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They carried big signs saying: Work Together. Commuters honked and waved. Parents and teachers are telling administrators they want to work together to make the local schools as excellent as they believe they can be. Teachers called upon trustees to provide leadership and oversight.[Gary Meyer Photo for The Mountain Enterprise]
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Most 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.
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ETUSD financial manager Terri Geivet and Superintendent Katie Kleier listen to report about suggestions from parents to improve the district schools.[Patric Hedlund photo for The Mountain Enterprise]
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With brainstorm boards on the wall behind him, Trustee Ken Hurst listens to Buck Weber and Dena Kiouses (not shown) report on the March 16 focus group. About 50 parents participated in this first event.
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Clockwise, from left: An international news story centered at Frazier Mountain High School erupted in January 2006. Right top: The passing of false information to the ETUSD Board of Trustees in December 2005 by the high school principal and the superintendent led to eleven families suing the district (right bottom) when a Philosophy of Intelligent Design class proposed by teacher Sharon Lemburg with Principal Dan Penner and Superintendent John Wight was approved by the board. The events took place shortly after federal courts had ruled such courses unconstitutional. Parents pointed out that science labs at the school were not functional and science courses at the school were minimal at the time.[Hedlund photos for The Mountain Enterprise]
On March 16, 2011 about 50 parents and about 10 students participated in a rapid focus-group exercise to provide input to El Tejon Unified School District about what they appreciate about the local public schools, what they dislike, and what might bring some of the homeschool students back.[Photos by Patric Hedlund for The Mountain Enterprise]
By Patric Hedlund
An unusual number of teachers were very visible at the April meeting of the El Tejon Unified School District Board of Trustees. Teachers watched quietly, though one rose to explain why they were there.
The next afternoon, on Thursday, April 14, motorists saw teachers rallying and waving near the stop signal on Frazier Mountain Park Road.
They carried big signs, saying, “Work Together.” Commuters honked and waved. 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.”
Chuck Mullen, who has logged over 23 years as an El Tejon teacher, stood at the April 13 board meeting to tell administrators, trustees, parents and the new superintendent that teachers and staff want a place at the table when it comes to making hard choices about the future of their district.
Mullen said it doesn’t look good for the trustees to appear to be surrendering their oversight responsibilities “to hand a blank check” to a new superintendent “to make the toughest choices ever made in this district. ”
Superintendent Katie Kleier took the ETUSD job last summer. She lives in Bakersfield and is still learning about the community. Kleier has not served as a district superintendent previously. She came to this job after working as director of instruction for Kern High School District.
In a February interview with The Mountain Enterprise, Kleier said “I love this job.” She has vowed to stay “a long time.” Meanwhile, however, she has presided over high-profile dismissals of others from district jobs. Two of those have been protested by some members of the community.
Craig Stowell’s network of family and friends protested his release as director of maintenance, operations and transportation. At the beginning of February, student demonstrations were held at the middle school and the high school over the dismissal of the district’s longest-serving bus driver, who many students and families considered a trusted friend.
Kleier is now also shopping for a new principal for Frazier Mountain High School.
Last week, an OpEd by teacher Chuck Mullen appeared in The Mountain Enterprise. He urged teachers and staff to work together to try to bring back 154 students who have departed in the past year.
How did we get here?
Seven in Seven
ETUSD has suffered from having seven superintendents, interim and acting superintendents in the past seven years.
The cascade of changes began when former superintendent John Wight, hired in 2004, was videotaped allegedly taking large quantities of district gasoline for his personal use in 2006. When confronted,he resigned on the spot and vanished with no transition.
The Kern County Superintendent of Schools sent interim chiefs to help ETUSD in its effort to track through a series of nearly disastrous errors and questionable relationships that Wight had left behind. A private detective was needed to investigate some of Wight’s transactions and associates.
The Mountain Enterprise published investigative reports regarding Wight’s prior jobs in California, in which his actions were said to have caused distress in a series of other communities. Those school boards were intimidated by the prospect of being sued if they did not give him good recommendations for his next job—which brought him to ETUSD.
Board Loyalty—or Failure of Oversight?
The trustees of El Tejon Unified School District in 2006 were criticized for serving as the superintendent’s “rubber stamp” for a school bond initiative, a building plan and financial calculations that turned out to be badly flawed.
Wight and high school principal Dan Penner also assured the board (just after the school bond vote, late in 2005) that there would be “no problem” in teaching Biblical creationism at Frazier Mountain High School. They said this less than a month after a federal court handed down a ruling that a similar plan by a Dover, Pennsylvania high school was unconstitutional.
