Litchfield Board Extends Hearing For LHS Principal

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After meeting for more than five hours, mostly in closed session, members of the Litchfield School Board have extended a pre-termination hearing for Litchfield High School Principal Doug Hoster, who has been on administrative leave since Sept. 13.

The hearing was part of the regular monthly school board meeting, held Thursday, Oct. 13, in the Litchfield Middle School gym with a crowd of nearly 100, including a large contingent from the Litchfield Education Association (teachers' union) and more than a dozen students.

With all board members present, as well as two attorneys for the school district, the board met in open session for 45 minutes before adjourning into closed session, where they met until the meeting cap of 11 p.m. The board returned to open session briefly when they voted unanimously to return to closed session to discuss several personnel items, per board policy.

Board President Jennifer Reid said they would not be taking action on any items about the administrator, citing an extension to the hearing, which will be held tonight, Monday, Oct. 22, in the Litchfield Middle School gym, beginning at 6 p.m.

"In an attempt to be fair, we are going to reconvene Monday," Reid told the crowd of about 30, who remained until 11 p.m.

LHS Principal Doug Hoster has been on administrative leave since Sept. 13, when he was walked off school property by district personnel amid allegations of misconduct. He is currently on unpaid leave and maintains the allegations against him have been "embellished."

Before going into closed session for the hearing, the board conducted its regular monthly business.

Three local residents filled out forms to address the board during the public input portion, including two parents and one LHS student. Reid reminded the audience that comments should be brief, no longer than five minutes, and should show respect and civility to others, as per board policy.

First to speak was parent Joyce Towner. She expressed her displeasure at the way the Better Days Scholarship was distributed this spring. Towner said that she had been following the school's announcements online and learned about an upcoming deadline mid-May, and her son was one of "very few" to apply for the scholarship. She said he was elated to learn on graduation night that he was chosen as a recipient.

She added that in talking to other parents, she learned their students had also received a Better Days Scholarship, although they had not applied for it.

"My son said that takes all the prestige out of it," Towner said.

She said she contacted Principal Hoster, who told her since the scholarship funds were so late in coming to the district, the scholarship was divided up among the recipients of the Fogleman Scholarship.

"I'm not begrudging other students, but there were rules about what needed to be done," Towner said.  She said that in hindsight, she felt Principal Hoster had always just told her what she wanted to hear.  

She said she felt he and guidance counselor Brenda Elvers worked together to hand-pick students to receive scholarships.

"My question for you, is how can we expect young people to improve if we don't hold adults accountable," she said in closing.

Next to speak was parent Valerie Belusko. She talked about several educational studies she read that have focused on the importance of stability in schools and classes.

"More students will do better in school if there is stability," she said. "They need a safe and predictable place to learn."

Belusko said she found the amount of employees leaving the Litchfield district in the past few years to be alarming, and that the board would be considering  a raise for administrators during that meeting.

"There must be a better place that this district can utilize money then on administrator salary," Belusko said. "Please consider using this money to improve stability within this district. This could be used on additional teacher training, boosting teacher moral or spending the money directly on the student needs. Giving raises to the administrators will do nothing to directly help the students and teachers improve stability and morale. Think carefully about how you're spending the taxpayers' dollars."

The final speaker was LHS senior Alexis Gibson, who talked about the environment of learning at the high school.

"It's important to us to have relationships with our teachers," she told the board. "That's how they reach us. But teachers feel they cannot build those relationships with us right now because they will have a target on their back."

Gibson alleged to the board that Superintendent Debbie Poffinbarger had sent half a dozen students to talk to a lawyer, never telling them it was a lawyer or getting permission from their parents. Gibson added that those student statements were then shown to others, including a student who filed a report against Principal Hoster.

"Mr. Hoster is an amazing principal," she said. "If I had a concern I would feel comfortable discussing it with him. To lose him would be not only a loss to you, but to the students and teachers."

Other Business

During the consent agenda, the board approved the update to the monthly volunteer list. They also approved monthly bills of $408,881, including $338,794 from the education fund, $39,880 from the operations and maintenance fund, $16,960 from the transportation fund and $13,247 from the tort fund.

Board member Gregg Hires asked about a $3,561 from Neuhaus, and Poffinbarger said it was for a problem with the HVAC at the middle school. Hires asked if the work was bid out, as he thought they had a maintenance contract with Johnson Controls. Poffinbarger said the two companies work together on maintaining HVAC at the middle school.

In her treasurer's report, Poffinbarger reported a balance of all funds as $7.4 million as of Sept. 30, which includes $4.9 million in the operating funds and $806,730 in the capital projects fund.

