Job uncertain for West Marin School principal

David Briggs
West Marin School parents, teachers and students are worried the district will decide not to renew Principal Matt Nagle’s contract.  

Dozens of West Marin School teachers, parents and students attended last Thursday’s meeting of Shoreline Unified School District’s board of trustees to speak in support of Principal Matt Nagle, whose job is in jeopardy. 

The district board issued Mr. Nagle a preliminary notice that the terms and conditions of his employment may change. A performance evaluation is planned for Friday. 

The notice, which met a March 15 state deadline to inform a principal of a possible demotion, listed issues with Mr. Nagle’s leadership and behavior. 

Yet many in the community have speculated that the board’s decision to question his contract came as retaliation for Mr. Nagle’s decision to challenge Mary Jane Burke, the county superintendent of schools, in this June’s election.

Officials have denied that claim. 

“It’s completely unrelated,” Shoreline Superintendent Bob Raines said. “We’ve had previous conversations heading down this road.” 

School boards, which are responsible for renewing principals’ contracts at the recommendation of a district superintendent, have until June 30 to take action.

West Marin School parents received an automatic message about the board’s plan to discuss Mr. Nagle’s performance evaluation in closed session the day before the meeting. One parent called for heightened transparency (“We want clear oversight,” Melissa Claire said) and another was skeptical of the district’s motives.

“I heard about this rushed message yesterday and I’ve tried to find out information since then,” Robert Cardwell said. “All I can say is if it smells bad, it stinks, and this is one rotten piece of fish.”

Speaking to the board before the closed session on Thursday, Anais Nagle, Mr. Nagle’s 12th-grade campaign manager and daughter, gave an impassioned chronology of events of the last several weeks that she said illustrates the motive behind giving him notice. 

The day Mr. Nagle filed to run in the June election, he received an email from Jan La Torre-Derby, a former Novato Unified School District superintendent, about his candidacy. Ms. La Torre-Derby urged him to “change his mind” and said that not doing so could “risk future support from trustees.” 

The email outlined multiple reasons why Mr. Nagle should not run. 

Ms. Nagle championed her father’s campaign, saying he was the first Mexican-American candidate in the history of the county office and, unlike his opponent, “actually believes that Mexican and Mexican-American students can achieve academically as well as white and Asian students, and he is willing to say it

Other speakers praised Mr. Nagle’s leadership, while others accepted his so-called arrogance—some staff had seen the board’s notice, which used the term—as part and parcel with his positive traits. 

“When my kids see Matt at the end of school, it’s not like they’re seeing a principal, but seeing a friend,” Luke Giacomini, one parent, said. “I just don’t understand why his job is even in question right now, but I guess you guys do. It would be real hard not to see him next year and a real shame if was gone.”

Olivia Wollenburg, an intervention instructional assistant and the mother of two students, told the board that Mr. Nagle is the reason she’s happy to drive her children to school every day from their home in Stinson Beach.

“The community said, ‘Don’t drive up to Point Reyes,’ but as soon as I met with Matt Nagle I knew my kids would flourish at this school,” she said. “To even hint that you’d be willing to lose this gem is disgraceful and absurd. You need to think about what you’re doing with this valuable asset.”

Teachers also spoke out. David Whitney, who has taught music at West Marin since 1999, said the school has been functioning at its highest level under Mr. Nagle’s leadership. Special education teacher Kelsy Henke explained that he is a big supporter of teachers.

“The positive side of Matt’s arrogance is he’ll fight for us,” she said. “He’s continually ensuring we have what we need to do our job. While I understand Matt has some rough edges, he’s the most effective and approachable administrator I’ve had.”

During the six years that Mr. Nagle has been principal at West Marin School, enrollment numbers have reached capacity. He’s helped implement the Early School Success program, which has boosted enrollment in local preschools. He typically ends the school day personally saying goodbye to each student. 

Several of those students spoke in Mr. Nagle’s defense on Thursday, including a Latina who said how much she appreciated having a bilingual principal. Another student said she would be disheartened to see a new principal next year who didn’t know all the students’ names.

Mr. Nagle was visibly touched by the outpouring, at one point excusing himself from the packed library to contain his tears. When he took his turn before the board, he apologized to the community for taking the focus away from the students. He also asked to attend the closed session meeting to “address these weird, nebulous, ambiguous allegations [contained in the notice].” (He was denied.)

Mr. Nagle has questioned Ms. Burke’s long tenure—she’s served since 1994, a tenure he has compared to Fidel Castro’s reign in Cuba. He has also questioned her need to raise donations when her salary exceeds $300,000. 

On Thursday he defended his comments, telling the audience he refused to bow to pressure.

Talking to the Light after the meeting, Mr. Nagle said the school is having one of its best years yet, recently highlighted by a field trip to San Francisco for the Chinese New Year parade, an experience he said blended together the school’s Chinese, Mexican and Anglo cultures. 

“I admit I can be quite stubborn, and that goes along with being goal-orientated,” he said. “It is also why we’ve achieved so much. Four years ago, we had 130 [students] and now we’re reaching 190. The school is growing and thriving. Other schools out here in West Marin are losing enrollment and we are literally turning transfers away because we have no room.”

Mr. Nagle is campaigning on a platform to bring focus to the achievement gap between Anglo and Mexican-American students in Marin, whom he has described as being in a state of crisis. 

Though he admits he doesn’t have data points to prove that he’s closing the gap at West Marin School, he said Mexican-American students from West Marin are being accepted into private high schools like Branson and Marin Academy.

He and his wife are both Mexican-American, and his candidacy meets a huge personal goal, he said. “This is our dream—to participate in the American political process—and I told [my family] there would be a price to pay. I am in a political race and my participation includes exposing my political views. However, I don’t do it at school,” he said.