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After five hours and 13 minutes in executive session, the Garretson School Board voted to terminate the contract of Chris Long, the middle school and high school principal and football coach, who has served the district for 13 years.
Long’s contract was terminated, effective immediately, on a motion made minutes after the board ended its executive session at 11:19 p.m. He was terminated “based upon a clear failure to follow, and violation of, the district’s policies and procedures,” according to the motion.
A hearing officer will prepare findings of facts and conclusions of law on Long’s case, and any further decisions will be approved and adopted by the board of education, board president Shannon Nordstrom explained with the motion.
Long’s teaching certificate may be in jeopardy with the decision, though it’s unclear what his offense was to cause his termination.
In a statement to the Argus Leader sent Thursday afternoon, Nordstrom said the board was presented exhibits, heard testimony and asked questions as part of the board's judicial capacity.
The decision came after hours of closed meetings in the Garretson school library, where the public couldn’t see the proceedings through glazed glass panes, and where double-glass doors leading into the library were covered with sheets of black construction paper.
Little indications came as to what was happening in the proceedings, other than Long and his attorney, David Kroon, and Superintendent Guy Johnson and the district’s attorney, Sam Kerr, stepping out into the administrative office for breaks and to let the board deliberate.
Nordstrom also explained at the start of the hearing, in a few minutes of public session, that hearing officer Rodney Freeman would act as legal counsel to the board for the purposes of this employee hearing.
“Speaking for myself, and I’m sure the rest of the board can nod along, but I know there’s a lot of concern about this issue. I can see it,” Nordstrom said at the start of the meeting. “It weighs heavy on us, too. We have to work through this and see where things end up. At this point, I think there’s a lot of different ideas and thoughts that everybody has. What we’re going to do tonight is going to be based on the evidence presented to us.”
Johnson, Long, Kroon and Kerr had left the building an hour before the board opened the meeting back up to the public and made the motion to fire Long.
As of Thursday morning, Long is still listed on the district’s website as a staff member, and his teaching certificate is still listed as active on Teacher 411, the Department of Education’s educator search tool.
Will we ever know why Long was fired?
Part of the district's reason for secrecy is that in South Dakota, personnel information other than salaries and routine directory information isn’t public. And neither are records developed or received by law enforcement agencies and other public bodies charged with investigating alleged crimes against people.
In a Feb. 3 letter to the district community, Johnson said the board and administration maintain a goal to keep stakeholders informed on matters impacting the district, but that statutes on privacy matters, school district policies and basic human decency limit what they can share.
"If an immediate concern for student safety were present, the district would inform parents immediately," Johnson said in the letter. "In this case, there are none."
With Long's certificate in jeopardy, the next chance to learn more may be if the state issues disciplinary action against his certification, unless Long himself speaks out.
The state only started making those disciplinary reports about teacher certifications public last summer, after inquiries by the Argus Leader about the state personnel privacy laws and the education department's releasable data.
Long did not make a comment about the situation Wednesday night.
Nordstrom's statement also does not explain Long's offenses that resulted in his termination. He said the district is now starting the process of hiring a new principal.
Community shows support for Chris Long
Still, dozens of Garretson residents showed up in support of Long, including his students, some alumni of the school, family members, friends and coworkers. Many of his supporters wore “Long Strong” shirts to show their solidarity.
Tana Clark, a Sioux Falls teacher and former Garretson School board member who circulated a petition in support of Long, said moments after Long’s contract was terminated that she was very disappointed in the decision, and said it was a “big blow to the school and community.”
Clark said she and other parents in Garretson were concerned that they weren’t immediately informed in mid-January that the principal was put on administrative leave; public knowledge of his leave was only provided by the district after a Garretson Gazette article went out questioning Long’s status in the school.
Shortly after, a letter had gone out from the district on Feb. 3, explaining that if an immediate concern for student safety were present, the district would inform parents immediately. But Johnson said “in this case, there are none.”
Students later protested Long’s absence in a sit-in at school, and at a basketball game on Feb. 4.
Clark said she respects that it’s a personnel matter and it needs to remain confidential, but that there needed to be more transparency throughout this lengthy process. She also questioned how the board has been guided on this issue from administration, and said there may not have been discussion at the school board level about the decision to put Long on leave.
“Mr. Long has been out of our school for five weeks,” she said. “He is an integral part of this school community. Kids depend on him. He has great relationships with many of the kids here, and they miss him. (Students’) emotional wellbeing hasn’t been addressed.”
Current, former Garretson students upset
Clark said her son, a junior in high school, is very upset over this issue as Long is his football coach and has played a huge role in his life, adding that some students are considering open enrolling into other districts if Long doesn’t come back.
Clark also said the community is not likely to support things like “opt outs” anymore, which benefits the school by putting more tax money towards its funding, because enough people are upset about this issue and frustrated with this process.
Matthew Gilbert, another junior at the high school, made a YouTube video in support of Long, who’s been his basketball and football coach. Gilbert said he’s known Long for years now and is good friends with Long’s son.
“(Long) always helps me become better at sports or school,” Gilbert said. “I really want him to stay because he’s been a great friend of mine for a long time and always actually cares about every student in school. He knows everyone on a personal level, so it makes school a lot better. He’s basically the glue that holds this school and the town together.”
Gilbert said if he could tell Long anything during the meeting, he would thank him for everything he’s done for the school and that he hopes he comes back soon and that he loves him.
After the board voted to fire Long, some exited the meeting in tears, and some of his family members hugged each other.
Rachel Kindt, a 2020 graduate of Garretson High School, said over the years she realized Long is a “cool guy,” and says he helped support her in her freshman year and has made a big difference in her life.
“My freshman year of basketball, I was playing on varsity and my coach was having me play with the starters,” Kindt said. “I had the worst practice of my life and I was standing in (the office) bawling my eyes out. He walked (over to me) and asked, ‘Rachel, what’s wrong?’ He put a hand on my shoulder and said it’s going to be alright, you’ve just got to keep going.”
Kindt said the community wants to keep Long around, wants him to be involved in the school and remain a spokesperson for the school.
Nordstrom said in his Thursday statement that Long has been part of a team involved in many very good things that are happening at the district.
"We do understand the bond that a principal and football coach forms with many and this is surely hard to understand for some," he said.
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Chris Long, Garretson principal and coach, fired Wednesday evening