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Shannon Norris, Yvette Heasly and Kat Fair of Frazier Mountain High School’s English Department meet for training sessions, enthusiastic about their creative lesson plans and new EduSoft analysis tools to help students. Norris and Heasly have received layoff notices, Fair is teaching on a longterm substitute basis after being laid off two years ago. She once ran a thriving Drama program which with four productions a year.[Hedlund photo for The Mountain Enterprise]
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The community demonstrated in the "Work Together" campaign last year, saving the sports program when parents formed carpools to get teams to athletic meets.
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Principal Anthony Saba has been dedicated to building Falcon Pride at the high school this year.
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Larry Skiba of Lebec successfully coordinated businesses and athletes to refurbish the weight training room with community donations.
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As a volunteer, parent and teacher Kat Fair helped coordinate several high school drama club events this year, from the Christmas "Grinch" play to the homecoming halftime show, both done with In The Wings Dance Studio.
Principal: ‘I Have Faith FMHS Will Be Better than Ever’
By Patric Hedlund
In a hearing last week, El Tejon Unified School District Superintendent Katie Kleier, under oath, was asked by a lawyer representing teachers at Frazier Mountain High School how students can be educated in compliance with California state law if all the English and Social Studies staff at FMHS are given layoff notices.
In February, outrage was expressed by the community and this newspaper when it was learned that trustees had met in an illegal “special meeting” executive session to consider the layoffs. The public was not given their rightful opportunity to hear the dialogue and questioning between ETUSD Trustees and the superintendent that preceded the board’s vote to authorize the layoff notices.
On Thursday, April 26 the teachers sought an administrative judge’s opinion about the legality of pink slips issued to half the teachers at FMHS.
Attorney Joshua F. Richtel, of the Fresno firm Tuttle & McCloskey, reports Superintendent Kleier explained the layoffs by saying, “We have not yet decided whether to eliminate the high school….”
This comment may come as a bombshell to the community that struggled to see FMHS built and opened in 1995 so students would no longer be endangered by busing down the Grapevine, says DiAnn Dever, a 30-year resident of Frazier Park.
“We worked for years to get that high school so our kids wouldn’t have to be bused off the mountain through dangerous ‘white out’ tule fogs and in icy conditions,” Dever said. Her children and grandchildren have attended the school.
On January 31 Superintendent Kleier issued notice of a special meeting of the ETUSD Board of Trustees to be held the next day with “Discussion of Certificated Services Being Reduced or Eliminated” as an item for discussion in closed session.
On February 1 the board met in executive session to discuss the layoff of all the English and Social Studies teachers at Frazier Mountain High School. Resolution No. 12-06 from the superintendent proposed to give layoff notices to 11 teachers in the district.
After consultation with our attorney, The Mountain Enterprise ran a breaking news story alerting the public that the board had held an illegal meeting about an issue of great public concern which, under the law, should have been discussed before the public.
In response, the superintendent issued notice of a second special meeting, this time in public, to consider the same layoff proposal. This second special meeting was held at the same time as the board’s regular February 8 meeting, but contrary to the spirit of the law, there was no discussion by trustees about how the high school would fulfill its educational mission if they voted to give layoff notices to their entire English and Social Studies departments.
They voted again for the layoff notices, but still deprived the public of any insight into their thinking about how this could be legal or educationally prudent.
The Mountain Enterprise read and delivered a letter to the ETUSD board emphasizing the need for them to pass a resolution promising to hold no more illegal secret meetings counter to California’s open meeting laws and the Brown Act. The board of trustees has not replied to this request.
Is it a “Bluff’?
Attorney Richtel, who represents the teachers, said he believes Kleier, despite being under oath, may have been “bluffing.” He observed that eight additional high school teachers were not given pink slips, and it is unlikely that the expense of eight high school teachers would be kept on staff if the high school were to actually be closed.
Richtel also questions how layoffs would be issued prior to the board taking a public vote for or against closing the high school. No such vote has been held in public session. It would be illegal to hold it in executive session and no such item has been included on the ETUSD board’s agenda for discussion or action. Trustee Stephan Kiouses said emphatically that there has been no closed session discussion of this issue.
Richtel said Schools Legal Attorney Christopher Hine told him Superintendent Kleier presented the layoff proposal to the ETUSD board without first discussing it with him.
Hine, contacted and asked to verify the statement, said “I can’t make any statement in regard to that hearing [or this matter] because we have no decision from the administrative judge… and there has not yet been a final decision by the board of trustees.” He said that anything he said in advance of either decision might risk influencing the judge or the trustees.
There was a court reporter at the hearing, paid for by the district, but the transcript is not yet available. The judge’s decision about the legality of the layoffs is expected on or before May 7.
Kleier responded Wednesday, May 2 to confirm that she did make the statement at the hearing quoted by Richtel.
Why Generate Uncertainty?
