ST. REGIS – They absorbed some shots Wednesday night, but the five members of the beleaguered St. Regis School Board also heard strong words of support for their handling of the suspension of school principal Tammy Demien.
“I believe, trust and respect them enough to know they would not do anything to harm or to hurt our community. They have my loyalty,” said Nancy Smith, a social worker in Mineral County and one of 10 people who spoke during the public comment period early in the meeting.
Six of the 10 were critical of the board, most of them urging it to be more transparent about the status of Demien’s situation and to put a stop to “rumors and scuttlebutt with no substance,” as Virginia Turner put it.
“This is a small town. This is our school,” said Turner. “Our children, they hear things when they’re at home and their parents talk. Are they going to learn that this is the proper way to proceed in any kind of official – I don’t even know what to call it – it’s all nebulous. Very, very up in the sky.”
Others said they empathized with the position the board finds itself in, unable to comment on anything related to Demien’s case while it’s in litigation.
“If you come to the board meetings you learn a lot, you learn what these people are doing for our school,” said Gerry Gotcher. “We need to appreciate them and what they’re trying to do. I think they’ve abided by the law, crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i.’ We need to move on. Our kids have been hurt by this.”
Demien, a third-year principal at the school, was escorted from the school on her first day back in August and placed on paid administrative leave. The school board hired an investigator from the Montana School Boards Association in Helena to look into allegations that Demien didn’t take steps to address an inappropriate relationship between a student and a school employee.
A report handed down in November reportedly agreed with those findings, though neither the school, Demien nor the school boards association have released the findings.
Demien has filed a complaint and appeal against the board and first-year superintendent Janet Hanson for their handling of the matter.
John Cheesman began the comment period by reading aloud the text of a terse petition that decried the estimated $100,000 or more the district is paying Demien and the two teachers who are filling in for her.
The board’s Charlee Thompson ended the comment period by reading a long statement signed by all five board members.
“We understand that everyone in this room wants answers to the events that have happened,” the statement said. “We cannot at this time or any time in the future comment about those events. Montana state law has outlined this for us.”
It added that St. Regis is “one of the most fiscally responsible schools” in Montana. “The list is endless in how we try to conserve our money and direct it in the best possible ways, which is ensuring that our children have the best possible education.”
Cheesman, who finished a 27-year tenure on the St. Regis school board last spring, has been one of the main critics of the way Demien’s suspension has been handled by Hanson and the board. He said many people in St. Regis feared retribution by the school if they signed the petition.
“I think if you’ve got to be afraid of your school, you’re in big trouble,” he said.
Cheesman engaged in a heated exchange with board member Carol Young over, among other issues, the legal fees the district is paying in the Demien case.
“We are obligated by Montana law to proceed the way we do, so if someone has another alternative for us that’s not breaking the law, I‘m sure we’d be happy to hear it,” Young said at one point.
Demien wasn’t at the meeting but her husband Dan was. He said his wife “should have had the right to defend herself at some point in time, and maybe she will in the future.”
“I guess I take exception to the rule that somebody can come in and dismiss somebody that quickly without any kind of back and forth communication,” Dan Demien said. “I hope things go smoother in the future.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.