Kindergarten teacher Sue Ackerman. (Emily Files)

Kindergarten teacher Sue Ackerman at the beginning of the school year. (Emily Files)

A Haines School teacher says she wasn’t given a fair chance to keep her job for another year. Kindergarten teacher Sue Ackerman chose to bring her concern into public light with a non-retention hearing. At the Tuesday proceedings, representatives for Ackerman and the school district made their case to the school board. The board ultimately affirmed the school district’s non-retention decision.

Ackerman was a first-year teacher with a class of more than 20 Kindergarteners. She says, she had a hard time in the beginning of the school year, but she made improvements. Ackerman was gone on maternity leave from November until the beginning of January. Shortly after she returned, Assistant Principal Cheryl Stickler notified her that the district would not be offering her a contract for the upcoming school year.

“Just to be let go of so quickly, it was just something…I hadn’t thrown in the towel yet,” Ackerman said. “I wasn’t ready to give up.”

Attorney John Sedor represents the Haines School District. He referred to a recording of a January conversation between Stickler and Ackerman, which he said was made without Stickler’s knowledge. In it, he said Ackerman asked for more time to show her capability. Sedor recounted Stickler’s response.

“She says in that tape, ‘My job is not to guarantee employment. My job is not to take a teacher that is not successful, not performing to expectations, and guarantee that I’ll move them to a level that they’ll be successful. My job is to make decisions that are in the best interest of students,'” Sedor said. “And in doing that, she made the recommendation that Ms. Ackerman not be retained.”

Sedor said school districts have ‘virtually unlimited discretion’ as to whether to bring a non-tenured teacher back for the next year.

“This is simply a process by which the district says ‘thank you for your service but we are not going to give you a contract next year.'”

Sedor went on to list instances that the district gave as examples supporting Ackerman’s non-retention. They include Ackerman yelling at students, mishandling a lock-down drill and failing to timely implement the school’s discipline model. He also said she was given more support than any other teacher in terms of classroom aides, mentoring, and reducing her class size.

Ackerman’s union representative, Debbie Omstead called those examples arbitrary, capricious and false.

“We intend to show that the causes for the non-retention listed in the April 11 letter are not accurate, that numerous Alaska Statutes were violated, as well as regulations, that the board policies and bylaws were not followed and that the collective bargaining agreement was violated,” Omstead said.

She contended that the district did not follow proper evaluation procedures. She said Stickler’s first observation of Ackerman’s classroom was positive. She said there was not documentation of concerns about Ackerman’s teaching.

“In the first semester, there was only one document that said she’s meeting standards, she’s even being innovative. And nothing else was present at that time.”

Omstead said shortly after Ackerman returned from maternity leave, Stickler conducted back-to-back observations. Shortly after that, Ackerman was told she would not be retained.

“Clearly, there was an agenda here to get two observations done by the required time of the statute so the district could proceed with the non-retention process. However, that overlooks so many other evaluation requirements in statute.

Among the violations, Omstead said, was the fact that the district didn’t post evaluation forms and information on its website to inform teachers about those procedures.

Omstead said the reasons for Ackerman’s non-retention were trivial or not factual. And she called the district’s actions ‘cruel,’ because, she said, the Kindergarten teacher job was advertised before Ackerman received her letter of non-retention.

“It seems beyond cruel to me for a newly hired employee to contact Ms. Ackerman on March 4 and tell her that she was offered the job and she accepted it and she would like pictures of her classroom.”

In his closing statement, Sedor referred to Ackerman’s request for more time before the district made a final decision.

“You don’t have to accept performance down here,” Sedor said, indicating a low level with his hand. “You can say I want performance up here from the get-go. Not after two years, not after one year, not in April. You can expect that on day one – a certain level of performance. Ms. Ackerman didn’t provide that.”

“Non-retention hearings rarely happen because most teachers opt to resign,” Omstead said in her closing. “Had Ms. Ackerman been treated fairly, had the district followed the statues and board policy and the evaluation system, she would have. This did not happen and we feel administrators need to be held accountable.”

The five school board members present went into an executive session that lasted over an hour. Then, the board voted unanimously to affirm the non-retention decision.

“On January 15, Ms. Ackerman was given verbal notification by the administration that she was not going to be offered a contract for next year,” said School Board President Anne Marie Palmieri. “On Feb. 2, the regular meeting, the school board approved issuing contracts to tenured and non-tenured teachers. Ms. Ackerman was intentionally not included on this list. On May 10, at the regular meeting, the school board scheduled this non-retention meeting and ratified that the superintendent’s letter to Ms. Ackerman served as the board’s notice of non-retention under our board policies.”

Ackerman said that decision is what she expected. She said the unusual step of asking for a public hearing was worth it.

“I think this is just kind of the beginning of the journey for me,” she said. “I see that I will be a lifelong advocate for, especially for first-year teachers.”

Ackerman has also filed a complaint over her non-retention to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She said she is not sure about whether she will pursue further legal action.

Palmieri said the school board hasn’t yet discussed the concerns raised about the process the administration went through with Ackerman’s non-retention. She said the lessons learned from this situation will be ‘carried forward’ with the new superintendent.