Hires noted the district currently has $1.4 million in its capital projects fund, and said he felt it was important that the board look at the vision of where it is going with these funds, which come from a county-wide 1 percent sales tax that is split among all four county school districts.

"I think we should look at it like a piggybank, and save it to do something big," he said.

Poffinbarger said they would convene the building committee soon, as she wanted to discuss some HVAC issues in several buildings.

Old Business

The only item under old business was a second reading of an update to the district's volunteer policy. It would make a change to accept school volunteers by Sept. 15 and March 15 of each school year, and no volunteers would be "grandfathered" in anymore.

Poffinbarger said it's a new process they would roll out with a March 15 deadline for volunteers to submit their paperwork and background check. She said they would work hard to provide this information to parents and other volunteers.

Hires said he was concerned some parents might not check packets sent home with students and might miss deadlines. He also asked how many volunteers the district currently has, and administrative assistant Kris Adamson said around 100.

He encouraged the district to put the volunteer applications online to make it easier for parents, and Reid said they had also discussed including it with registration packets at the start of the school year.

The policy would pass unanimously.

New Business

Under new business, the board unanimously approved the annual audit report from Scheffel Boyle. Sarah Smith was on hand from the firm to make a presentation.

She said the district received a clean opinion, and got the rank of financial review, which is one away from the very top ranking given.

This year's audit was unusual, she noted, because the district received more funding than usual from the state, as it worked to catch up on its bills. In some cases, they received five or six quarterly payments, instead of the usual four, which skewed the audit some.  She said in switching from general state aid to evidence-based funding, the district should see more reliable funding from the state.

Smith noted that she tried to show how the numbers would look in a normal year, where they received regular state payments. Last year, the district showed a loss of $128,000, which is better than the year before, which showed a loss of $900,000.

In a few final notes, Smith said there were no problems with the audit or the numbers the district provides to the firm.

Board member Julie Abel asked Smith about the activity accounts, and if the district had enough controls over the inflows and outflows. Smith said activity accounts are one of the riskiest ones for school districts as they can be used for so many things. She said the audit did not find any problem with the way the activity accounts were managed, and encouraged the district to remember that activity accounts are to be used solely for the benefit of students.

Abel asked if the district should look into investing any of the funds from the activity accounts, and Smith said she wasn't sure of the legality of that.

Abel also asked if the firm looked at IT controls, in terms of cybersecurity needs, and Smith said they do not look at that.

In a final question, Abel asked about the district not being at low risk financially, and Smith said the only way for the district to be low risk is to do an accrual-based audit as opposed to a cash-based one.

Both Abel and Poffinbarger thanked the district's business manager, Della Witter,for her hard work in preparing the numbers for the audit.

Information Items

Poffinbarger reminded the board that their November meeting will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 13, as the board will be in Chicago on Thursday of that week for the school board convention.

She added that she received FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests from HBO Real Sports on numbers of student participation in sports as well as a request from Dawn Morris about an employee.

Poffinbarger had high praise for high school teacher Susan Shelton, who helped to redevelop the science curriculum. In October, students in her high school science classes hosted first grade students on a field trip to do experiments, and it was a huge success.

In a final note, Poffinbarger expressed her thanks to the district for the support they provided to the Pezold family, as visitation for Layton Pezold was held at the school.

"The staff was simply amazing, and my heart goes out to their family," she said.

Personnel

Following closed session, the board unanimously accepted several personnel items, including accepting the resignation of Brett Holliday as building and grounds and transportation director.

They also approved the maternity leave of high school physical education teacher Brittany Eckhoff, a letter of intent to retire from middle school Spanish teacher Rob Corso at the end of the 2022-2023 school year, approved Jennifer Fleming as Litchfield Middle School Student Council sponsor, hired Cecelia Bloome for the Make-It program and Coy Davidson as the high school assistant wrestling coach. Board member Valerie Cain abstained from the vote on Fleming.

No action was taken on hiring high school athletic directors.

The board approved a pay increase for this school year for administrators Adam Favre, an elementary school principal, and Jennifer Thompson, principal at Litchfield Middle School. They also approved a job description for teachers.

The board will meet again tonight, Monday, Oct. 22, at 6 p.m. in the Litchfield Middle School gym to continue to pre-termination hearing of Hoster.

Action expected following the closed session includes consider recommendation to hire high school athletic directors, consider recommendation to hire high school junior varsity girls basketball coach, consider recommendation of volunteers to the high school wrestling program, possibly consider approving a resolution to discipline an administrator, up to and including termination of the adminstrator's employment contract and possibly consider accepting the resignation of an administrator.

The meeting is open to the public, however, the pre-termination  hearing will be held in closed session.

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