Written by John Plestina
Poplar’s embattled school superintendent responded to controversy that has plagued her at least since the beginning of this year.
Dr. Kim Harding, who has held the school district’s top post for about eight months, denied allegations against her that include racism, which apparently contributed to a vote by the Fort Peck Tribes Executive Board earlier this month to banish her from the reservation.
“I have received no document stating such a thing,” Harding told The Herald-News Monday, May 4.
Tribal officials say the executive board voted 9-1 Monday, April 27, to banish Harding from the reservation.
“From talking to some of the teachers, she has this demeanor of being arrogant,” executive board member Stacey Summers said.
She said it is her understanding that Harding has bullied teachers.
“There’s a lot of internal things,” Summers said. “I feel that from the complaints that I’ve heard, she wants to micro manage. There are certified teachers that want to do their jobs and work with the kids,” she said.
“Many of us on the board want to stand by our Native American teachers and the kids,” Summers said. “There seems to always be something with her.”
Summers said children need a safe learning environment.
Harding’s difficulties appear to have begun in January when the school district advertised to fill a principal’s position. The executive board wanted a local person to fill the position but several teachers who were working toward advanced degrees had not yet finished their college work. Several of those teachers will meet qualifications to become administrators at the end of the current school year.
Greg Gourneau was a Poplar teacher at the beginning of this year and has since accepted the principal position at Frontier School.
Harding was accused of referring to several Poplar teachers as “renegades” in an email dated March 6. The email referenced a meeting held March 4.
Harding has been taken to task because of historical uses of the word “renegade” that are considered offensive by Native Americans.
A Poplar teacher publicized the email from Harding on March 11.
Harding told The Herald-News that the email was portrayed in the press [not in The Herald-News] as racist in nature and described situations that had been happening at staff meetings.
“I absolutely wish I had never used the word renegade. I come from Ronan [on the Flathead Reservation]. We raised our family there and have our ranch there,” Harding said.
“I said I would apologize to the people who were affected by the comment and I did,” she said.
The executive board passed a motion in committee urging the school board to fire Harding about two weeks after the email became public.
About a month later, the executive board voted 9-1 Monday, April 27, to banish Harding from the reservation, citing a hostile work environment for teachers and negative impacts on education. Rick Kirn cast the sole dissenting vote.
Harding also provided this newspaper with a written statement where she said she had been “informed by the elementary principals just after her hiring, that due to frequent turnover in administration, some teachers would naturally remain on the fringe of group process.”
Harding said she facilitated group discussion of common core and instructional strategies at meetings. Harding said in one meeting she asked the staff to gather around five tables and voice their dream for the middle school.
“In most meetings, those on the fringe were invited to join in the group process. This fringe behavior is non-conventional, neither positive, nor negative. Webster’s Dictionary word for this behavior is renegade. The teacher was asked to refrain from involving herself in the continued struggle of the team building process. Rather than comply with this directive, she released the email to the public, creating the false impression that the superintendent had engaged in some form of racism,” Harding wrote in the prepared statement.
Harding further wrote, “I have not harassed anyone. An independent investigator hired by the district to investigate a teacher’s harassment complaint against me found no evidence of any harassment, bullying or intimidation.”
Harding said there have also been allegations of nepotism and marital discrimination related to the Poplar School District.
She provided a prepared statement from school district attorney Michael Dahlem saying that awarding a contract to the spouse of a school employee does not constitute nepotism. He also wrote that awarding a school construction contract to the lowest responsible bidder does not constitute an appointment to a position of trust and that a decision to enter into a contract may only be made by the trustees.
Dahlem wrote that it is unlawful for a school district trustee to have any financial interest, directly or indirectly, in any contract made by the trustee or the full board while acting in that official capacity or be employed in any capacity by the trustee’s own school district.
He included in his written statement that the prohibition would only apply to a relative of a school board member and that the “award of a contract to the spouse of the superintendent does not violate this provision.”
Banishment only applies to tribal trust land, not to state lands, including roads and schools. The Comprehensive Code of Justice states that a person may be banished for behaviors that threaten life, health or safety of Indian people living on the reservation and people who have committed three convictions of violent crimes may be banished. Banishment has been used for drug and sex offenders. Tribal law allows for banishment for the manufacture or sale of methamphetamine.