Anticipating that the layoff notices would put the district in conflict with state law, on February 16 The Mountain Enterprise asked Kleier about the legality of the layoffs. This is the email exchange:
Q: If all the English teachers are laid off, and English is a mandated subject for high school graduation, how will English be taught at the school? Kleier’s answer via Blackberry: “There are other teachers.”
Kleier did not expand on the meaning of that cryptic comment, and refused to meet in person with reporters to explain what plan she may have outlined to ETUSD trustees in private session to persuade them it is responsible to vote to give layoff notices to two entire departments teaching mandated subjects for 9th through 12th grade students.
Kleier replied on February 17: “It would be improper to discuss that with you before I have presented that to the board.”
But the board’s layoff vote took place on February 1.
We replied, “Does that mean the trustees voted for the layoffs without first being given a plan for how the educational mission could be fulfilled?” Kleier terminated the conversation.
She has repeated several times, “We must plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Trustee Kiouses said that the “hard deadline” imposed by the ‘ed code’ required that the certificated employees (teachers) receive notice that they may be in line for layoff, and that the board had no choice but to vote to approve the notices. He added that those with the least seniority received notices. But, he said, “No matter what our school board voted, the district cannot run a school that is not in compliance with ed code. You are going to have to bring back teachers to teach those subjects.
“I don’t think any nefarious thing has been going on at all….There clearly has been no discussion about closing anything other than what has been discussed in open session…what is going on is that this district is not being funded on the level that other districts are, because our rural district has special expenses (such as busing students over large distances) and we are a unified district, which means we get paid less to run our high school then other [high schoolonly] districts do.”
Kiouses believes the real issue is visible in the auditor’s report this year. Declining enrollment and the state’s deferral of payments to the district have cut into revenues, causing it to use reserves to cover operational expenses: “In three years we will have only $245,000 left in the bank in reserves. We have to do something before that happens.”
He opened up a brainstorm on March 27 by discussing the idea of a math and science magnet high school with a focus on oil, wind and solar technologies.
At a March 29 special meeting on budgets, Superintendent Kleier presented “what-if” scenarios to show how much money could be saved in operational expenses if the district were to “mothball” one of the campuses and consolidate into a K-6 and a 7-12 format.
At that meeting there was discussion of deferred maintenance at Frazier Mountain High School, including the need for a new roof, which trustees said could be very expensive. Others said the best plan would be to use the high school as the 7-12 site.
Susan Edwards, both a parent and a teacher, said that the district needs to send an absolutely clear message to parents of middle school students that the high school will be operating over the next several years.
Edwards’ message dovetails with those who say that the trustees need to take leadership in settling on a course of action, then market the benefits of intelligent down-sizing to recruit community enthusiasm and to retain students.
FMHS principal Anthony Saba has been devoted to developing opportunities for FMHS students, doubling the number of electives and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, while being resourceful in use of community volunteer-power.
“I’m hiring a new science teacher in two weeks; I just hired a new football coach,” Saba said Wednesday, “I wouldn’t have done these things if I thought we were going to close the high school. I have faith this school is going to be better than ever next year.”
FMHS Senior Anna Hart said she has been inspired by Saba’s devotion to the “can-do” spirit of FMHS students. “He came to all our soccer games and really made us feel he cares,” she said, recalling that the team won the High Desert League championship for the first time in 13 years. She said that she likes the “private school” atmosphere at Frazier Mountain High School, adding that Saba’s “Falcon Pride” code “hasn’t been 100% adopted by all students, but it is growing. I support it. It makes sense.”
Excellence and Teamwork
The notion of creating a new culture of excellence and enthusiasm throughout the district was also on Trustee Ken Hurst’s mind during a two-hour brainstorm with the publisher and editor of The Mountain Enterprise April 20.
He, too, was proud of increasing the number of electives available to students despite a declining budget. “Kids do their homework now (after high school periods were adjusted to provide for academic assistance, as well as invoking academic detention with tutoring). We also had a long-term goal to increase the Advanced Placement classes available, but we have reached that goal far more quickly than we anticipated.
“We have a mental health nurse through a Southwest Healthcare District grant. Discipline is improving rapidly. We have a strong Special Ed program.
“The good news is we don’t have a gang problem here, like bigger schools have, and kids who are motivated can participate in all kinds of activities here, including being on athletic teams. They might not be able to make the team in a large high school, but here they get a chance to play,” Hurst said.
Student participation in county and state Science Fairs has also excelled in the past few years, disproportionate to the size of the district.
Realtors say that good schools are a strong attraction for increasing home values in our area, along with the beautiful surroundings and small-town community closeness.
Small business people in the Mountain Communities are feeling the bite of the school district’s indecision, members of the Chamber of Commerce say, as layoffs lessen consumer confidence of local families.
Local businesses, traditionally so vital to supporting the schools and the students here, also want to be included in outsourcing opportunities. Trustees did not specify that bids should be sought from qualified local businesses for providing school lunches, for instance, or for maintaining school buses. ETUSD advertised only in Bakersfield last month, with no chance for local businesses to compete. Local merchants hope to see that change.
This is part of the May 04, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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