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February 17, 2011

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February 17, 2011

PHS vice-principal’s contract non-renewed without cause

By B.L. Azure

Polson High School Vice-Principal Shawn Hendrickson addressed the media after hearing that his contract would not be renewed. (B.L. Azure photo)
Polson High School Vice-Principal Shawn Hendrickson addressed the media after hearing that his contract would not be renewed. (B.L. Azure photo)

POLSON — Monday evening around 75 people plus the trustees and district administrative staff crammed into the Linderman Elementary School library for a highly-charged emotional agenda item: administrative contracts. In particular the “without cause” recommendation by the PHS administration and School District 23 Superintendent David Whitesell to not renew the contract of PHS Vice-Principal Shawn Hendrickson.

Several people, including parents, students, former students and colleagues of Hendrickson showed up and testified in support of retaining Hendrickson. No one testified in support of the without cause non-renewal of contract.

Hendrickson, a PHS graduate, has served as the PHS vice-principal since the 2009-2010 school year. Previously he has worked in administrative positions on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, the Lummi Indian Reservation in Bellingham, Washington, and in Lewiston, Idaho near the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. He served at the latter institution four years prior to moving back to Polson in 2009.

His professional goal: to eventually return to his alma mater, was achieved then. He had previously applied for the PHS vice-principal position twice, was interviewed twice and was offered the position twice before finally accepting it the third opportunity.

While serving as the PHS vice-principal, Hendrickson was encouraged by administration to apply for the high school principal position. However, he declined, expressing the desire to remain in the vice-principal position for the time being.

“I respectively told both of them (Superintendent David Whitesell and acting-Principal Bill Appleton) that I had 20 years until retirement, I want to retire in the district, and that I didn’t want to spend all 20 of those as principal of the high school,” Hendrickson said.

Consequently the Polson school board hired current high school principal, Rob Hankins, who on Jan. 26 informed Hendrickson that his contract would not be renewed for the 2011-2012 school year.

According to Hendrickson, when he queried for reasons Hankins told him that both he and Superintendent Dave C. Whitesell recommended non-renewal Hendrickson’s contract “without cause.”

Hendrickson asked Hankins to reconsider the decision but when Hankins approached Whitesell the next day about reconsidering the non-renewal decision of Hendrickson’s contract, he was rebuffed by Whitesell.

In a Jan. 31 meeting with Whitesell, Hendrickson said he was told that his “skill-set wasn’t a right fit for the district” and that he “was failing to see the full picture.”

Hendrickson offered to resolve the situation by, among other things, rectifying whatever was needed in order for him to remain on staff. However there were no remedies offered from Whitesell, who told Hendrickson that he was following Principal Hankin’s recommendation and would not change his mind. “Dave said, ‘I am following the recommendation of your principal. I have to support my principal,” Hendrickson said. “So you see where I’m at. I’ve got both people telling me it was the other’s decision, and no one can tell me what I have done wrong.”

That gray area of not knowing why he was being fired as well as a now uncharted future has weighed heavily on Hendrickson and his family’s emotions.

“The last three weeks have been the most trying times I’ve had in my life... I went from celebrating the birth of my second child the end of December and now this,” Hendrickson said in his address to the school board.

“At no time since I started working in the Polson School District, have I been reprimanded, written-up, disciplined, received any black marks on my record, or told I wasn’t performing the duties of my job,” Hendrickson said. “I’ve been given nothing but praise and good evaluations since I started. Now I’m being told I’m not right for Polson High School, and not worthy of keeping my position. What’s changed?”

Hendrickson said the only change has been the hiring of Hankins and increased working hours. “I have live up to every stipulation in my contract, with care, skill and diligence,” he said. “I challenge anyone to come up with an example in which I have failed to meet any obligation of my job.”

