Another complaint filed in Kiona-Benton School District

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 26, 2012 

— A complaint filed against a Kiona-Benton City School District teacher by school board member Jill Renz-Whitman and her ex-husband Lonnie Renz is the subject of one of the latest battles between the district and its teachers union.

Irene Schmick, who teaches at Kiona-Benton City High School, received a "letter of direction" in late September for reportedly intimidating and harassing one of Renz-Whitman's sons. An independent investigation later conducted by a third party hired by the district found that there was no intimidation or harassment.

Superintendent Rom Castilleja and Renz-Whitman said the letter to Schmick wasn't disciplinary and the school board has offered to withdraw it from the teacher's personnel file. Connie Meredith, president of the Kiona-Benton City Education Association, said that despite the letter's withdrawal, the district wants Schmick not to have contact with Renz-Whitman's son. She said the union hasn't yet decided how to respond to the district's offer.

It's not the first time Renz-Whitman or her family has been at the center of controversy in the district. The district has faced three different grievances about events involving her husband and one of her sons dating back to 2009.

And besides the recent incident with Schmick, a substitute teacher is saying she and another substitute were removed from duty in March in retaliation for disciplining another son of Renz-Whitman's. The district has not provided a reason for the teacher's dismissal but said it was for cause.

Renz-Whitman and her ex-husband declined to comment about the recent grievance, stating it still is under investigation. Renz-Whitman denied having a role in the dismissal of the substitute teachers this past spring and seeking any preferential treatment for her family in the district, saying she is dedicated to education and to children.

"I can lay my head down at night knowing I do what's best for kids because it's not easy," she said.

A confrontation? Or not?

The latest incident stems from a late August board meeting when Dakota Renz, a Ki-Be High senior, spoke during the meeting. Renz-Whitman told the Herald her son's comments were directed at the board and the teachers' union to start cooperating for the benefit of students.

During the meeting, Dakota Renz said, "We need to be proud of our schools. Students are performing; we do not need negativity but need to work together," according to the meeting minutes.

Schmick and Dakota Renz spoke to each other after the meeting, with Schmick expressing "disappointment" in the student's comments, according to investigative documents. That exchange resulted in the letter from Renz-Whitman and Lonnie Renz, saying Schmick had bullied and intimidated their son before.

"We would like all communication and contact with this teacher and our son to cease immediately. This would include in school and out of school. He is not in her classes and has no reason to need to converse with her or likewise," the letter read.

Renz-Whitman told the Herald that Schmick's comments amounted to her saying she was ashamed and disappointed in him and that she thought she had taught him better. She said she hasn't had a conversation with Schmick since the incident because of the tense environment.

"Is it asking too much (for someone) to have no contact with your son?" Renz-Whitman said.

Steve McGhan, a Benton City resident who said he was at the board meeting, said he saw the exchange between the student and teacher and said Schmick was confrontational, poking her finger into the student's chest. McGhan said there was nothing rude or insulting about what the Ki-Be senior said at the meeting.

"He's one of the most polite kids I've ever seen," said McGhan, who was suggested to the Herald as a witness of the incident by Renz-Whitman.

Schmick told the Herald she had only a brief conversation, saying she was sad and disappointed in what Renz said after he asked how she was.

"I think he looked hurt because he thought I was going to praise him," she said.

A district administrator spoke with witnesses about the incident after Renz-Whitman and her ex-husband filed their complaint, and Castilleja issued the "letter of direction" to Schmick.

"While this one incident does not necessarily constitute intimidation or harassment by legal definition, it does come perilously close to an 'oral statement' that 'is so severe ... that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment,' " Castilleja wrote. "... In short, stay away from him."

Union representatives demanded a more thorough investigation of the matter, saying Schmick wasn't provided due process. That investigation, conducted by Debra Mayo-Kelley of Kennewick-based DMK Labor Consulting, found testimony from witnesses that didn't support the district's original finding of possible harassment or intimidation.

One student, whose name wasn't provided, said Schmick's comments were out of place, according to investigative documents. Those same documents do not mention any physical contact between Dakota Renz and Schmick. Donna Johnson, another district parent, told the investigator that Dakota Renz was being "cocky and arrogant."

