Heart Butte Superintendent placed on administrative leave

By: - September 15, 2023 12:29 pm

Mike Tatsey, left, superintendent of Heart Butte Schools leaves at Feather Woman Healing Lodge, where he serves as an administrator, as Roy Crawford, director of the Blackfeet Department of Family Services looks on. (Photo by Rion Sanders)

HEART BUTTE —Heart Butte School District Superintendent Mike Tatsey was placed on administrative leave as a procedural requirement following a school board vote to conduct a financial audit earlier this week.

Board member Edith Horn-Wagner said the board voted unanimously, with the board chairperson absent from the meeting, to conduct a forensic audit of the school’s finances after community members submitted a petition. Community suspicion arose in some cases surrounding Tatsey’s spending on rodeo equipment, questions about work payment cards including a $112,000 payment by the school district, and other funding sources allegedly disappearing.

The Heart Butte community is also mourning at least three youth suicides in recent months. Some parents place the blame at the feet of board members for the contention surrounding Tatsey’s audit and the division it has caused in the community.

The decision to move forward with the audit, which required Tatsey be put on leave with pay, comes months after Tatsey confirmed to the Daily Montanan staff at the school had tested positive for drugs. In January, Blackfeet Family Services removed children from a group home Tatsey oversaw.

Tatsey declined to comment for this story in a phone call Friday morning.

Tatsey’s contract was renewed for another two years in January. He has served as Superintendent for five years.

On Thursday, the Heart Butte School Board voted 3-1 to name Shannon Augare the interim superintendent while the audit is being conducted. Augare is a former Heart Butte School District employee, counselor and former legislator.

Prior to this vote, community members voiced concern surrounding the board’s recent decisions, saying the division has trickled down to kids.

Janet Nomee, 17, a senior in the school district, said that she’s seen friend groups split up because they have taken different sides on whether the money, estimated to likely be at least $40,000, should be spent on an audit, saying their families likely influenced their opinion.

“The ones that are handling it negative, their kids are starting to be negative about it, too,” Nomee told the Daily Montanan following Thursday’s meeting. “So the students are turning against each other.”

Nomee would like to see the money spent differently. She’s an athlete with the school and would like to see the money spent on a new bus to transport teams to games, as she said the current one breaks down and can be cold during winter.

The final cost of the audit will depend on how long it takes to complete, an unknown right now. Horn-Wagner said estimates ranged between $40,000-$50,000.

Amanda Morning Star was one of the parents who voiced concern during the meeting about the board’s decisions, tying it to the suicides in the community and concern for her own son.

“My boy is on suicide watch,” Morning Star said during public comment. “He said three times, ‘I tried, Mom, three times.’”

Morning Star said she was told during the previous meeting action would be taken to address the issue of suicides in the community, but no action has transpired. She said the school’s principal talked to her son Thursday, leaving her in tears.

“I couldn’t give a damn phone call to Mike to tell him, ‘Hey, my son’s suicidal. Can you go talk to him?’” she said. “I could have been burying my goddamn son.”

Horn-Wagner said youth suicide has been an issue in the community for a long time, and didn’t just start happening in the wake of the decision to put Tatsey on leave.

“The community now, I think they’re being misled,” Horn-Wagner said. “Yes, we do have tragedy in our community in the last month. It’s just been horrific here. But this is something that’s been occurring for a while.”

Horn-Wagner said there have been financial decisions made in the district that have raised eyebrows in the community, but she said they are not related to the audit. She said Tatsey spent district funds on bucking chutes and panels used for rodeos. Several online retailers list both products for thousands of dollars.

“Tatsey is a huge rodeo person,” she said.

She said the district loaned out the equipment, but got called out by community members for not inventorying it properly or having a memorandum of understanding around who was permitted to use it.

“The superintendent was basically directed to have them returned more than then three times. It didn’t happen,” she said. “You have to follow the board’s directives, you cannot just pick and choose.”

Another financial mishap in the district that raised eyebrows, Horn-Wagner said, was when the district had to write a check for $112,000 for purchasing cards or “P-cards,” like a work credit card. She said a group of teachers had to come back early from a trip because their cards were disabled. Horn-Wagner said the cards were disabled for non-payment. She said there’s questions around how many P-cards are floating around.

“At the last meeting, I happened to have a credit card from the schools that I worked for,” she said, referring to her job at Browning Public Schools. “And I said I literally had to sign a waiver saying that if I lose the card, failed to return its receipt, that I’m signing my permission to dock my pay … it should be like that.”

Horn-Wagner said she was grateful the board got a coach, Todd Hanson of 4 Poles Educational Consulting Group, to help them follow policy guidelines. Hanson was present during Thursday’s meeting and provided insight on the district’s policies and open meeting rules. Prior to the meeting, he held several one-on-one talks with board members.

Horn-Wagner said she would not be seeking re-election; her term ends this upcoming May.

“I stepped into something I just absolutely regret almost,” she said. “My whole point is let’s follow policy. Let’s follow the rules. I knew there was a lot of non-following.”

Montana’s Office of Public Instruction, in response to questions sent earlier this week, said the office is not currently working on an audit of Heart Butte School District, but sent a link to an audit of the fiscal year ending in June 2022 that was concluded to be above board.

Horn-Wagner said there was a request for OPI auditors to present to the board but they chose not to.

However, Horn-Wagner was also clear that she didn’t disapprove of all Tatsey has done in the district, being sure to point out the solar electric project he put in place that aims to lower electric bills for the whole community, and was included in reporting by the New York Times last fall.

“There’s great things that are happening here,” she said. “But educationally, education should be number one, not rodeo. … That’s coming from me as a teacher.”

Tatsey’s interim replacement, Augare, who worked at the school district as recently as last year, said he sees his position more as an operations manager, and less as a leader, as Tatsey is technically still superintendent. He said he is not credentialed as an educator, he is a licensed clinical professional counselor, so he will not be influencing curriculum.

Augare, who previously served two terms in both legislative chambers, said he’s always been more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person. He was very involved in setting up the youth home program on school grounds that ended earlier this year, something Augare said he was disappointed to see.

“Certainly disappointing from a perspective of things just not being followed through on,” he said. “We got to do better from an administrative perspective here at the school and that’s kind of one of the things I hope to contribute.”

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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.