The parent trap 

Is teacher Dawn Schmit too liberal for Bigfork?

On Thursday, May 19, Dawn Schmit will attempt to convince the Bigfork School Board to reinstate her as a Bigfork High School English and journalism teacher. At a May 4 meeting, the board voted unanimously not to renew Schmit’s contract, and Schmit, who has now filed a grievance with the district, thinks the board’s reasoning is transparent: “They don’t want me there because I’m too liberal.”

School Board member Scott Reichner acknowledges the board’s decision, but says it was made on the advice of the administration. Bigfork Principal Thom Peck claims the non-renewal “didn’t have anything to do with her political beliefs” and was “strictly about her performance.”

Bigfork School District Superinten-dent Russ Kinzer says he can’t discuss personnel issues, but he did weigh-in on one Schmit-related controversy. As part of her English classes’ daily writing exercises, Schmit asked students in October to write a journal entry on the following question: “What are your views on gay marriage and do you think the Legislature has the right to dictate who we marry? Why or why not?”

“I wasn’t espousing any kind of belief system on anyone,” says Schmit. “It was just a question.”

“To my knowledge,” Kinzer says, “we don’t have any area in our curriculum where that would be an appropriate discussion, unless it would be something like a current events issue. That’s not a topic that would be considered appropriate generally in our curriculum.”

But Bigfork High School, says Schmit, “has no teachers’ handbook whatsoever,” thus leaving it up to teachers to determine what is appropriate.

Schmit, 42, says she fielded complaints from parents after the assignment, just as she had after showing her class the 1989 Ron Howard comedy Parenthood, rated PG-13. Schmit, in her first year at Bigfork, had previously shown the film to her class in Great Falls—to facilitate conversation about family communication issues—without complaint, she says; she now feels showing it in Bigfork was a mistake. She also says she received a parental complaint after commenting in class on President Bush’s repetition of the phrase “It’s hard work” during the presidential debates.

“I’ve never said, ‘I’m a liberal’ in my classroom, but of course I have alluded to that fact,” Schmit says.

Though willing to admit some mistakes, Schmit maintains the journal assignment on gay marriage was a valid writing exercise.

According to staff evaluation documents signed by Principal Peck on Nov. 3, 2004, “Other than the movie selection, her materials and instructional methods were very good. She is learning that this is a small community with very traditional, conservative values and these factors must be considered when choosing material and teaching methods.”

Staff evaluation forms include various categories in which Peck could rank Schmit as either “Inadequate,” “Targeted for Improvement,” or “Professionally Proficient.” In November, Peck gave Schmit 18 “Professionally Proficients” and three “Targeted for Improvements.” In an evaluation dated April 18, 2005, Peck gives Schmit 15 “Professionally Proficients” and six “Targeted for Improvements.” Neither evaluation identifies Schmit as “Inadequate” in any area, but the evaluation states that a teacher with three or more “Targeted for Improvement” ratings “does not meet stated proficiencies.”

If those six “Targeted for Improvements” were the reason for her non-renewal, says Schmit, “Those were some very lame reasons.”

Mike Boshka, Bigfork English teacher and Schmit’s union representative, says non-tenured teachers have no protection in Montana, but that the Bigfork contract “has some more protective language in it.”

Though she may not have a job after school closes June 10, Schmit does have a loyal flock of students, several of whom plan to attend Thursday night’s School Board meeting. The Independent spoke with Schmit’s newspaper and English classes Monday, May 16, with the teacher out of the room, making it clear that student comments would be anonymous. Of approximately 25 students interviewed, only two expressed hopes that Schmit would not return. The students’ comments follow:

“I think her openness got her in trouble.”

“I think there are a lot of teachers here who should be fired more so than her.”

“She encourages you to think. It’s ‘think for yourself,’ not ‘think my way.’”

“Some other teachers are so ready to get out of here. She’s so fresh and new and fun.”

“It can’t be right to exclude people who don’t fit in, especially in high school. That’s the wrong message.”

“I’m on the Principal Advisory Committee and I’ve tried to bring this up several times and he [Principal Peck] just moves on.”

“I’m happy about it because I don’t like the journal questions. Bringing up gay people is just asking for trouble.”

“Bigfork as a whole is just like high school. The right parents complained and the ‘popular parents’ control Bigfork and the school.”

“I think Bigfork’s afraid of change.”

Boshka says the appeal process may include up to four steps, with the final being arbitration, but her filing of the grievance, Schmit says, is more a matter of principle than getting her job back.

Her situation “sends a message to the kids that women who speak their minds get punished and lose their voices in the community,” the teacher says. “That’s why I’m fighting this right now.”

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