Amid crisis, new help for Rosenthal

04/05/2012

After an emergency meeting Tuesday evening in Tomales, the Shoreline Unified School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to hire an interim administrator to bolster leadership at Tomales High for the remainder of the school year. The move was made at the strong recommendation of Marin County Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke, whose help was requested amid widespread community uproar over the process that led to the resignation of Anne Harris as principal of West Marin School last week.

The meeting was called to evaluate the performance of Shoreline superintendent Stephen Rosenthal, who simultaneously serves as principal of Tomales High; his evaluation remains ongoing.

The move for additional support at Tomales is intended to ease the school’s transition to a new full-time principal, who will begin next year, and to allow Rosenthal to better concentrate on his role as superintendent during a period of exceptional turbulence and challenges for the district: in addition to hiring a new principal for West Marin School, Shoreline is faced with the sizable task of repairing the damage done by what many perceived to be hasty, opaque personnel decisions and a larger breach of public trust on the part of the superintendent and board.

After a lengthy closed session on Tuesday, Burke said that over the past three weeks she has received a lot of feedback from members of the district—one of 19 in the county—related to decisions made by the Shoreline board.

“I have some recommendations based on information that I have, the fact that I’ve worked with your district for a long time, the fact that [I’ve worked] with this board, along with previous boards,” she said. “I believe that at this point in time the district needs to get some additional support in order to move on a go-forward basis. And while there have been decisions that have provided some angst in our community, we want to get back on track and go forward.”

Burke said she believed the district in its current form was unable to effectively deal with its many challenges, including that of reconnecting with the community, and that she had someone in mind for the new position at Tomales.

The interim administrator comes at a pricetag of roughly $600 per day; board trustees  expressed an interest in sharing the cost with the county. Details of the arrangement will be discussed at a board meeting scheduled for Thursday. Jim Patterson, the interim principal at West Marin School, is paid at a similar daily rate.

“What we can’t afford is—we can’t afford for things to drift, for our kids to feel like they’re not being given what they need,” board trustee Jane Healy said regarding the cost that will be incurred by the district. “That’s the most expensive choice—to do nothing.”

Burke hinted that the problems plaguing the district may stem in part from the board’s decision to split Rosenthal’s energy between the two positions. The dual-role structure was designed as a temporary cost-saving measure for the 2010-11 school year and not intended to extend into a second year.

“I’m not second guessing your decision,” Burke told the board regarding that arrangement. “I want you to know I know you all to be of good will, and we all make the best decisions that we can make at the time we make them, but I think in this case if we knew what we know now related to the current challenges the district is facing, that perhaps that decision would not have gone into year two.”

While the board and many of the 20 or so parents in attendance seemed to strongly support Burke’s recommendation, others questioned the move.

“It doesn’t seem to me that anything really is changing except for another paid employee coming in to the mix, with Stephen Rosenthal still being in charge,” Connie Giammona, a mother said. “I don’t really understand why—I don’t see how it will switch anything.” After the meeting, Giammona added that she hoped the board would take more time to make future decisions. “I think the last decision—the principal being fired or whatever she was—I think they acted in haste and I think it’s a good idea they’re taking the time to at least contemplate their options.”

A whirlwind month

Tuesday’s meeting came after a succession of controversial events in the district. On Monday, March 11 the board met to consider a request by Anne Harris to terminate the contract of a bilingual teacher at West Marin School, Judy Van Evera, reportedly because of a complaint about the first-year teacher. At the special meeting, a number of teachers stood in solidarity with Van Evera, and the event drew widespread community attention.

Two weeks later, at a PTSA meeting on Tuesday, March 26, Superintendent Rosenthal announced to a shocked and distraught group of parents that Harris herself had resigned as a result of a discussion with him. The superintendent said the discussion came after he and the board had received numerous comments about Harris.   

At a widely-attended and tense board meeting the following day, last Wednesday, board president Tim Kehoe announced the trustees’ vote, made in closed session, to ratify the decision made by Rosenthal to place Harris on administrative leave immediately and accept her resignation beginning at the end of the school year. The board had voted five to two in favor of the motion; Jill Sartori and Jane Healy were the two dissenting voters.

“I would like all of you to come away with two things,” Sartori said in an emotional address to the public last Wednesday. “The first thing is that Anne Harris was treated badly in this process. Assuming everything that certain board members heard was true, she deserved the opportunity to respond to those complaints. She deserved the opportunity to provide her side of the story because we know every story has two sides. She deserved to have the full board make an informed decision based on that information, and that didn’t happen.

