Although the topic wasn't on the agenda, the March 15 meeting marked the first chance for district residents to weigh in on the decision in person. The board meeting ended up as something of a release valve for frustration that had been building over the last two weeks. Parents and students packed the multipurpose room at Graham with signs made out of everything from paper plates to huge construction paper, all showing overwhelming support for reinstating the ousted principals, particularly Thompson and Chesley.
The sweeping decision to remove nearly half of the district's principals at the end of the school year was a bombshell that, to parents, came out of nowhere and seemed ill-advised. Landels PTA president Laryssa Polika-Engle said Chesley had a strong track record, championing initiatives to improve student literacy and partnering with the PTA to bring new programs to the school. Getting rid of him without consulting with parents — and for opaque reasons — has "fractured" the community and given rise to an atmosphere of frustration and fear, she said.
"I cannot stress the importance of clear communication enough," she said.
Thompson, currently the longest-serving principal in the district, has been a "pillar" in the community, said parent Monica Teicher, who called the decision to remove Thompson "deeply troubling." She credited her for shepherding the school through turbulent times, including massive school site construction, a total revamp of Castro Street and the roll-out of the flawed Teach to One math program in 2016. The community is tired of the lack of transparency, she said, and recent decisions by the board and district administration leave her and other parents with little reason to trust them.
"I frankly have no more trust left to give you," she said.
Emotions ran high throughout more than an hour of public speakers, with clapping and cheering bubbling up despite repeated directions by board president Laura Blakely to refrain from applause. Parents showed support for the speakers by flapping their signs — another action Blakely asked them to stop.
Although no teachers spoke at the meeting, Landels parent Ania Mitros said the teachers she spoke to at her school were uneasy about the decision to drop a well-respected administrator like Chesley. She said one teacher shared that the school staff is "living in fear of the superintendent," and that other teachers seemed to agree.
"When I hear things like this, from people who are working directly with (Chesley) and seeing what he does, it's really hard not to wonder how this decision could have been made," she said. "It's hard to believe that they needed to be fired."
The central question at the meeting was what information and metrics the board used in closed session to judge the principals' performance, since it seemed so starkly different from the avalanche of public support. The school board and district administrators have kept most of that information under wraps — citing confidentiality regarding personnel matters — but did reveal that personal performance, evaluations, survey results and student academic performance were all taken into account.
This didn't sit well with parents, who had recently taken a "school climate" survey and said they had no idea that information would eventually be used to oust top school administrators.
After reviewing the results, Landels parent Tushar Moorti said the survey appeared deeply flawed, and designed in such a bizarre way that a "somewhat positive" or "slightly positive" answer was painted as a negative result against the overall score for categories including family engagement, school climate and school safety.
Regardless of the quality of the survey data, Graham parent Ellen Judd said she saw no compelling results from Graham's surveys, along with test scores and the district's recently minted strategic plan, that indicate Thompson was a poor fit and had to go.
"I just haven't heard anything make this make sense to me, that Ms. Thompson needs to be fired," she said.
Parent Fan Kong said the school board should consider that the information provided by district administrators doesn't paint the full picture, and cautioned them not to disregard the will of the voters.
"I really hope this fiasco doesn't become the end of your public service life," he said.
Several parents said that the principal firings amount to the latest in a string of debacles starting with Teach to One, which was implemented in fall 2016 and eventually scrapped after intense parent opposition and huge problems behind the scenes that were largely withheld from the public and the school board. Bubb Elementary School parent Karin Dillan said it feels like the school district follows a common strategy where it makes an unpopular decision without feedback, faces heavy protest and eventually reverses the decision because of the backlash. She pointed to school overcrowding last year, when it took public pressure to make sure kids living practically next door to Huff and Bubb elementary schools were allowed to attend despite overcrowding on the campuses.
One looming concern among Graham parents is that several big changes are on the way for the district's middle schools, including a complicated new schedule and a "co-teaching" model designed to help special needs students — both of which require big staffing changes. But with the loss of Thompson and assistant principal Heidi Galassi, who will be leaving to become the new principal at Landels, the longest-tenured administrator at the school will have only been there since October.
Graham parent Alan Wessel said the poor timing will be disruptive and harmful to students, and that removing all four principals months before the end of the school year engulfs school communities in "unnecessary discord."
"It is clear that the manner in which you have proceeded hurts, rather than helps, our children," he said.
At the end of the meeting, board members weighed how to respond, particularly given the harsh criticism that the district fails to listen to parents and other stakeholders. Board member Greg Coladonato said it might be worth revisiting the surveys used for administrative reviews, and that parents he spoke to felt like the data was poorly used.
"I'd like to make sure that our surveys are done well and used well, and if we aren't, then we should fix that," he said.
Board member Jose Gutierrez said town hall-style events at school sites might be a good way to improve communication and get feedback from the parent community, given that many parents feel like their only avenue for talking to trustees is to show up at board meetings when they are mad.
"Despite what you read in the Voice or what have you, the reality is that we are here to try and do the best we can in the best interest of our kids, no matter what," Gutierrez said.
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