Heart Butte Superintendent permitted teachers with positive drug tests to continue employment

By: - Monday January 16, 2023 1:38 pm

Heart Butte Superintendent permitted teachers with positive drug tests to continue employment

By: - 1:38 pm

Sign for Heart Butte along Highway 89 on the Blackfeet Reservation. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Sign for Heart Butte along Highway 89 on the Blackfeet Reservation. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Heart Butte School District Superintendent Mike Tatsey acknowledged he allowed staff in the district to remain employed despite positive drug tests.

However, in a November interview, Tatsey said those who tested positive went to treatment and came back “completely fine.”

“We want to help people like that,” Tatsey said. “We want them to go get some help or treatment. If they test positive, maybe they have a prescription. That’s none of your business.” 

Tatsey declined to discuss the types of drugs found in the tests.

Jay Young Running Crane, a concerned parent and former law enforcement officer with close ties in the community, said he has direct knowledge of at least one staff member who tested positive for methamphetamines and remains employed.

The district has a zero-tolerance drug policy for staff, meaning any employee in the district with a verified positive controlled substance test result, a confirmed positive alcohol test result, or a refusal to test, may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including immediate termination. 

According to the policy available on the Montana School Board Association website, an employee could be found in violation even if a test was not conducted or if the test came back negative. 

Existing employees do have the opportunity, at the discretion of the district under the policy, to be sent to a Substance Abuse Professional under an Employee Assistance Program, at the employee’s expense, the policy says. A second offense, no matter the substance, results in termination. 

Employees terminated due to drug use also have the opportunity to return, following a report that they are fit to come back and furnish a negative test result. 

In November, the Daily Montanan requested copies of test results redacted to protect personal privacy. After follow-up requests, Tatsey said lawyers with the district would be in touch about the request. 

However, the district has yet to send the documents, excluding the names of employees, requested in November under the state’s right-to-know provisions.

In a telephone interview, Tatsey didn’t say the number of staff members who have retained their jobs, potentially against district policy, despite positive test results.

“I can guarantee you it ain’t very many that have (tested positive),” he said in November. 

In an emailed response to the Daily Montanan’s record request, Tatsey wrote about the employees that tested positive in light of confidentiality. 

“Since the positive numbers are so low, I need to make sure that I do not release info that can be tied to an employee,” Tatsey wrote. 

Last school year, Heart Butte K-12 School District had 225 students enrolled with a 10 to one student to teacher ratio.  Just over 85% of the district is economically disadvantaged, according to the Office of Public Instruction’s district overview

Heart Butte School Board member Christy Racine said the school board had requested the superintendent provide the board with test results but he had declined, citing confidentiality. . 

“We couldn’t see it,” she said the board was told. “Only he, the superintendent, gets to see it.” 

Lance Melton with the Montana School Boards Association, said Employee Assistance Programs are used in lots of industries where the goal is to try to get employees help. 

“I’m not aware of any circumstance where any teacher in Montana has been tested by their school district, found to be using drugs while at work, and has maintained their employment,” Melton said. 

Where and when the employee drug use took place is unclear. 

Young Running Crane, who has children in the district, said he believes the policy has been implemented at Tatsey’s will, letting some staff slide and punishing others with impunity. He said at least one person who has tested positive works in the classroom.

Tatsey did not provide information about what positions the staff who tested positive held.

Tatsey confirmed the district switched drug testing companies during his five-year tenure as superintendent. He declined to answer which company the district switched to. 

“That’s none of your business,” Tatsey said in the November interview. 

The contract with the new drug testing company was one of the records the Daily Montanan requested, but did not receive, from the district. Tatsey said in an emailed response to the initial request that the contracts could be sent the following day. However, that did not happen, and the district has not responded to subsequent requests for the records, most recently in an early January phone call.

There is no statewide drug policy for students or employees. However, drug testing falls under the purview of state collective bargaining laws. Federal drug testing policies apply to those licensed to drive school buses.   

Schools across Montana are facing a teacher shortage, in rural areas in particular, and especially coming out of the pandemic. 

“Even large school districts that might have been able to say that they had 20 to 30 highly qualified applicants for every opening that they had a decade ago, are in some cases now unable to find a qualified applicant or have a much smaller pool from which to pull,” Melton said. 

The hiring of teachers who are granted an emergency authorization by the state after administrators have exhausted all possibilities for hiring a licensed teacher, have increased  in recent years.

In 2018 there were 94 emergency authorized teachers in the state, increasing nearly 30 percent in 2022, according to the Office of Public Instruction. There were 173 emergency authorizations in 2021. 

Browning, just north of Heart Butte on the Blackfeet Reservation, reported eight emergency authorized teachers from the end of 2021 through 2022, according to a January OPI report. Heart Butte, which is on the reservation, was not listed in the report. 

The unemployment rate on the Blackfeet Reservation is at 6.4 percent, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from November of 2022. Statewide, the unemployment rate is 2.2 percent. 

However, Melton said the shortage has not to his knowledge impacted retention of teachers that would otherwise be unfit. 

Sources familiar say that the Heart Butte School Board will be holding a meeting Monday at 5 p.m., and will be reviewing Tatsey’s contract as superintendent, but notice of that topic or meeting could not be confirmed on the school’s website or with the district. 

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.