two people who are incompatible and can’t work together, you don’t let it fester. You need to resolve this, and you need to do it now.”
To which Sagal replied: “Incompatible? I don’t give up that easily.”
There remained some suspicion in the audience that either Gomez or the board would proceed with a recommendation to terminate Hobbs’s contract.
“I don’t think any of us expect a recommendation at this point,” Sagal said.
“This will be resolved in the next couple of days,” promised Board President Synowic.
“What do you mean by ‘resolution?’’’ asked parent Kelly Lannan.
“Good question,” replied Sagal.