"I'm just happy to be going back to work on Oct. 31," said Litchfield High School Principal Doug Hoster, who was unanimously reinstated following a seven and a half hour meeting of the Litchfield School Board on Monday evening, Oct. 22.
Hoster had been on administrative leave since Sept. 13, amid allegations of misconduct, and has always maintained the allegations against him were embellished. He has been on unpaid leave since Sept. 18.
About 40 people remained in the Litchfield Middle School gym early Tuesday morning to hear the board's decision, and many in the crowd cheered when the decision to reinstate Hoster was read.
Following nearly three hours of closed deliberations and more than three hours of testimony in a closed hearing, all seven board members voted to approve a disciplinary measure, based on their findings that Hoster had engaged in conduct that violated Board Policy 7:20, which prohibits sexual harassment of students.
As part of the disciplinary action, Hoster will be suspended without pay for 30 days, from Sept. 18 through Oct. 30, provide a written apology directed toward the affected students, will be issued a written reprimand in his personnel file and be required to complete in-person sexual harassment training at his own cost.
Monday's meeting was a continuation of a pre-termination hearing for Hoster, which began during the regular monthly meeting of the Litchfield School Board on Oct. 18. That night, the board heard more than four hours of testimony before adjourning to Monday night's meeting.
On Monday, the board met again and heard from six local residents during the public input portion of the meeting for 25 minutes. They adjourned into closed session for 45 minutes to discuss other personnel matters, and returned to open session to approve those.
Among those items, the board hired Victoria Knoche and Drew Logan to complete the 2018-2019 school year as high school athletic directors. These positions will be re-evaluated at the conclusion of the school year.
They also approved the hire of Michaela Bergschneider as high school junior varsity girls basketball coach and Mitchell Carter and Gage Agers as volunteer high school wrestling coaches.
After approval of those items, the board would return to closed session for more than three hours of testimony. They returned to open session at 10:30 p.m., as they are required by board policy to return to open session before 11 p.m. during a meeting. The board unanimously voted to return to closed session for deliberations, and met for nearly three more hours.
By 1:20 a.m. on Tuesday morning, they returned to open session to announce their decision to those who remained in attendance.
At the start of the meeting, there were more than 80 in attendance, including many teachers in the Litchfield Education Association and a dozen or so students. A handful of high school students were among the 40 who remained until the end of the meeting to hear the decision.
Those who spoke during the public input portion included Mark Bloome, Stacy Lamb, Denise Bader, Laura Bender, Tina Borror and John Billick.
Bloome said he came to the board to speak on the character of Hoster, who he encountered while dealing with an issue with his son. In the end, Bloome said the two were able to communicate and come to an understanding.
"Now, we have nothing but praise for him," Bloome told the board. "The termination of him would be a poor thing for LHS."
Stacy Lamb had many questions for the board, and although board policy prohibits the board from addressing the questions during public input, she said she posed them so she could convey her thoughts to the board.
Lamb would ask the board if the allegations involved an isolated incident or if there were other complaints in Hoster's personnel file.
"I'm scratching my head because I cannot possibly fathom that we would dismiss a school administrator from their position, escort them from the premises and publicly embarrass them, simply based on one incident," she said. "At least I would like to think we wouldn't do that unless we were headhunting that person."
In closing, she encouraged the board to be fair and compassionate in its discussion of the matter.
Denise Bader, who spoke at a previous special meeting on Oct. 3, said she found it refreshing that so many people were joining the dialogue in the matter.
"All schools have rules, and people shouldn't be intimidated to speak up," she said. "I spoke about my personal experience with bullying the last time. You have to speak what you know. Don't listen to the rumors."
Laura Bender said she hadn't planned to address the board, but while she was attending Homecoming festivities at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston over the weekend, she was alarmed by the number of people who asked what was going on in the Litchfield district.
"I don't know Mr. Hoster, but I know our teachers," Bender said. "What I read in the paper is alarming."
She encouraged the administration not to micro-manage its employees and let them do their jobs.
"I have no kids in the district anymore," Bender said. "But you need to put trust in your teachers and your administrators. I don't know what happened, but I think you all need to think very hard about this or we may not be able to get quality teachers or quality administrators to come to this district."
Tina Borror said she is a single mother of five, and noted that one of her sons struggled quite a bit in high school.
"If it wasn't for Mr. Hoster, I don't know what would have happened," she said. "Now, not only will my son graduate with As and Bs, he's going to go to college. That wouldn't have happened without Doug. He put so much effort into my son."
The final speaker was John Billick, who questioned how much the current school district administration had spent in legal fees this year, as compared to other administrations.
"All of this has to cost money," he told the board. "Probably more than this school district wants to spend. But the kids are the ones who suffer."
He said he would appreciate knowing how much has been spent in legal fees, and Board President Jennifer Reid said they would accommodate his request.
"We're not trying to hide anything," she said.
The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Litchfield School Board will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 13, beginning at 6 p.m. in the Radius Room at Litchfield High School.