Parents roiled over Lagunitas teacher dismissal

03/17/2021

Parents at the Lagunitas School expressed their dissent at last week’s board meeting over the unexplained dismissal of a new teacher, a move they say reflects broader trends of staff turnover and trustees ignoring the will of the community. The administration and trustees are legally prohibited from explaining the dismissal, and they said the current staff was stronger than ever.

Jill Conroy, the second and third grade teacher in the Montessori program, was let go by a 4-to-1 vote during closed session. She worked at the school for two years and was about to reach tenure, after which she could only be dismissed for cause and with due process. Ms. Conroy is the 14th certificated employee to leave the district in the last seven years. Five retired, seven resigned and one was laid off; Ms. Conroy was the first to be dismissed before she reached tenure. A small number of the resignations came from teachers who chose to leave prior to the board meeting held to dismiss them, though Superintendent John Carroll declined to specify how many did so.

While Mr. Carroll avoided discussing Ms. Conroy specifically, he shed light on the tough decision: Districts can dismiss teachers without cause only during their first 16 months. If the superintendent and principal provide a reason for dismissal, they have to defend that cause and risk having to employ a teacher they don’t think is a match. Granting permanent employment is based on a teacher being a good fit for 20 or 30 years, while retaining a poor fit costs the district a tenured salary at the expense of other personnel, he said. Teachers must be notified by March 15.

“School administrators across the state are put in a particularly hard spot every March: They have information that others don’t,” Mr. Carroll wrote. “They see elements of practice, conduct and belief systems that might be very concerning but that parents, kids and colleagues are unaware of. And they are not allowed to disclose those things, allowing others with limited information and different objectives to control the narrative.”

Parents, many of whom were attending their first board meeting, spent the public comment period detailing the impact that Ms. Conroy has on their children. They said she was skilled at distance learning, dedicated to her students and communicated well with parents. 

“Jill has been our shining light since we’ve been here,” said Kim Clarke, a new parent in the district.  “My kids feel welcome, they feel loved and they feel held in this really challenging time, and it’s because of her 100 percent. It’s going to be a tremendous loss for this community if she’s gone.”

Mosel Pearlman-Ramirez, whose family has been in the district for five years, called Ms. Conroy a great teacher and said her dismissal pushed parents to form a group to collectively advocate for their children. “We’re going to be more active. We’re going to get more involved. And we’re going to have something to say about the education of our kids. And if we don’t get support, we have to find a new community to educate our children,” he said.

Ms. Ferhart, a parent of six years and a teacher in the Open Classroom program, said she understood the difficult position that the district was in, but that losing teachers hurts. The turnover puts teachers who haven’t reached tenure in a tough spot because they don’t know what to say or how to act, she said. “I don’t know if the expectations are unrealistic, or the support and the feedback [are lacking]. I don’t know what pattern is happening, but it does affect the morale of the staff and of the community, and most of all for the children to feel that continuity of knowing that people are going to be there for them,” she said.

Amos Klausner, the lone board member to vote against Ms. Conroy’s dismissal, said he was encouraged by parents speaking out, and he felt a responsibility to listen and represent them. 

Board member Denise Bohman chose not to comment after the meeting. “If I start talking about it, I’m going to cross a line that can’t be crossed,” she said. Both Ms. Conroy and Anita Collison, the teachers’ union president, did not respond to requests for comment. 

The board and the administration pushed back on the idea that the school has issues with teacher retention. Principal Laura Shain said the majority of those who have left retired after a long tenure, moved out of the area or moved on to other professions. The Montessori program went from four to three teachers a few years ago after enrollment dipped, but the program remains strong, with families choosing it and transferring over often, she said.

Trustee Steve Rebscher also defended the district. “If you look at the staff we have now, it’s not in shambles, it’s not in disarray. It’s a really good teaching staff,” he said.

A central tenet of the Lagunitas School is program choice: Elementary school families enroll in either the Montessori or Open Classroom program. A Waldorf-inspired program was ended in 2014 after 10 years because of frequent teacher turnover and the transfer of students out of the program.

The discussion of Ms. Conroy’s employment brought up a broader conversation about the district’s responsiveness to family concerns. Parents have pushed back against the school’s slow reopening progress; Lagunitas was the last elementary school in Marin to bring kids back in person on March 1. The district’s hands were tied after a task force decided in the fall to wait, then the state placed stricter restrictions on reopening. Now, students are spending four hours on campus each week as a task force works out a schedule for more robust instruction. The teachers' union has said they want to be fully vaccinated before spening more time indoors.

The school anticipated an enrollment of 237 in August but had 215 students in February. Students transferred to other local schools, decided to homeschool or moved out of the area, Ms. Shain said. The declining enrollment has a minimal impact on the district’s bottom line, but, like the departure of teachers, it impacts morale and fractures the community.