Written by John Plestina
The Poplar man who police say caused the death of a 15-year-old girl when a pickup truck he was driving broke through the ice on the Missouri River nearly five months ago has pleaded guilty.
Wyatt Cameron Montclair, 20, pleaded guilty in late April to a single count of involuntary manslaughter in U.S. District Court in Great Falls. A federal grand jury had indicted him.
According to the Fort Peck Tribes Department of Law and Justice, the Ford pickup traveled about three-quarters of a mile on the river that was not completely frozen before breaking through the ice about five miles south of Poplar and beginning to sink Dec. 17, 2014.
Jessica Keiser of Poplar was one of four teens –– three females and one male –– who were inside the pickup with Montclair.
They all managed to get out of the truck. Montclair and three of the teens made their way safely to the shore. Keiser was swept away by the current and remained missing for more than four months.
Divers were unable to locate her in December.
FPTDLJ supervisory criminal investigator Ken Trottier told The Herald-News that two fisherman on the river west of Fort Kipp Friday, April 24, observed what appeared to be a body in the water and called 911. The FPTDLJ and MHP responded and recovered Keiser’s remains 1 to 1½ hours later. Trottier said she has been positively identified. An autopsy was completed and does not change charges against Montclair.
Keiser’s remains were recovered a few days after Montclair pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with her death.
The FPTDLJ arrested Montclair in December on a U.S. Marshal’s warrant. He was on pre-sentence release for a burglary conviction at the time the pickup went into the river. Montclair was initially charged in Fort Peck Tribal Court with manslaughter and driving under the influence. He was transferred to federal custody in the Cascade County Regional Jail.
Trottier told The Herald-News in December that Montclair’s blood-alcohol level was 0.197, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 at which a person is considered legally intoxicated.
The potential maximum penalties are eight years incarceration, a $250,000 and three years supervised release. According to the charging documents, federal law allows for 10 years imprisonment to run consecutive to prison time for any other offense if the crime occurred while on release.
Under the plea agreement, the government recommends that Montclair’s offense level be decreased by two levels for acceptance of responsibility and will move for an additional single level. It was not clear what his sentence could be.
Written by John Plestina
Round two of collective bargaining mediation ended in a stalemate over health insurance Thursday, April 30, between the Wolf Point School District and the Wolf Point Educational Support Staff Association, which represents non-certified school staff.
The second mediation meeting was likely the last attempt to settle stalled union negotiations before a new school board is seated Monday, May 11.
It is likely that an arbitrator, who unlike a mediator who brings recommendations and proposals to each side, would have authority to make decisions.
Superintendent Joe Paine said arbitration could cost up to $3,500 per day, which the school district would split with the union.
The WPESSA represents classified school district employees that include non-certified aides, cafeteria workers and other non-teaching staff.
The WPESSA requested intervention by a state mediator because of continuing stalemates over employee health insurance and wages.
The Wolf Point Education Association, which represents teachers, also has not settled with the school district on insurance and other issues. WPEA has not participated in mediation.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry assigned Max Hallfrisch of Great Falls, a former Teamsters Union business representative and executive board member for about a 35-year period, to mediate the impasse in Wolf Point. Hallfrisch is a member of the Department of Labor and Industry’s Board of Personnel Appeals.
The first round of mediation ended in a deadlock one week earlier.
The cost to the district of the WPESSA proposal would be $627,750 per year, according to information Paine provided.
The school district is offering to pay $937.50 per month, per employee, for health insurance coverage. That would leave employees with families having to pick up part of the cost.
The WPESSA is asking for the district to pay $1,356 per month for every employee to purchase whatever coverage they wish.
Neither side has wavered on the $418.50 difference during three months of ongoing negotiations, the last two meetings with the mediator.
The district has agreed to a $220,000 increase to the budget that includes insurance and a district-proposed 1 percent pay increase for certified staff and 25 cents per hour for non-certified employees that have been employed 12 months or longer.
Paine gave Hallfrisch the results of a survey he conducted of health insurance costs of 10 eastern Montana school districts and seven private and governmental employers in Wolf Point. The average employer health insurance contribution by school districts is $754.50 with only one district paying more than $937.40 and contributions by the seven local employers averaging $593.
