Northern Cheyenne Tribal school teachers told they will be fired

By Matt Volz
Helena, Montana (AP) June 2010

Nearly a third of the teachers at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School in southeastern Montana have been told they will be fired at the end of the school year, the latest development in a rancorous months-long feud over the school’s first-year superintendent and principal.

The dispute has already resulted in the dissolution of the tribe’s school board, a case filed in the tribe’s constitutional court and the resignation of a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council.

Some teachers believe the recent move is in retaliation for complaints filed against school superintendent Elberta Monroe. The complaints included allegations that she has acted capriciously as superintendent, treated teachers with disrespect and created a hostile work environment.

“It appears to me to be retaliatory against many of the people (who disagreed with Monroe),” said Jill Mogen, who believes she is losing her job for being friendly with staff who filed a grievance in January. “It’s almost like she’s firing anybody who is fairly intelligent and who will speak up for themselves and the children.”

Monroe did not return multiple calls by The Associated Press for comment.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribal School on the remote eastern edge of the Northern Cheyenne’s 442,000-acre reservation is one of two tribal-controlled K-12 schools operating in Montana.

Nearly all of the school’s two dozen teachers received letters during May that their contracts were not being renewed and they would have to reapply for their jobs, according to a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern that chances of keeping her job would be jeopardized.

Fourteen of those teachers have either been rehired or have been told by Monroe that they can reapply for their jobs, while seven have been told not to bother, according to the teacher. At least five of those who were rehired are first-year teachers who began under Monroe’s tenure, the teacher said.

Mogen and another teacher, Alvera Lone Elk-Cook, were told not to reapply for their jobs. They wrote letters appealing to the tribal council and said separately they never received evaluations. Lone Elk-Cook wrote she believes she is being punished for being in a group of teachers who filed a grievance against Monroe.

Robert D. Bailey, a former tribal council member who resigned during May over the school dispute, said he has issues with Monroe’s performance as an administrator, but the decision to send teachers letters was made by the successor to the disbanded school board.

That ad hoc board acted on May 10 with recommendations from Monroe, but Bailey said he does not believe the superintendent was motivated by vengeance.

“There was a group of teachers that didn’t approve of the professionalism of the superintendent. As a tribal council member, it appeared that it was personal and it was, in a way, a (conspiracy) to try to get the superintendent ousted from her job,” Bailey said. “I’ve never seen any retaliation.”

Bailey said the decision was made in a May 10 council meeting to send letters to all the school’s teachers informing them they would have to reapply for their jobs. A contract would be automatically offered depending on that teacher’s evaluation, Bailey recounted.

Bailey said he suggested waiting until the next meeting to take up the matter so that more information could be gathered, but he then walked out of the meeting because he felt disrespected by the other board members. He only learned the next day that the board had taken action. He later resigned from the council.

He said he believes the ad hoc school board is acting in the school’s best interests, but the board needs to explain to the community why the teachers’ contracts had not been renewed.

Bailey, who wrote Monroe a letter of welcome when she was hired in August, now said the superintendent must resign for the good of the school. “They need to take a look at her performance as an administrative leader and the confidence the staff and students and community have in her,” he said.

The elected school board heard the teachers’ grievance and in February ordered Monroe fired. But the tribal council put that decision on hold to review it, Bailey said. When the school board met again that month and ordered Monroe’s termination for a second time, the council dissolved the board.

The council created an ad hoc committee made up of council members to take the place of the school board.

Mogen said morale at the school has deteriorated with the pending court case and the uncertainty that the contract dispute has bred. She said she has accepted that she won’t return next school year, but she feels sorry for those fired teachers who provided their families’ main source of income.

“A lot of those people are the sole breadwinners for their families. My heart breaks for them. I can turn around and walk away, but most of them can’t,” Mogen said.