NCSD #1 censures Hammer

Phillip Collins
Posted 6/27/24

NIOBRARA COUNTY - The Niobrara County School District #1 was engulfed in controversy on June 10 when the board of trustees voted 5-4 to censure Trustee Joyce Hammer. According to Superintendent George Mirich, the censure was in response to a Facebook post and a private message sent by Hammer to a school employee.

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NCSD #1 censures Hammer


NIOBRARA COUNTY - The Niobrara County School District #1 was engulfed in controversy on June 10 when the board of trustees voted 5-4 to censure Trustee Joyce Hammer. According to Superintendent George Mirich, the censure was in response to a Facebook post and a private message sent by Hammer to a school employee.

“The censure was precipitated by social media drama,” Mirich said. “There was a post that she had made on her page and there were a couple of people that had responded. They were saying that she wasn’t being completely accurate and that she was misleading people. Then, there was a private message sent to one of them (the respondents) that appeared to be a threat.”

According to Hammer, she sent her private message after receiving a Facebook video of a staff member involved in behavior that the general public would regard as objectionable. More specifically, Hammer alleges that the aforementioned staff member was drinking with students. Hammer stated that she felt compelled to admonish the staff member concerning the poor optics surrounding the situation.   

“I sent a private message telling her that it was not a very good video,” Hammer said. “Basically, I said, ‘I hope you don’t ever piss anybody off because a couple of videos I received could not be good for your girls.’”

This single message is now being understood through two diametrically opposed prisms. One group of trustees regards it as a threat. Another group of trustees believes that the message has been misinterpreted. Of course, Hammer falls into the latter camp.  

“My attorney said, ‘That is not a threat,’” said Hammer. “A threat is when you say, ‘I have a video and you’re going to give me $500 or I’m going to post it.’ That’s a threat.”

While Mirich concedes that there is no consensus concerning the interpretation of Hammer’s message, he sees little room for any other plausible construal.

“Not everybody thought it was a threat,” said Mirich. “I don’t know how they could not have, but that’s the way the world is.”

Hammer contends that the censure was motivated not by outrage over a threat, but by alleged staff misconduct that her private message highlighted.

“I just keep telling them, ‘I’m not the one who posted the video,’” Hammer said. “I’m not the one who put it on Facebook. They basically wanted to embarrass me. I told them, ‘I’m not going to be embarrassed because I’m not the one who put it on Facebook.’”

While Hammer’s censure was cemented by a 5-4 vote, Mirich contends that the final vote was not quite as close as it appeared to be. In support of this contention, the Superintendent cites the fact that Hammer was numbered among the four who voted against the censure.

“You have to understand that one of those four (opposed to the censure) is the accused,” Mirich said. “So, technically, it really wasn’t that close. It was 5-3. Then, the accused, of course, voted against the censure.”

At bottom, a censure is a public statement of formal disapproval. As such, a censure does not constitute the basis for further punitive action. Mirich stated that beyond the public rebuke, no other sanctions would be brought against Hammer at this time.  

“Elected public officials have a certain amount of immunity, you might say,” said Mirich. “You just can’t say, ‘Well, the majority of the board feels that you are a problem, and they are kicking you off the board.’ You can’t do that. They can’t exclude her from the process. You can’t force her to apologize. There’s no recourse.”

Hammer is certainly no stranger to controversy, as is evidenced by a previous disagreement in December 2023. This disagreement surrounded a special education instructor who had allegedly eschewed a reading program because of personal preferences. According to Mirich, Hammer has promulgated unsubstantiated allegations concerning the district’s special education curriculum.   

“She continues to make claims that aren’t valid,” Mirich said. “She obviously doesn’t understand special education or else she wouldn’t keep filing claims that aren’t substantiated or true. It’s not her opinion that matters. It’s what’s real.”

Meanwhile, Hammer argues that Mirich has mischaracterized her actions concerning the district’s special education curriculum.

“A couple of parents did file a complaint against the school district over special ed,” said Hammer. “George says that I filed a complaint. I did not really file a complaint. I wrote a letter to the state.”

Whether Hammer’s action is dubbed a complaint or a statement, one thing is certain: answers concerning the district’s special education curriculum were sought. An investigation followed, resulting in substantial legal costs for the district. Hammer contends that she had no contact with the investigators following the issuance of her statement. 

“George insists that I got a call from the investigative team,” Hammer said. “I did not get a call. I did not get any information. I did not get anything because I was not an actual complainant.”

Hammer maintains that the Facebook message controversy is merely the latest installment in a series of attempts to oust her from the school board.

“I have been on the board for a year-and-a-half,” said Hammer. “There’s a few of them that want me off the board and they continually find one more thing.”

Conversely, Mirich contends that Hammer is motivated by bitterness and resentment over perceived wrongs ascribed to the district.

“She’s a 30-year disgruntled employee in this district,” said Mirich. “She’s been on the short side of every vote since she was elected. Yet, all that the district has done is improve. So, is she opposed to improvement? Because that’s the way it appears.”

As of June 28, Mirich’s tenure as Superintendent will end. While the board over which he presided was beset by some internal contention, Mirich regards his seven-year term as a success.

“It’s been my pleasure to have worked in the district for the last seven-years,” Mirich said. “It’s been a great opportunity. I’ve enjoyed it very much. I’ve met a lot of really good people. I’ve worked with a lot of really good educators. The organization is in a really good place, with the exception of some distractions. The train is rolling down the tracks and it’s only going to get better. We just have to keep the train on the tracks.”

Meanwhile, Hammer plans to finish out her four-year term. For the duration of that term, she intends to remain outspoken over those district policies and procedures that she regards as errant.

“I will continue to be vocal,” said Hammer. “People send me messages saying, ‘Don’t give up on us. Keep fighting for us.’ Then, it’s like I get renewed again.”