Shoreline trustees split over teacher

David Briggs
Melissa Riley’s bilingual accreditation helps her serves West Marin-Inverness School’s 50 percent Latino student body.
07/15/2010

The Shoreline Unified School District Board of Trustees voted 3-2 not to provide funds for a first-grade teacher at Inverness School who lost the position to budget cuts. Melissa Riley, a bilingual teacher partially responsible for boosting test scores of the 50 percent Latino student population, needed four votes to secure the job. As a part-time tenured teacher, Riley is assured a position in the district, but not necessarily her past one—unless the board votes to overturn last week’s vote in a special meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

Two board members were absent from last week’s meeting, during which West Marin-Inverness Principal Anne Harris offered to pay for one year of Riley’s $48,000 salary from the campus’ site funds—miscellaneous money allotted to schools and traditionally used at the discretion of the principal.

Board President Tim Kehoe voted in Riley’s favor, along with members Jane Healy and Scott McMorrow. Julie Titus and Monique Moretti, both of Tomales, voted against re-hiring Riley, puzzling some parents.

“If the vote would affect their sports program or something, I could understand it,” said Murray Suid, whose grandchildren would enter Riley’s class in September. “Anne made a huge effort to find this money. I can’t think of any economical reason for them to make the decision that they did.”

Harris proposed funding Riley’s salary with campus funds on the night of the vote, leaving little time for board members to consider the plan as a viable option. Kehoe believes that the “no” votes may have come from board members who already decided what direction they would take; given time for reflection, he thinks they might change their minds.

District Superintendent Stephen Rosenthal did not vote, but is nevertheless sympathetic with the board’s decision to turn down the proposal. “Some of the board members still have concerns, especially down the line,” he said. “There is funding to return her for next year, but it’s the responsibility of the board to be prudent three years out.” He added that although site funds are usually controlled by principals, they still belong to the district.

Riley has a good chance that Tuesday will go well for her—at least one of the two members that were absent from last week’s meeting is expected to vote in her favor. Unless the three “yes” voters change their minds, Riley will have the necessary four votes to return.

Riley was one of three West Marin-Inverness School teachers who received notice last March that their positions might be terminated. Thanks to an unexpected federal windfall last May, the district restored jobs to Anne Halley Harper and Sharon Zarate, and hired Riley part-time.

Over the past two years that she has taught first grade, Riley has seen enormous success. A recent accountability report showed that nearly half of the students that enter the school at kindergarten are socioeconomically disadvantaged and speak English as a second language. By the time they graduate from Riley’s class, everyone is up to grade level language proficiency. 

Laurie Monserrat’s nephew, Haroki, entered Riley’s class unable to speak English and knowing only 16 letters of the alphabet. “Now he loves to read, write, draw. He cried at the last day of school,” Montserrat said. “Going from a kid that was really about to be lost to a kid that’s going to be fine, I think it’s amazing. I don’t think anybody else could have done it. She’s not just a teacher to these kids.”

Riley has been surprised by the amount of public support, which has included several donations to the school. “I’m quite astounded by it all, really. You go through life trying to do the best you can,” she said. “People coming forward and acknowledging that they appreciate that, and they really want it to continue, it’s really something.”

Some parents feel a palpable schism between Shoreline Unified School District’s northern and southern schools, and think that those schools protect their own interests within a highly politicized climate. “There’s a gap between the two parts of the district. A feeling of mistrust,” Suid said.

Although Board President Tim Kehoe hears this complaint, he does not think it holds water. “There is a perception that there is friction between North and South, and that is a perception that is probably unfounded,” he said. “If people would get more involved and see what’s going on, they would not see that the friction is there.”

Kehoe voted in favor of Riley’s return. “At this time we’re on a year-to-year basis,” he said. “For this year, hopefully we can make it work.”

The district has made significant sacrifices this year to squeeze pennies. Classroom supplies were cut in half, and Tomales High English teacher Kavitha Goldowitz gave her resignation—with the hope that she will be able to return in two years. Tomales Principal Dino Battaglini also resigned, with Superintendent Rosenthal taking over the position in addition to running the district.

Sue Gonzalez, who tutors children struggling with reading, may be forced to fill in for Riley in the fall—but doing so would jeopardize a lucrative grant opportunity from the county that could net the school over $75,000. If Gonzalez abandons her reading program, the school would risk losing the much-needed funds.

“The school board promised, when the teachers got their layoff notices, that they would do anything to get them back,” Gonzalez said. “They said they’d look for low-hanging fruit to cut costs. I’m wondering why the teachers are now low-hanging fruit.”