“So we feel the $937.50 is well above the average. So maybe they’ll see that we’re offering a good deal,” Paine said.
Hallfrisch presented Paine’s survey to representatives of the WPESSA.
“We’d love to offer $1,356,” school trustee Brent Nygard said and added that the district cannot afford that much and that it could result in teaching jobs being cut.
“If they’re not willing to budge on insurance money, I’m not willing to budge,” he said.
“I don’t think any of us want to see our name on $1,356 and see this district go crashing down,” Paine said.
He cited the need to replace the gym floor, bleachers and ceiling in the high school gym, high school parking lot repaving and other facilities maintenance needs, and that voters have not approved levies to fund improvements.
“If they are willing to put their salaries and their health insurance in front of the facilities and the children; the money is not there,” Paine said.
Hallfrisch brought a counter proposal to district negotiators from the WPESSA that offered some compromise on wage issues but did not settle the stalemate over insurance.
Nygard said insurance concerns need to be settled before any other issues.
Paine said he agreed.
Paine, however, did not give up all hope for a settlement without arbitration.
“If everyone gives a little bit, I think we can get there,” he said.
Written by John Plestina
The former Wolf Point High School teacher and athletic director who was slated to return to become district superintendent turned down an offered contract Wednesday, April 29, two days after he interviewed, leaving the school district with a probable third round of advertising, applicant screenings and interviews.
Jim Baldwin, originally from Culbertson and currently of St. John, Wash., was the top finalist among the three people interviewed.
Monte Silk, the second choice among the applicants, withdrew from consideration.
With the entire school board being up for election this week and only one incumbent seeking another term, it is unlikely that any action would be taken until after the new school board is sworn in Monday, May 11.
The school district worked with Kerri Langoni of the Montana School Board Association to attract and screen applicants for the two unsuccessful attempts to fill the position.
It remains unknown if the new school board will work with the MSBA or advertise at the district level for applicants.
The school district wants a new superintendent to be in place July 1.
Current superintendent Joe Paine leaves June 30 for a new position in Grenora, N.D.
The first round of applications resulted in invitations to interview extended to two top applicants in March. Both withdrew from consideration. School trustees then voted 4-0 during a special meeting March 30, to re-open the position for 10 days to again attempt to find finalists to invite for interviews, with the alternative available of hiring an interim superintendent. The result was interviews April 27 with Baldwin, Silk and one other candidate.
Written by John Plestina
The Montana Supreme Court handed down a 4-3, 68-page decision, Tuesday, May 5, rejecting former Poplar resident Barry Beach’s petition be re-sentenced for his conviction of a 1979 beating death, a crime Beach denies any guilt for.
Beach’s attorneys filed the petition in October 2014 and Montana’s highest court heard oral arguments on Feb. 4.
Beach sought relief from a 100-year prison sentence he had received in 1984 for the 1979 murder of Kimberly Nees, a Poplar High School classmate.
His attorneys argued that Beach, now 53, was 17 years old when the murder occurred 36 years ago and that a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision created limits on life sentences given to juveniles.
The high court, however, ruled that the 2012 federal Supreme Court decision could not be applied to cases prior to 2012.
While the Supreme Court petition failed to garner a new sentencing and Beach has tried unsuccessfully twice for clemency before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole, including in 2014, his possible freedom might have been legislated in the halls of the Montana State Capital earlier this year with the passage of House Bill 43 that Gov. Steve Bullock signed into law, granting him and future governors final authority in clemency decisions.
The new law that will take effect Oct. 15, will grant the Montana governor clemency powers similar to those held by a majority of governors and allow the governor to release state prisoners, even if the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole previously denied clemency applications.
Currently, Montana’s Board of Pardons and Parole is one of only eight in the nation that have the final say on clemency petitions.
Bullock wrote to that board in April 2014, while a clemency application was pending for Beach, saying he believed Beach deserved an opportunity for rehabilitation outside of prison.
Beach has never wavered on his assertion of innocence. His conviction in 17th District Court in Glasgow was based on Beach confessing to the crime following an interrogation by investigators from a Louisiana sheriff’s office. He has maintained that the confession was coerced with aggressive tactics.
Other people have claimed responsibility for the murder and some said they witnessed people other than Beach killing Nees.