By Crystal Hayduk
The Chelsea School District (CSD) Board of Education’s vote on the compensation modification of Superintendent Julie Helber’s three-year contract, which was originally approved in March and effective July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2024, was tabled at the start of its virtual meeting on Sept. 13 until the regular board meeting on Oct. 11.
The motion to read and discuss the contract, but table the vote, was made by Jason Eyster and seconded by Tammy Lehman. With trustee Laura Bush absent during the vote due to delayed arrival, the motion passed five to one. Board President Kristin van Reesema cast the no vote.
During discussion of the tabled action item, van Reesema explained the process of the superintendent’s evaluation. “We do an annual review of the superintendent and we do that collectively as a group,” she said, at which point the contracts are extended.
Helber approached van Reesema and board vice-president Shawn Quilter with a request for additional compensation well before the July 1 contract term. “However, due to a lot of other work that the board was doing in the spring, we decided to delay that conversation,” said van Reesema, also noting that by policy, the compensation conversation needs to be public.
Addressing the concern of some community members regarding a potential conflict of interest because board member Laura Bush’s husband is a district employee, van Reesema said the board determined there is no conflict because Brad Bush works for Principal Mike Kapolka and not Helber.
The superintendent’s evaluation is a combination of professional practice, student growth, and progress toward meeting district-wide goals. Van Reesema explained that student growth makes up 40 percent of the evaluation. At Helber’s last review, she was found fully effective (not highly effective). “We do recognize that there are continuing opportunities for growth,” she said.
Other evaluation results include the board’s appraisal that Helber “provides professional and caring leadership; and through a year of extraordinary circumstances, [she] continues to be a collaborative leader who makes decisions that are reasonable and focused on achieving the goals outlined by the portrait of a graduate.”
Helber requested a five-year contract; however, the board offered a three-year contract. The contract was reviewed by the district’s legal counsel, who assisted with modifications.
Extra compensation related to bond work is due to the extra time required to meet with contractors, staff, and stakeholders; which is above and beyond usual superintendent duty. In addition to typical annuity language, the contract contains retention incentive, which saves the district the time, effort, and cost involved in hiring a new superintendent.
“Dr. Helber has the ability to retire, and we are very fortunate to have had her for the last five years when the average duration of a superintendent is around three years,” said van Reesema.
The termination language was adjusted with assistance by legal counsel to match the language in the teachers’ contracts.
Board members had the opportunity to discuss the contract terms and ask questions. Trustee Keri Poulter, who said she was uncomfortable with the timing since the evaluation occurred in March, suggested tabling any compensation changes until the 2022 evaluation—even though it was van Reesema who had delayed the discussion due to prioritization of other board work.
Eyster questioned whether additional bond work should be assigned to someone else. Helber said the work is a team effort and other administrators also receive additional compensation; being able to complete the work internally saves the district money from contracting it out.
Quilter said the compensation package is reasonable and comparable to what other superintendents receive in similar districts.
Trustee Eric Wilkinson asked if the compensation is fixed for the contract’s length; van Reesema confirmed that there would be no further changes to the terms.
During the opportunity for public input, community members addressing the contract issue thanked the board for their decision to table the contract vote, urged the district to make academics a priority, suggested paying district staff more, and stated that Bush should recuse herself from the compensation vote due to conflict of interest.
The superintendent and board plan to comprehensively review the data from the most recent student testing at the work session on Sept. 27.
In the meantime, Helber provided an assessment update. “This year in particular, the results were really what we expected and on par with what we’re seeing across the state,” she said, due to multiple factors impacting student performance on tests.
Testing was not mandatory due to the pandemic, but CSD participated to obtain helpful information for planning accelerated learning, said Helber. Statewide, 60-70% of students took the tests; county-wide, only 40-50% of students took them.
However, 85-89% of students in Chelsea took the tests. Therefore, Helber cautioned against making comparisons with other districts, but instead to look at student data within the district.
At the work session, the board will look at NWEA data in combination with M-Step and PSAT scores, along with classroom performance at a “micro-level” to assess how students are doing.
Information is available to the public at www.mischooldata.org.
The recorded meeting can be viewed at https://meetings.boardbook.org/Public/Agenda/911?meeting=485747.