Polson School District 23 Board of Trustee Vernon Finley addresses the crowd at Monday night's school board meeting telling them what his options are when it comes to voting yea or nay to no renew the contract of Polson High School Vice-Principal Shawn Hendrickson. (B.L. Azure photo)
Polson School District 23 Board of Trustee Vernon Finley addresses the crowd at Monday night's school board meeting telling them what his options are when it comes to voting yea or nay to no renew the contract of Polson High School Vice-Principal Shawn Hendrickson. (B.L. Azure photo)

One of the obligations of the job, Hendrickson said, is the implementation of the Indian Education For All Act and its Montana Constitution mandate. Hendrickson is a descent member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

At PHS he established the district-wide Indian Education For All committee, the Celebration of Families Powwow committee, the Native American history class, and, among other things, is the advisor of the PHS Indian Club. He also sits on all but one high school committees.

“Mr. Hendrickson came into this position with outstanding reviews from all of his past positions. He was interviewed and offered this position twice. His reviews from his first year in Polson were as outstanding as his reviews were in previous positions,” Alan Mikkelsen, conflict resolution consultant, told the school board. “He is a Native American administrator in a school on the Flathead Indian Reservation. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience in dealing with both Native American and other students. Every single review and evaluation of Mr. Hendrickson has been outstandingly positive his entire career, including his first year review here in Polson. So what has changed? Why would you, as a school board, want to lose this experience, this commitment to your community, this role model for your students, both Indian and non-Indian.”

Several PHS students spoke in favor of retaining Hendrickson.

“I know I can count on him to help me do my best in the classroom,” said one American Indian student, adding that he treats everyone the same, regardless of race. However, race or lack of racial diversity within the educational process in Polson and other Montana school districts does play a part in the academic achievement of Indian students. “We know what it is like to go to school and never see a positive role model. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us.”

“I am at a loss, I don’t understand how you can let someone go like this without cause,” said one Polson woman. “Shawn has helped bring this community together.”

“Everything in Polson High School has improved since Shawn came,” said another student. “His door is always open. He is someone I look up to, the majority of the students look up to him like no other in administration.”

“This is politics,” said Julian Many Hides, father of PHS student. “We shouldn’t have to shame you to keep this gentleman here.”

“It’s time that we have role models like Shawn in the classroom,” said Lois Friedlander, PHS student parent. “If anything we need more Shawns here.”

“My daughter says ‘Shawn is cool’ and she can relate to him,” said Chris McDonald. “The kids look up to him and see how far he has come. Yet you guys can sit there and say, ‘We can destroy your life - for no reason.’”

Trustee Vernon Finley was the only member of the school board to address the audience prior to casting of votes. Throughout the entire hearing the board members and administration members at the dais rarely raised their heads to make eye contact with folks testifying or the audience. He said the recommendation to dismiss Hendrickson without cause came from the administration - Polson School District Superintendent David Whitesell. That “without cause” means the administration doesn’t feel that a person can perform the job...”

Finley said he was the board member who initially recommended the hiring of Hendrickson.

“In the past the administration has been a very difficult place to work,” When you have a divided administrative team, who loses? The students. Who wins? The lawyers.” Finley said. “The whole thing for me is, are we going back to that: a divided administration.”

Finley said that there were many people in the community as well as high school students and staff that were not in favor of retaining Hendrickson.

“I’m not at the school all the time but I have received emails and phone messages about this. The opposition (to Hendrickson) doesn’t show up at these type of meetings but the supporters do,” Finley said. “With all this in mind, what do you do? I am in a position here where I have to vote to keep the administration united or not. That is what it boils down to.”

Shortly after the trustees voted 6-1 to follow the non-renewal without cause recommendation of Hankins and Whitesell.

Sobs and disgruntled disbelief filled the air immediately after the vote was cast. The overwhelming majority of the attendees left the room bewildered by what they had just witnessed, especially the “without cause” nature of the non-renewal of the apparently popular vice-principal.

“I appreciate the community support and that of the students and staff of Polson High School. I will always bleed purple and gold,” Hendrickson said following the decision of the school board. “I was hoping the school board would see the good side of everything I done here. I am disappointed with the action and under legal advice that is all I have to say.”

Hendrickson said he would continue to do his job with students’ needs paramount until the end of the school year.

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