A small school district in southern Utah had to let a teacher go after just one year. It was difficult for the school board, despite the fact that district policy allows the board considerable latitude during the three-year probationary period of a new teacher.

This particular decision took up time in a couple of regular board meetings in addition to a couple of executive sessions of the board. There were also numerous meetings of administrators with parents, teachers, an evaluation team and the teacher in question. The meetings were not always pleasant. Besides the meetings there were letters, petitions, protests, phone calls, accusations, counteraccusations, letters to the editor and news reports.Most involved would agree at this point that the entire episode was unpleasant and certainly unproductive. Most would also agree that whatever the ultimate decision, students were the losers.

Despite the difficulty of this decision, it would be hard to convince the school board and administrators at this point that the decision they just made is not the most important decision that they make. These decisionmakers probably already know this, but after the energy just expended making the decision, they may need to be reminded that there are more important choices.

The fact is that the board just made only the second most important decision that it will be called on to make - which teachers to retain. The most important decision made by administrators and school board members is which teachers to hire. This is more important than who is hired to administer, more important than the budget, more important than a bond election and more important than a winning football team.

Mistakes in these cases are all easier and less painful to repair than a mistake in hiring a new teacher.

It is possible to make the point that the decision to hire a teacher is the most important financial decision that a district will make. If the average annual salary over a 25-year career is $25,000, the cost of a lifetime teacher is $625,000. If benefits and other related costs are added to this lifetime teacher cost, the price tag easily approaches $1 million. This means that a mistake in hiring can easily be a million-dollar mistake, without considering the lives that are affected.

Financial arguments aside, no school can offer excellent education without excellent teachers. There is nothing a school district can do to compensate for failure of a teacher or a student in the classroom. A district that wants the best teaching must hire the best teachers. Anything less is an admission that the district is willing to settle for something less than the best.

To avoid million-dollar mistakes or the agony of having to make the second most important decision often, school officials can hire carefully by involving screening committees of excellent teachers and administrators.

These committees check references, interview carefully and make hiring recommendations to appropriate administrators. In some school districts, applicants must submit videotapes of themselves student teaching or prepare a lesson to be taught to the district selection committee as part of the interview process.

Whatever time it takes to hire carefully is saved when districts have to revisit fewer hiring decisions. It is obvious that no district can avoid all hiring mistakes. It may also be true that some new teachers will need the learning experience of a false start in one school in order to be successful in a second. The point is that million-dollar decisions that are the key to educational quality need to be made carefully.

- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments may be addressed to Dr. Roger Baker, English Dept., Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.