Schmick was not interviewed as part of the investigation, saying Mayo-Kelley is connected to Eric Nordlof, a consultant employed by the district on labor issues.

Mayo-Kelley noted Dakota Renz, whose name was redacted in a copy of the report provided to the Herald but was referred to as the son of Lonnie Renz and Renz-Whitman who made comments at the school board meeting, approached Schmick and initiated their conversation.

"I can reasonably conclude that the situation that occurred ... involving (Schmick) and Dakota Renz appears to have been nothing more than an exchange of differing opinions," Mayo-Kelley wrote in the Nov. 5 report.

Other grievances

Renz-Whitman and members of her family have been involved in other grievances filed against the district by two of the unions representing district employees.

Beginning in 2009, the district faced two grievances connected to Renz-Whitman's husband, Rob Whitman, a custodian employed by the district.

The first involved Whitman being given a preferred day shift position, despite a more senior-level employee requesting the same position. Public School Employees, the union representing the district's custodians has a contract with the district that indicated senior employees be given preference for open positions. An arbitrator ordered the district to provide the position to the senior employee.

A year later, the custodians' union filed another grievance after that senior employee and another custodian were fired for falsification of records. Union representatives said the firing was in retaliation for Whitman not being able to keep the preferred day shift. An arbitrator later ordered the district to rehire the employees, saying the district failed to prove its charges.

Renz-Whitman said she hasn't sought special treatment for her husband. She said he actually has been changed to different shifts frequently to avoid any sign of favoritism.

In November 2011, the district's teachers' union filed a grievance after Schmick was disciplined for questioning why her attendance records for some students, including one of Renz-Whitman's sons, were altered. The district later agreed to wipe the teacher's record of the reprimand, but the attendance records remain altered, Schmick told the Herald.

Renz-Whitman said her family experienced two sudden family tragedies that fall and her sons were struggling. She said she approached Schmick about helping one of her sons get through the difficult period but Schmick reportedly said that to provide that aid would be preferential treatment.

Schmick said Renz-Whitman asked via email for that more time be given to her son on assignments because of family matters. However, Schmick said she declined to get involved, as Renz-Whitman's email was copied to Castilleja and Ki-Be High Principal Wayne Barrett. Schmick said she recently had filed a complaint against Barrett.

"It felt intimidating," she said.

The incident led union representatives to ask Educational Service District 123 to investigate the district for "unprofessional conduct" as attendance records must be submitted to the state.

Officials with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction declined to investigate the case but said the details would be kept on file for possible future review, according to letters sent to ESD 123.

Substitute teacher Avone Williamson said she thinks her dismissal was a direct result of her disciplining another of Renz-Whitman's sons, sending him to the office along with other students during an unruly class. Another substitute, Vic Engelhart, who helped Williamson that day, also was dismissed.

Both have said the district has not told them why they were dismissed. The district has offered to settle their grievance for the dismissals for $2,000 apiece, but the teachers said they won't make a decision whether to accept until their questions are answered.

Castilleja said Renz-Whitman did not seek Williamson's or Engelhart's dismissals as a result of that incident. Renz-Whitman said she was bothered by what Engelhart and Williamson said to students in the classroom that day, referring to when Engelhart reportedly went around the room pointing out which students had been difficult with him in the past and which had been cooperative.

"Something happened in that classroom that I thought went way beyond normal," she said. However, she denied any involvement in the substitutes' dismissal.

Doing what's best for kids

Renz-Whitman was elected to the school board in 2009, having previously been appointed to fill a vacancy. However, she has moved out of her position's voting district and failed to secure the seat for her new voting district when it was up in 2011. She is allowed to finish out her current term, which will be up at the end of 2013.

Renz-Whitman said the grievances filed against the district in the past year are a sharp departure from when she was first appointed to the board.

"Things were very reasonable," she said.

She acknowledged the problems between the unions and the district and is "sorry the process isn't working." Renz-Whitman said her role on the board actually has diminished her ability to act as an advocate for her children.

"I have more rights if I'm a private citizen than if I'm a board member," she said.

However, she said that she still believes in the work she and the rest of the board is doing and "will do what is best for kids."

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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