By Patric Hedlund, Editor
It was never a marriage made in heaven. In retrospect, it seemed like the path was rocky from the start. Literally. Giant boulders and unstable, rock-laden fill dirt had to be removed from the Frazier Park Elementary School building site in July 2010, causing a $30,000 cost overrun just as Bakersfield resident Katherine Kleier became the new superintendent of El Tejon Unified School District (ETUSD), which had been led erratically by seven superintendents in the past seven years.
This was Kleier’s first flight as a school district chief. She quickly took aim at the Maintenance Operations and Transportation director. She fired Craig Stowell before his one year probation was up. His friends came to board meetings to protest, including Lark Shillig.
In January 2011 the high school erupted in a protest over the dismissal of a longtime bus driver under questionable circumstances. Students and many high school parents felt the treatment of an employee who had driven their children since kindergarten was unfair. Superintendent Kleier enraged parents and students with what they described as a “disrespectful” manner of addressing students who were seeking dialogue, followed by a punitive twisting of the rules to damage the academic record of honors students who participated in the one-day strike.
If the economic recession hit the state of California hard, it was a crippling blow to the solar plexus for the Mountain Communities. Not long after the students’ strike, Kleier—who did not seem adept at becoming acquainted with mountain culture and had a knack for alienating parents—announced that budget shortfalls required that she eliminate the high school interscholastic sports program.
What observers called a “rubber-stamp board” chaired by Paula Regan voted for her plan. For a mountain culture devoted to children’s sports as a way of developing teamwork and local spirit, this was unthinkable. Parents poured into school board meetings, packing the room week after week with protests about Kleier and the judgement of Regan’s board.
Mountain parents, teachers and students also took to the streets with picket signs. Most of the teachers wore T-shirts with a “Work Together” logo. On the back of their shirts was an acrostic slogan: “Leadership without Wisdom, Oversight, Respect or Knowledge…is like playing charades in the dark.”
Veteran El Tejon School teacher Chuck Mullen was the author. He would become president of the teachers’ union and in 2012 his wife, Vickie Mullen, would win a seat on the school board.
In the confrontation of 2011, just days after laying off the FMHS principal, Ms. Kleier hijacked a mass meeting at the high school organized by a student. She took the microphone and didn’t let go. She delivered a brave and informative explanation of the state’s decision to withhold a percentage of the payments they owed to school districts.
To her credit, Kleier also brought the Boys & Girls Club’s after-school program to Frazier Park School. And she hired some excellent principals. But things still got worse. Layoffs of teachers and support staff were painful. Class sizes grew. Teachers aides were fired. Parents were not allowed to volunteer to help in the classroom. As tempers flared, parents began voting with their feet. Overnight, it seemed, the district hemorrhaged 153 students. People enrolled their children in other school districts, decided to homeschool, or moved away. The drop in enrollment tripled the pain already dealt by the state’s short-changing per-student payments.
Even parents of ETUSD’s star Pine Mountain Learning Center (PMLC) charter school—a top-ranking K-6 school in Kern County and in California—felt threatened by Kleier’s style. They began the process of withdrawing from the district.
The Mountain Enterprise covered all of this closely.
We began the “Schools at a Crossroads” series to alert the community that what appeared to be a hostile dismantling of the school district could undermine the economic foundation of the entire region.
Regan’s board, meanwhile, made the stunning 3-2 decision to extend Kleier’s contract by three years, a full year before her first contract was over. That would prove to be very expensive for the district.
Immediately after the 3-2 vote, that very night, Kleier flew, screaming, at this newspaper editor, forbidding illuminated photography in the board room, in defiance of state law. After three years, she claimed suddenly to have a disorder that made light flashes cause convulsions. Then she made a momentary recovery, happily facing hundreds of flashing cameras during high school graduation ceremonies.
In November 2012 Lark Shillig, Vickie Mullen and Scott Robinson, father of two PMLC students, all won seats on the ETUSD Board. They and incumbent John Fleming negotiated for months for Kleier’s departure. This week a resignation was offered, effective July 15, 2013.
It appears Kleier walks away with a major chunk of the district’s recent general education fund windfall in her pocket. Twelve months of her salary ($125,786) plus five months of medical benefits will carve a big hole in the estimated $300,000 restored by Prop. 30 this year.
On the positive side of the ledger, parents kept the sports program alive. It not only survived, it thrived, winning multiple league championships as a symbol of the resilience of this community and its ability to work together against the odds to meet a challenge and thrive.
Now the community needs to take that winners’ spirit and apply it to building the strongest academic achievement program in the history of this school district. Students will return. It will take all of us, working together. We can do it.
This is part of the July 19, 2013 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
Have an opinion on this matter? We'd like to hear from you.