Durango School District 9-R board members backed the actions of Superintendent Dan Snowberger after a 911 call was placed last month by staff at Needham Elementary School, but they say the district needs to improve its communication with the public and news media.
During a work session Thursday, board members acknowledged a number of problems emerged from the handling of the situation that have led to a perceived lack of trust in how Snowberger responded. And they acknowledged the response has created problems with the district’s relationship with the news media, specifically The Durango Herald.
“Yes, I think he (Snowberger) was being honest,” board member Mick Souder said when asked if Snowberger was open and honest in his dealings with the Herald, which had called seeking information about why police were called Oct. 19 to Needham Elementary School because the district’s spokeswoman, Julie Popp, was reportedly not allowed at Needham and was trespassing.
Souder added, “I think there were all sorts of things that went wrong with how this was handled, but yes, I think he was being very honest.”
Board President Nancy Stubbs said, “He tried,” when asked if Snowberger was honest and transparent about the police call. She said the incident exposed some problems in following district policies and holes in policies that will need to be addressed.
“It’s exposed some issues, and that’s why we are looking at procedures in light of what happened and what we are going to do about it moving forward. We’re always looking to improve,” she said.
Initially, Snowberger and Needham Principal Jennifer McKenna refused to discuss the incident when the Herald asked each for comment and even denied an incident took place.
The Herald provided Snowberger and McKenna with a call detail report from the Durango Police Department and an audio recording of the 911 call to police dispatch.
Then, on Sunday, Snowberger and McKenna, who initially requested a staff member make the 911 call, issued two separate letters in response to the incident.
In the letters, both Snowberger, to 9-R staff and parents, and McKenna, to Needham parents, acknowledged the incident took place.
McKenna wrote Sunday in her letter to parents of Needham students, “There was a call placed to law enforcement from Needham on October 19. I requested the call because I believed an officer could better communicate with a parent than I could.”
Snowberger said Nov. 5 he had “no clue” about the situation with Popp. On Nov. 15, he claimed the Herald was attempting to slander an individual “without evidence” and the action was “sad and despicable.”
In his letter on Sunday, Snowberger detailed the situation that took place at Needham.
“In our world of divisiveness, it is not uncommon for passions to create uncomfortable situations between parents and school staff,” he wrote.
Snowberger wrote that he withheld information about the incident, in part, because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Board member Stephanie Moran said of Snowberger’s response, “Given the information he had, yes, I think he was open and forthcoming. To the best of his ability, he was forthright, given the limited information he had.”
Board member Shere Byrd called the situation with Snowberger a “personnel matter” and declined further comment.
Board members began drafting a statement on the communication procedures and how they would be modified in light of the Needham incident.
“The board will discuss what can and will be done to clarify the current situation and how to move forward with communications among the board, community, media, parents, staff and students,” Stubbs said during the work session.
Board members, in examining the Oct. 19 incident, said procedures were largely followed except for identifying a parent, Popp, in the 911 call. Board members said parents’ identities should not be made public.
Stubbs and Moran declined to comment about the district denying the Herald access earlier this week to cover an address by a Forest Service helitack crew during a fire ecology class at Escalante Middle School.
Stubbs and Moran said they did not know if the denial of the request to cover the Forest Service crew’s session was made by Popp or at the direction of Snowberger.
“One of our goals is to re-establish trust and open communication with the Herald,” Stubbs said.