West Marin School head demoted

06/28/2018

The Shoreline Unified School District board decided late last week to reassign Matt Nagle, the principal of West Marin and Inverness Schools, to a kindergarten through second grade teaching position at the Bodega Bay School, and met immediate backlash. 

Sixth-grade teacher Chris Eckert, an Inverness resident who has taught at the school for four years, will take over Mr. Nagle’s position as an interim principal. 

Though last Thursday the board appointed a co-principal, Luis Burgos, who teaches second grade, Mr. Burgos pulled out earlier this week, explaining in an email to the staff that he prefers to continue teaching full-time. His decision followed harsh criticism from school community members, who questioned the credentials of both teachers and accused them of participating in a campaign to unseat Mr. Nagle. 

Superintendent Bob Raines last night released an official announcement of the changes, which had been delayed due to Mr. Burgos’s hesitation and in order to meet with staff members, many of whom are upset by the decision and fear the school’s hasty transition. 

Mr. Raines said the district will re-evaluate whether to keep Mr. Eckert, who has an administrative credential but has not yet held an administrative role, in January.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nagle, who has tenure after spending six years in the district, has been demoted to a teaching position.

At the board meeting last week, parents and staff members expressed outrage following the announcement of his reassignment.  

“What you have just done is devastating,” Heidi Koenig, who has a son at Tomales High and another at West Marin, said to the board. “I’m incredibly disappointed in what you did today—you did not listen to the people, so many of whom are in support of Matt. You have left the school in absolute disarray.” 

Mr. Nagle and numerous people in the audience left the meeting when the board released its decision after its closed session. 

It has been a rocky spring for Mr. Nagle, a Fairfax resident who decided to run for the position of county superintendent of schools against incumbent Mary Jane Burke on a platform of Mexican-American achievement. He was the first challenger she has had since she assumed office in 1994. 

Though Mr. Nagle ultimately pulled 21 percent of the vote while staying true to his commitment to not spend any campaign funds, Shoreline’s board threatened to not renew his annual contract mere weeks after he announced his decision to run. 

The initial notice given to Mr. Nagle, which met a March 15 state deadline to inform a certificated employee of a possible demotion, listed issues with the principal’s leadership and behavior, but lacked specificity. Mr. Nagle declined to share a subsequent letter of reprimand with this newspaper.

 When probed this week, Mr. Raines, who penned the notice, also did not provide any reasons for the reassignment, pointing to confidentiality requirements around personnel issues. 

Mr. Raines has continuously denied any causal link between the threat of demotion and Mr. Nagle’s decision to run for office—but the perception that there was one caused considerable upheaval at the school this spring. 

The board and Mr. Raines have come under fire for months, with parents circulating a petition declaring a vote of no confidence in him and the board over what they called a lack of “honest communication” and “transparency” primarily in handling the employment of Mr. Nagle, for whom many also expressed support. 

Mr. Raines has also come under attack from some employees who claim he has been responsible for a stalemate with classified staff in negotiating new terms to their health benefits and salaries and for failing to fill necessary vacant positions at the school, among other acts of negligence. 

The most recent decision to demote Mr. Nagle seemed to ignite simmering frustrations. The no-confidence petition, signed by nearly 100 staff and parents, was delivered this week to the district. Another petition that advocates for Mr. Nagle’s continued role as principal was also submitted. 

On Monday, a group of staff who haven’t yet disbanded for summer vacation held a special meeting. And in response to widespread discontent, Mr. Raines invited the staff to convene yesterday morning to share their grievances before moving forward with plans. 

In his email invitation to staff, which was leaked to the Light, Mr. Raines wrote, “I understand that a lot of rumors are flying about, and a lot of unfortunate things have been shared with a number of folks. I hope that I can inspire some clarity and give us all a chance to breathe in the face of a lot of uncertainty.”

He also took responsibility for the recommendation to reassign Mr. Nagle. “That was not what I had hoped for back in March (or in April or in May or in early June for that matter), but that is where we have landed,” he wrote. 

Mr. Raines also attempted to take some heat off of the teachers who were asked to take the co-principal positions, assuring his staff that he had approached them, not the other way around.   

He called for the staff meeting to be an “open and honest conversation.”

That meeting was not open to the public, but a number of the concerns from the school community have been aired to the Light in recent days. They include that the new principal posts were not filled through due process, since the position was not posted online. 

The two teachers are among just three male teachers at the school, leading some to make claims that the choice was sexist. 

And, overall, support for Mr. Nagle is still high—and interest in a smooth transition for the school is even higher. 

In her 14 years at the school, Linda Borello, an administrative secretary at West Marin School and the president of Shoreline’s chapter of the California School Employees Association, said that during her time in the district, the school board let go of four principals and two superintendents. There have been numerous interim appointments in that same time period. 

Though the school community was behind most of those decisions, Ms. Borello said a common thread has been “poor timing” and “poor execution” on the part of the school board. This instance was no exception, she said.  

“If they were going to get rid of Matt, they should have done so in March, when he had time to do what was right for his career and his family, and we had time to find a top-quality candidate to replace him,” Ms. Borello said. 

She shared a 2012 staff survey, in which preferences leaned away from a “rush hire” and from the assignment of co-principals. 

Ms. Borello has been an avid supporter of Mr. Nagle and especially critical of Mr. Raines, whom she describes as out of touch with the schools yet having tremendous support from the board and the county. 

“Matt has never had a bad review, and Bob could never give us a hard reason why his job was in jeopardy—it’s always been a witch hunt,” she said. “For me, this shows the failure of the board to listen to and represent the staff, the students, the teachers, the parents and the community.” 

And though the board acted last week in time to meet a June 30 deadline to decide whether or not to renew Mr. Nagle’s annual employment contract, the late date leaves him little room to maneuver. 

The hiring process for principal positions statewide typically begins in early spring for the next school year. 

Mr. Nagle, who just completed his 19th year as an administrator in Marin and Santa Clara County schools, said his salary will likely be halved at his new teaching post—it’s currently $150,000 per year—a fact that he says is especially daunting given that his daughter is off to college in the fall. 

He also said he plans to pull his seventh-grade son out of the school in hopes of protecting him from the happenings in the district. “This is all going to be toughest on Matteo,” he said. 

As for his role as principal, Mr. Nagle has already cleared out his desk. 

For him, the ties between his decision to run for the county position and his reassignment are directly linked. He pointed to the fact that many of the Shoreline school board members endorsed Ms. Burke, who has held her position since 1994. 

He said from the moment he decided to run against her—a decision he said he made at a staff party in 2014 after listening to parents and staff express discontent with the way the school board handled a firing and rehiring of a previous superintendent—he knew his job would be in jeopardy. 

“Running for county superintendent wasn’t a risk—it was a huge risk,” Mr. Nagle, who camped out in private at the Inverness School on Monday for some peace and quiet, said. “But the issues I spoke about—Mexican American and Latino achievement, for example—were that important to me. That’s the difference between standing up for something and collecting your monthly paycheck.”

Mr. Nagle said current enrollment at the school speaks to his achievements as principal. Despite the fact that enrollment at many other West Marin districts is falling, West Marin and Inverness Schools have gone from 139 students in 2014 to 190 registered now.  

“When I got here in 2012, the school was broken. I took a school that was broken and turned it into the best K-8 school in Marin, period,” he said. “To have the board and the superintendent ruin that is almost criminal. The school was dying."