Superintendent surprised by board member’s resignation; “Chris is a fighter”

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SJSD Superintendent Dr. Robert Newhart

SJSD Superintendent
Dr. Robert Newhart

St. Joseph School District Superintendent Dr. Robert Newhart says the resignation of school board member Chris Danford on Thursday took him by surprise.

“It blind-sided me,” Newhart said during a media availability Thursday afternoon in his office.  “Yeah, it blind-sided me.”

“Chris is a fighter, she’s a worker.  Obviously she has her reasons that I’m completely unaware of.”

Danford issued a terse resignation letter to Dr. Newhart and the board president Thursday that read simply “This letter is to inform you of my resignation from the SJSD school board effective immediately.”

Danford issued a news release to the media that offered a list of specific problems, ranging from students who can’t read and declining test scores to improper use of the home-schooling option for problem students, which she said inflates the district’s graduation rate.

Newhart took issue with that.

“There were some issues there at the alternative school, in regards to home school students,” Newhart said.  “We have put a control on that in place.  We’re well on our way to some improvements at the alternative school,” he said.

Newhart says the finance and HR departments are well on their way to being accountable, prudent and successful, and he says Danford was instrumental in that process.

In her news release, Danford also complained about “tumbling test scores.”  She said the district’s focus recently shifted “from the trenches to administrators,” and our schools “became fodder for doctoral research programs.”

“Local students performed above the state average before 2005 and since that time test scores have continued to descend below the state average,” Danford said.  “The 16th largest school district in the state slipping into the bottom half, sometimes the bottom third, is completely unacceptable.”

Newhart responded by saying the district has stabilized test scores.

“Is there room for improvement?,” he asked.  “Oh you bet, you bet.  Have we seen growth?  Yes we have. And it’s continued growth that we’ve got to see.””

“We’re not about test scores.  We’re about daily instruction and improvement.  That has got to be your foundation and base.”

Danford complained that the investigative report on retaliation against whistle-blower and former CFO Beau Musser will remain private, because the board voted to keep it that way.  Newhart says he can’t simply release it without board approval.  He said he agrees with that, personally, because investigators offered confidentiality in some interviews, and releasing the report would violate that agreement.

Danford called the district’s community engagement effort a “tax marketing strategy.”  Newhart said that’s not inaccurate, that anything they do will be a marketing effort.

Dr. Newhart says the district must move forward.  They will formally accept the resignation during the board meeting February 27 and then begin the process of filling the vacant seat.

“There will be an open application process,” Newhart said.  “They’ll set the framework for the open application process. And then they’ll name somebody through that process, select somebody after interviews, etc, for the remainder of her term through November of 2018.”

“Chris was the watchdog,” Newhart said.  “That’s going to have to fall to others now, because we need that piece.  The arena needs to be in the boardroom.”