Powell school board censures member

POWELL — Following years of friction, the Park County School District 1 Board of Trustees publicly rebuked one of its members last month. Citing what they described as numerous and repeated violations of board policies, Trustee Don Hansen’s six colleagues on the board voted unanimously to censure him on Dec. 21. 

School Board Chairman Trace Paul referenced a series of events dating back to mid-2019 that he said included Hansen refusing to explain a poor evaluation he gave of the district’s superintendent; speaking negatively about the district and its leaders in public settings; being overheard using inappropriate language during a Zoom meeting; and missing many of the board’s meetings since June. 

“Certainly, this is not a knee-jerk reaction to anything recent,” Paul said. “It’s been built up, I think, over the years. Certainly, it’s not been without the board’s attempt to cooperate and to find common ground where we can, to be able to work as a single board.” 

The trustees said censuring Hansen was not something they wanted to do. They met with Hansen in closed door executive sessions and sent him a pair of letters — at one point warning the trustee he could be subject to criminal penalties for not obeying the board’s rules — to try resolving the issues out of the public eye. The board members also asked Hansen to resign ahead of their Dec. 21 meeting. 

“It saddens me, but it’s time,” Trustee Greg Borcher said before the vote to censure Hansen. “This is our only way to let the public know what we’ve been dealing with over the last few years.” 

In an interview, Hansen countered that his fellow trustees are “hiding behind closed doors and they’re not telling the public everything that happened.” 

Hansen said he’s being targeted by the other trustees because he is vocal and asks a lot of questions. 

“It is like sitting in a room with guns pointed at me,” he said. “That’s what it’s like; I fear for my life.” 

Hansen attended the beginning of the Dec. 21 meeting — his first appearance at a board function since early September — that included a closed door executive session in which he and the board apparently discussed the concerns. When the trustees returned to the meeting room about 15 minutes later, Hansen left, announcing he had to leave because of medical issues. The board then amended the agenda to include a vote to censure him. 

Hansen has dealt with multiple health problems over the years, which he said have led to the absences at board meetings and events. After suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Hansen underwent a double-lung transplant in late 2018, shortly after he won another term on the board. 

Hansen said the recovery from the transplant has been emotionally and physically difficult, compounded by skin cancer and other health issues. COVID-19 has also complicated the situation, as the immunosuppressants Hansen must take for his transplant leave him particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

“The recovery process of a transplant is sometimes day-today and hour-to-hour,” he said. “It’s very complicated and ongoing.”

Hansen said he feels that he hasn’t been supported by the other board members and that they don’t understand what he’s going through.

“They just don’t act like they care,” Hansen said. 

As an example, Hansen said he demanded that his fellow trustees wear masks at board meetings, but was told he couldn’t make that demand. 

Hansen’s seat at the board’s desk has been separated from the nearest trustee by a plastic barrier and at the Dec. 21 meeting, he opted to sit a few feet away from the desk as well.

Hansen has the option of participating in meetings remotely — something he did for a time — but he said there’s been computer problems and “you just don’t get the same thing.” 

Going forward, Hansen expects his health problems will continue to cause him to miss board meetings and trainings, but he said he will not resign. 

“I may miss a lot — a lot of meetings in the next year here,” Hansen said. “Maybe that’s not right for my constituents, but I do not want them [the other trustees] to handpick a board member. The people of this community should pick ...” 

A censure is the most serious action the board can take against one of its members, but the action does not remove Hansen from the unpaid position or in any way prevent him from continuing his duties as a trustee. He’s currently in the midst of his second term, which runs through the end of 2022. 

Tension between Hansen and other members of the board has been on public display for years — he’s been the lone dissenter on a number of votes, including opposing pay raises for district employees — but things were more contentious behind the scenes. The situation apparently came to a head in June 2019, as the board evaluated Superintendent Jay Curtis. Hansen marked Curtis’s performance as unsatisfactory, but did not explain why, even when pressed by the board, according to a letter the trustees later wrote to Hansen. 

“Your only explanation was that you were rushed and didn’t have time you need to do your evaluation,” the board wrote. 

The six other trustees also took issue with Hansen failing to attend professional training events and accused him of being preoccupied with other things during board meetings and illprepared for their discussions. Included in the letter was a long list of policy violations, such as those requiring board members to “value the operational procedures for meetings” and “make every reasonable effort to protect the integrity and the positive image of the district and one another.” 

The trustees suggested Hansen consider resigning if he wasn’t willing to put in the time required to serve on the board. 

