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Sonya sacked in spite of support

Kelley Cox Post Independent
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Against the pleas of more than 300 people who turned out in support of suspended Glenwood Springs Elementary School Principal Sonya Hemmen, the school board voted 3-0 Wednesday night to not renew Hemmen’s contract for the 2011-12 school year.

Hemmen, the principal at GSES for eight years and a Roaring Fork School District Re-1 employee for 11 years, is to remain on paid administrative leave through this school year.

“This is a very difficult decision, and I’ve listened carefully to all of what you’ve had to say,” Re-1 board member Myles Rovig said in addressing the crowd after a more-than two-hour long meeting.



The meeting included two separate private counsels between the school board, district administration and their attorney, Brent Case, during which the public was not allowed.

“This is not a good situation in which to make this decision, but my overwhelming desire is to accept [Re-1 Superintendent Judy Haptonstall’s] recommendation,” Rovig said.



All three school board members who were present for the meeting, Rovig, Bob Johnson and Bill Lamont, supported the recommendation. Board members Debbie Bruell and Richard Stettner were not able to make the meeting.

After the decision, several of those gathered were suggesting a recall against the school board members and were calling for Haptonstall’s resignation.

Haptonstall placed Hemmen on paid suspension after school on March 22, three days before spring break and in the middle of state student assessments.

Hemmen said no specific reason was given for the suspension, other than what she described in a prepared statement at Wednesday’s meeting as a difference of opinion about leadership style.

“I was told in so many words that my leadership style may be offensive to the superintendent and some teachers, and that the superintendent was going to conduct an investigation into whether the teachers feel intimidated by me,” Hemmen told the school board. “I was baffled.”

Haptonstall said she provided an opportunity for Hemmen to discuss the matter. However, only a brief meeting occurred the Friday before spring break in which Haptonstall said a final decision was still pending.

School board members offered assurances that Hemmen had not done anything illegal or inappropriate that might jeopardize the safety of students.

The school district’s attorney advised the crowd at the Wednesday meeting that personnel matters are generally not discussed in public, in order to protect the rights of the employee and others involved.

However, Hemmen had asked that any discussions about her suspension and employment status be discussed in open session, as allowed by state law.

“I have asked since the moment of my suspension for this entire process to be made transparent,” said Hemmen, who asked that the decision on her contract renewal and status for the remainder of this year be postponed.

One of Hemmen’s two attorneys, Ira Karet, said after the meeting that the school board could be asked to reconsider its decision.

“Or, she could decide to take it to court and say that they didn’t follow proper procedures and that it was an unfair hearing,” Karet said.

However, there is a difference between an employment termination and a non-renewal of contract.

“In-between, putting her on suspension with pay and telling her she’s forbidden to go to the school gives the impression that she’s done something terribly wrong,” Karet said. “And we’ve been told that wasn’t the case.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of parents, students of all ages, a few district employees and other community members packed the meeting room for the special session.

One after one they said Hemmen is one of the best, most hands-on principals GSES has known and urged the board not to fire her.

“We just moved here three months ago, and chose Glenwood Elementary over other schools,” said one GSES student, Christopher Deaton, who was there with his parents. “She told us at lunch one day that she wanted to try to come to one of our baseball games. I never pictured any of our other principals ever doing that.”

Former Glenwood Springs High School principal Mike Wells said it was his recommendation that brought Hemmen to the school district as an assistant principal at GSHS 11 years ago.

“Her strengths are so enormous and so unique, and no one else in our administration team has them,” Wells said. “Sonya is also totally bilingual, and the only principal I know who has actually made a connection to the Latino community. That is sorely needed if we’re going to meet the goals this district has set.”

GSES has a Latino student population of more than 50 percent. Although the crowd gathered Wednesday night was primarily Anglo, a handful of Latino parents and their children were there as well.

After the meeting, GSES parent Don Kaufman, who is also providing legal representation for Hemmen, said voters have a right to recall school board members. But he warned that it’s an expensive process.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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