“The second thing is the decision to place Anne Harris on administrative leave was not a board decision. That was a decision made by Stephen Rosenthal without a board vote. The board today ratified that decision in a five to two vote after it had happened; that did not happen before. I think this whole process has resulted from a crisis in leadership in our district, and it has to be addressed.”

At the same meeting, which was held in a packed auditorium at West Marin School immediately before the final National Equity Project workshop, many audience members expressed outrage and a deep sense of hurt at the district’s handling of events. Others provided passionate testimony both in support of and against Harris.

Dwayne Meredith, a father of one child at West Marin School and one at Inverness School, said the district was wrong for one of two reasons in the process that led to  Harris’s sudden resignation.

“If it was so important she had to be dismissed that quickly, why are we still paying her my tax dollars?” he asked. “And why is she not facing some sort of criminal charges if it was a criminal act? Otherwise, she was dismissed way too soon. One or the other is wrong there, and I think everybody that’s got a stake in this district has a right to have an answer.”

Alicia Alvarez, president of West Marin School’s ELAC organization, spoke in favor of the former principal. “Anne Harris did a wonderful job under extreme pressure. She supported the Latino community and was always present at our ELAC meetings to give support and answer any questions. The way this was handled is completely unacceptable—our students were told different stories about her departure. They were not even able to say goodbye.” 

Arlette Syrup, a longtime aide at West Marin School, spoke with emotion. “A lot of you weren’t with her daily, or maybe [you were with her] just five minutes when you dropped your kid off, but you were not in the trenches with her,” she said. “You do not know the feelings she imposed on us. I have been in the district 26 years and I have never felt this way before. I love this school. I love this district. And I have never felt this emotion. We’re in such disarray it hurts.  It hurts because I love this school so much.”

A long road back

Waiting for the end of the closed session in a corner of the cramped Tomales Elementary art room where Tuesday’s emergency meeting took place, three fathers shared concerns about the district’s leadership that have been on many parents’ minds in recent weeks. Not least among them was frustration over the schools’ lack of sufficient public notice about the meetings.

“You know how I found out about this?” Meredith asked. “We called to let them know that my son wasn’t in school tomorrow for a medical appointment and they said, ‘Oh, are you going to the meeting tomorrow?’ What meeting?”

Mike Strode, a father of four students, said he found out about the meeting only because his wife happens to be a bus driver.

“Personally I think they should have kept Anne Harris,” Rob Arndt, who has three girls at the high school, added. “I don’t think they should have put her out on leave. If you’re going to fire somebody you outright fire ‘em. You don’t say, ‘I’m sorry about firing you so I’m going to give you some money to carry on while you go find another job.’ If they’ve done wrong, you absolutely fire them—we’re already fighting for money. We’re already under budget. To pay two principals I think is absolutely crazy.”

From his personal experience with rules and contracts, Meredith said he believes the district didn’t have a legitimate reason “to kick Anne to the curb. If they would have fired her and taken her money, she would have had legal recourse to sue the school district—that’s why they’re paying her, and that tells me their dismissal of her was wrong. But they’re hiding everything under this cloak of secrecy—‘Oh it’s a personnel action so it’s all secret.’ That’s’ horse manure. They’re using that as a shield.”

Meredith also said the ongoing events have permeated school walls, at least at West Marin, where the longstanding trust students had for their teachers has been eroded. The students, he said, were misled about the nature of their principal’s resignation. 

“At West Marin there’s like a pall over the school, not so much laughing and joking. The students—they’re savvy, they know they were lied to that Ms. Harris left for personal reasons. They all know now. They can read the daggone newspapers. They can hear their parents talking. They hear the teachers talking in the hallway. They know what’s going on. They know something really wrong happened. And today they had a new principal walking around.”

For his part Rosenthal, speaking before this Tuesday’s meeting, said that given the immense challenges he’s been faced with over the past few weeks he believes he has dealt with the situation as well as he could have.

“When things go south a bit, you always look back and just [review]. That’s what I’ve done,” he said.

Towards the end of the evening’s meeting, the board reflected on the recent events that have so shaken the community, and offerered their commitment to continually working to improve district leadership.

“I think if there’s one thing we’ve learned, or at least I’ve learned, during the past few weeks, is we should not be making hasty decisions because we’re upset or mad or have questions about people’s leadership,” Sartori said.