USD 475 BOE votes to renew contract of JCHS instructor

JCHS teacher Joel Garver speaks on his own behalf during a meeting of the USD 475 Board of Education Monday during public comments.

It started with a livestream, according to Junction City High School teacher Joel Garver. 

He had recently started his position as Audio Visual Communications teacher (a duty that includes teaching broadcast journalism) at JCHS and felt the journalism program at JCHS wasn’t up to scratch. The Audio Visual Communications program, he said, focused solely on livestreaming school functions such as home games and similar school-wide events, something Garver said didn’t prepare students for real-world journalism. This year — his second working in Unified School District 475 — he decided he wanted to make some changes to his curriculum, to teach the students what he felt they needed to know to enter the field of broadcast journalism. 

Garver said he wished to start a weekly or twice-weekly program for the video production students, where they would report on the news they wished to report on through a show they would design and produce themselves. For example, this year the class covered the March for Our Lives event March 14 at JCHS — something they chose to cover, he said. Garver also suggested an in-school print shop, which would allow students to practice graphic design and could be used by the entire school if needed.

“I tried to create more student opportunity,” he said. 

According to Garver, his ideas were met with an extraordinary amount of resistance from two administrators at the school who he said he preferred to refrain from naming at this time.

He said he was told explicitly by one of these two administrators in a meeting this September that if he didn’t sign an extra duty stipend, there was a high likelihood he wouldn’t have his contract renewed for this coming school year.

This is a breach of contract in and of itself, according to Garver, who said his contract doesn’t allow for required extra duty opportunities.

He said since that day in September, he has faced harassment and bullying behavior from the administrators involved.

“There’s just been a number of different things, from administrators coming in and taking equipment, or they actually hired the teacher that I replaced to come back and do a livestream — he’s actually on contract with the school to come back and do things that will take away from my students being able to experience the livestreaming aspect — when I did change the direction of the program is wasn’t with the intent of completely eliminating it. It was to shift focus away,” he said. 

He said his wife, Kelsey, who also teaches at JCHS, seemed to face some repercussions as well in the wake of her husband’s refusal to sign the extra duty stipend. 

“There have been occasions where administrators have reached out to her directly in terms of putting time off in and things like that, that were completely unrelated to anything — they weren’t warranted by any past experience, nothing — no previous reprimands or anything like that,” Garver said. “So the reach of our administrators right now is just pretty unlimited and I feel as if I’m an example of what happens when you fight back and you stand up.”

District officials were unable to comment because it was a personnel matter.

His wife, who gave birth to their first child days ago, is one of four Family and Consumer Sciences teachers at JCHS.

This all culminated, Garver said, in a March 15 notice of non-renewal from the district. He said he was offered the opportunity to resign by district officials, but refused because he believed it would indicate he felt he wasn’t competent to teach the class, which he said isn’t the case.

The USD 475 Board of Education heard from Garver as well as several of his students and two state officials — Executive Director of the Journalism Education Association (JEA) Kelly Glasscock and President-Elect of Kansas Scholastic Press Association (KSPA) Kristy Nyp — during its Monday night meeting. 

Glasscock read a letter from the JEA, in favor of Garver keeping his position at JCHS.

Glasscock cited the Kansas Student Publications Act, which has been in place for about 25 years and which indicates student editors must legally have the chance to determine the news, advertising, and opinions contained in student publications. 

“In attempting to control the content produced by students in (Garver’s) class, you may very well violate state law and infringe on the students’ ability to learn from the process of selecting and crafting coverage,” he said. 

Nyp also read a letter from her organization on Garver’s behalf, saying the suggested changes to the curriculum would benefit JCHS journalism students. 

“His emphasis on journalism complies completely with the state’s career and technical education standards,” she said. 

Nyp said Garver’s changes to the curriculum would teach students how to analyze problems in order to solve them, write stories succinctly and accurately, and to think critically, among other things. 

“Asking students to plan and execute a journalistic broadcast program undoubtedly emphasizes these skills in ways that teaching students only to livestream events could not possibly accomplish,” she said. “By not renewing his contract, the board would also signal that it’s discouraging student civic engagement.”

According to a recent study by Peter Bobkowski of the University of Kansas, which Nyp and Glasscock both cited, students are more likely to become civically involved if they have a chance to take part in journalism programs such as the one Garver has recommended. 

JCHS student Emmalyn Porter was one of those who spoke on her teacher’s behalf, saying she felt her teacher’s classes offered her real world experience in her chosen career path.

Jensen Porter, also one of Garver’s students, spoke as well. He agreed with previous speakers that Garver’s teaching offered something students such as himself needed — something more than they would receive from a book. 

“Strong teachers don’t always teach content — Google has content,” he said.

JCHS student Jacob Lindsey spoke about his experience with Garver’s video production class and working on the student news broadcast, which occurs twice a week.

“He allows us to express ourselves in the way we would like to,” he said. 

Lindsey spoke about covering news items that interest him and his fellow students — things happening at JCHS, in the community, and in the national news. He spoke about covering the March for Our Lives rally, where students gained experience doing interviews and editing video, among other things.

After hearing these public comments, the board recessed into executive session. After emerging from the executive session, board members voted six to one in favor of renewing Garver’s contract. Member LaDonna Junghans was the only vote against Garver.

She said she voted against the renewal of his contract because she believes the administrators had their say and the evaluations had been completed. 

“I believe the board is here to set policy and procedures ... I don’t feel like it’s my position to determine who stays as a teacher and who does not,” Junghans said.

The district hasn’t offered any reason for notice of non-renewal, Garver said. 

Garver has been with the district for about two years, so legally in the state of Kansas the district isn’t obligated to offer a reason. According to BOE Vice President Tom Brungardt, a teacher must be employed by the district at least three years before a reason must be offered for a recommendation of non-renewal. The board is unable to speak about any reason why the contract was in question in the first place.

Glasscock said he believed the decision was an attempt to control the content of student publications. 

“I think they have an idea of how they want things done or what they want done and that’s really not how a journalism program legally is run in Kansas,” Glasscock said. 

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