“... being a partial member of a school board is unfair to the school children you represent, unfair to the voters that elected you and unfair to the other school members,” they wrote in 2019. “In addition it is against the law.” 

The letter went as far as to suggest that Hansen was committing a criminal offense by violating the policies; it referenced a Wyoming law that says any school board member who “willfully fails, refuses, or neglects to perform any duty” required by state statute can face up to 30 days in jail and a $100 fine. 

“It is not the intention of the board of trustees to file any charges against you, merely point out that it is a violation of state law to not follow the policies and guidelines established by the Board of Trustees,” they wrote. “We ask that you immediately come into compliance with our board policies …” 

They specifically asked him to clarify his reasoning for the negative evaluation of Curtis, fully communicate with the board, attend conferences and to arrive for all Park County School District 1 board meetings with “a congenial attitude,” fully prepared, fully engaged and ready to build “goodwill and trust with your fellow board members.” 

However, the relationship did not improve over the past two years. In a Sept. 7 executive session, board members say they confronted Hansen for “actions which were in direct violation of board policy.” 

Hansen didn’t attend any meetings after that, leading to the Dec. 7 letter. In the message, Paul, Borcher and Trustees Tracy Morris, Lillian Brazelton, Kim Dillivan and Laura Riley asserted that Hansen violated six different sections of the board’s Leadership Governance Policies and three sections of guidelines of the board’s handbook in 2021. The violations ranged from hindering the board to a policy that bars trustees from publicly expressing negative judgments about the board, staff or the superintendent. 

The trustees asked for Hansen’s immediate resignation. 

“If you are not able to be an active and constructive participant at our board meetings due to personal or health reasons, we would ask that you resign so that we can find a replacement who will be involved and participate on the board,” the trustees wrote, requesting he do so by the Dec. 21 meeting, “to avoid censure and the potential embarrassment it could cause toward you.” 

When Hansen chose not to resign, the board censured him. 

At the meeting, Paul read the letters to Hansen aloud and gave a few specific examples of conduct. He highlighted Hansen’s failure to fully evaluate Superintendent Curtis’ performance, calling that one of the board’s most important duties, given Curtis is the only person who answers directly to the board. (For his part, Hansen said the evaluation was his own opinion and that the board didn’t want to hear what he had to say.) 

Paul also said Hansen spoke negatively about the district and its leaders in a fall gathering of area school board members at Northwest College. The people Hansen spoke with “stated that the conversation was very unprofessional and very out of line for a trustee to speak that way about their own district,” Paul said. 

Hansen said the critical remarks were about principals and other school administrators texting and using their phones while attending board meetings; Hansen said his complaint was that the PCSD1 board did nothing about the issue. 

“They got all these rules that they don’t want to follow,” Hansen said of his fellow trustees. Chairman Paul also mentioned a Northwest Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) Zoom meeting, in which Hansen was overheard using “very vulgar language” when he thought no one else was on the call. 

Hansen acknowledged the incident — “I got some potty mouth and sometimes I say things I shouldn’t,” he said — saying he made a comment to his wife when he thought his mic was off; the remark related to the sale of a bus, Hansen said, as he thought the school district should have received a dramatically higher price for the vehicle. 

Speaking generally of the vote to censure him, Hansen said, “Where’d my freedom of speech go?” 

“I didn’t give that up when I got elected to the board,” he said. “In fact, I got elected to the board probably because I am not afraid to talk.”

In his remarks at the meeting, Chairman Paul said it’s good for the board to have a diversity of backgrounds and ideas and that the body doesn’t have to agree or vote the same way. “But we have a set of policies that we have all voted on and agreed to follow.” 

“In all my years on the board, I never thought that we would ever sit in a situation where we’re talking about censuring a fellow board member — and we’ve gone through some pretty tough moments,” Paul said later, adding “This is stuff that I really wish I would never ever have to come to this situation.” 

Brazelton said the decision “wasn’t made lightly, at all.” 

“... It’s essentially our public statement of disapproval with this trustee, and for the public to know and for voters to know,” said Vice Chairman Dillivan, who will serve as the board’s chairman in 2022. 

Also at the meeting, apparently in response to Hansen’s actions, the board updated its policies to say that, if a board member feels the superintendent is not meeting expectations or only meeting expectations some of the time, that rating “MUST be accompanied by constructive feedback, or that item will be excluded from the overall performance rating.” The board’s leadership governance was also updated to say that trustees “are expected to faithfully attend and participate in all scheduled meetings of the Board.” 

Hansen isn’t sure about his next steps, but “I will not resign,” he said.