Litigation against ETUSD was swiftly initiated by local parents. A national legal team challenged the school board on another costly and distracting error. The suit was settled and the class withdrawn, but turmoil in the community was intense.
As president of the 2005-2006 school board, Steve Newman was asked by The Mountain Enterprise if he and other board members were troubled by the many discrepancies in Wight’s often-changing reports to them about state matching funds that would come to the district for the classroom building projects.
Wight and trustees campaigned for the school bond by telling voters the state would match their tax contributions “dollar for dollar.” It turned out to be less than 30 cents on the dollar. By 2011 no funds have yet been received from the state.
Newman said trustees did not question their superintendent because it is important “for trustees to show loyalty.”
Though Newman and Paula Regan said they believed loyalty to Wight was their duty, the two did confront him with the videotape of the alleged gasoline theft.
New trustees, such as Anita Anderson, Ken Hurst and John Fleming, were elected on campaign platforms that placed greater value on trustees maintaining higher levels of accountability from administrators and providing greater oversight on behalf of the community.
Paula Regan was also reelected, and there appears to be a lingering disagreement on the board about the role of trustees. What one may define as leadership and due diligence is characterized by another as “micromanagement.”
Reaching for Stability
In 2006, longtime El Tejon School Principal Shelly Mason was asked to serve as interim superintendent. In 2007 she was given a four-year contract by the board. But on May 1, 2009 Mason was rushed to the hospital with a brain tumor.
The county superintendent again sent in emergency acting superintendents while Mason recovered. Sadly, after 28 years of service to the school district, Mason submitted her resignation in December 2009 and passed awayfollowing a year’s battle with brain cancer.
In the midst of all this turmoil at the top, solutions for declining test scores in the middle school classrooms were slow to be addressed as the district’s first priority.
Test scores at the high school also flatlined, making little visible improvement over three years. But still, ETUSD’s Pine Mountain Learning Center (PMLC) charter school excelled, becoming the highest-scoring school in all of Kern County.
Teaching and support staff positions have been cut. Class sizes have increased. Music, electives and some sports programs have been eliminated. Jarudd Prosser, the popular high school coach, was given a pink slip along with Kat Fair, the English teacher who volunteered as a tireless drama club and journalism mentor at the high school.
By March 2011, enrollment had declined to 1,070. The loss of 154 students in one year resulted in an additional drop in revenue of over $1 million.
Some students have been lost to home schooling. Some have enrolled in Gorman Elementary—which was a failing school until a new principal was brought in two years ago. Some families wrote letters to the editor of The Mountain Enterprise, saying they moved their high school students to Santa Clarita after concluding the current FMHS principal is inattentive to safety concerns. Others say they are seeking better athletic programs or more electives.
But hopeful new signs are also on the horizon.
At the April 13 board meeting, trustees received an enthusiastic report by Dena Kiouses, principal for both El Tejon School and Frazier Park School. She and Buck Weber, now vice principal at the middle school, said the March 16 Parents’ Forumwas held to recruit parents’ ideas about what is working—and what is not—in ETUSD’s schools.
They also invited homeschool parents to consider what might motivate them to come back into the public schools.
The fast-paced focus group was facilitated by parents, who spun the 50 participants through writing post-it notes and placing them on brainstorm boards at a series of stations around the Frazier Park School cafeteria. In a whirlwind hour, parents and some students provided their ideas about the successes and deficits at each of the district’s schools.
At the April 13 meeting, trustees suggested that holding another public session to share the results of the focus group would be a positive next step.
Trustees discussed asking parents in all the schools to sign pledge contracts—as they do at the PMLC charter school—to agree to contribute volunteer time to help make the schools— and the students—more successful.
Teachers’ “Work Together” Initiative
During the April 14 rally at the four-way stop, teachers made a public commitment to “work together for the benefit of the kids,” Chuck Mullen said.
“We know our district is in a budget crisis,” Frazier Park School’s Susan Edwards explained, “We want to work together to make our program better within the budgetary constraints.”
“‘Working together’ means working together with classified workers, with parents, then with the administration. We’re going to have a dialog with the parents and find out what needs to be done to bring back the students,” Mullen said.
Randy Poland was director of the always-popular music program at El Tejon School before that was cut. He now teaches third grade at Frazier Park School.
“We’re concerned about so many students transferring to Gorman,” Poland said. “We need those students back.”
A reporter asked how many of the rallying group had received pink slips from the district. Out of 12 teachers participating at the rally, four said they had received pink slips.
—Gary Meyer contributed reporting to this story
This is part of the April 29, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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