Teacher dismissal prompts petition

04/07/2021

The fallout from the unexplained dismissal of a beloved teacher at the Lagunitas School District continues: A group of parents has created a petition and will deliver it to the school next week, and they’re exploring more drastic action, including a recall of trustee Denise Bohman. 

Tensions have run high at board meetings over the last month after elementary school teacher Jill Conroy’s contract was not renewed, just before she reached permanent status. The school board and administration have followed their lawyer’s advice to not explain the decision, because they would have to defend the cause if they were to provide one. 

Dozens of parents have detailed the positive impact that Ms. Conroy had on their children, and her colleagues wrote a letter saying that she was an excellent addition to the team. Still, the administration recommended her dismissal and the board agreed, creating a frustrating situation for parents who haven’t been given the full picture.

The parent group, called the Lagunitas Concerned Parents, consists of roughly 20 people, and their petition to get Ms. Conroy rehired has over 250 signatories. Their “save our school” rally will be held after school on Wednesday, followed by the board meeting on Thursday. 

Many of the concerned parents are newer to the district, and they got involved last summer on the school’s reopening task force. That was also an ordeal. Parents begged for in-person instruction while teachers hesitated to go back, and the board was caught in the middle. Lagunitas School was the last elementary school to reopen in Marin. The issue appears to have been resolved: Students will return with a robust in-person schedule five days a week starting on Monday.

Parents say the messy reopening process and the dismissal of Ms. Conroy are the latest examples of trustees, the principal and the superintendent making decisions that are not aligned with the needs of the community, to the detriment of students and the district’s reputation. At least 22 students decided not to attend the school after signing up in the fall, and parents have threatened that a larger exodus is coming.

“The relationship between the board and the parents is just completely broken,” parent David Sokolosky said.

While unpopular decisions are at the root of the tension, both trustees and parents are also bothered by the other side’s tone. Parents say that trustees view them as naïve and whiny. They feel that the board is interested only in moving its agenda along and not in answering questions. When parents pleaded for Ms. Conroy to stay, they wanted a board member to at least acknowledge their hurt and offer a solution, instead of only saying what can’t be done.

“That was an awakening for us,” parent Kevin Koenig said. “Our concerns and voices were met with such disdain; it was really shocking. It felt like they were not interested in our opinions, and they kept throwing up roadblocks.”

On the other side, trustees say they are responsive to parents. But in the case of Ms. Conroy, parents didn’t get their way and can’t know everything, so now they are attacking the board. Trustees have pleaded for civility.

“We are concerned, and we try very hard,” said Richard Sloan, a trustee for 50 years. “I believe the Lagunitas School District makes more of an effort to listen to parents than any other district in the world.”

Mr. Sloan said that when parents have approached the board with grievances, the school has resolved the angst by creating programs or entertaining ideas that the parents desire. 

Superintendent John Carroll added that some parents don’t understand what a school board meeting is. They see it as members of the public meeting with the board, when in fact it’s a meeting of the board, held in public. “Parents are treating board meetings like protests,” he said.

Ms. Bohman, who has been on the board for nearly 20 years and is the only female trustee, has been singled out. She chaired the meeting when Ms. Conroy was let go, and parents said she was rude and dismissive. But in an interview this week, she said she feels judged by people who don’t know her. The parents don’t see that she cried after the meeting and couldn’t sleep that night. They’ve accosted her at the post office and sent nasty emails. Holding the meetings virtually makes it worse and allows for behavior that wouldn’t fly in person. Parents were drinking, she said.

Ms. Bohman said her specialties are the budget and facilities, so she is used to asking unpopular yet pragmatic questions that paint her in a negative light. But never before has she had people come at her like this. She said she is being discriminated against for her age, that parents want her gone because she is too old. She feels unappreciated for her dedication after volunteering countless hours at meetings, the book fair, fundraising events and more. “This district is my third child,” she said.

Ms. Bohman was elected to her fifth term in November, and she said she won’t run again in 2024. Mr. Sloan is also likely to retire then. The three other board members—Steve Rebscher, Amos Klausner and James Sanders—end their terms next year. One of the concerned parents, real estate agent Mosel Pearlman-Ramirez, is planning to run.

“If you want your school to be better, you have to be more involved,” he said.

The petition to get Ms. Conroy rehired is mostly symbolic. Parents don’t think the decision will be reversed, and Ms. Conroy has told them she doesn’t want to work for people who don’t want her there. But parents hope they can ensure a beloved teacher isn’t let go again.

Ms. Conroy is the 14th teacher 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 Mr. Carroll didn’t specify how many.

Jessica Castelli, a parent of two children in the district, moved to the valley five years ago. Her son had teacher Amy Logan in second grade, then Ms. Logan resigned after one year. Ms. Castelli was surprised and disappointed to see her go, so she joined the interview committee to find her replacement. That committee hired Ms. Conroy with great excitement. Ms. Castelli’s son had Ms. Conroy and loved her, and her daughter was expecting to have her next year. Ms. Castelli feels like she invested herself in the interview process, and the rug was pulled out from under her.

Mr. Carroll told the Light that hiring decisions don’t occur during the interview process, but rather over the 16 months before a teacher reaches permanent status. He shared a five-page outline detailing what he does and doesn’t look for in a teacher. Popularity is not indicative of effectiveness and should not be used to make employment decisions, he said. He likened the interview to a first date, and the probationary period to dating before marriage; permanent status should only be granted to employees who are a good fit for the next 20 or 30 years, he said.

This isn’t the first time that Mr. Carroll has caught flack for his hiring processes. At both Lagunitas and Bolinas-Stinson Union School Districts, labor unions have written letters over his practice of disregarding applicants before handing over a pool to the hiring committee for review.