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School district climate raises concerns in Millbrae: Officials say they’re taking steps to move forward from middle school principal’s sudden resignation
January 27, 2014, 05:00 AM By Angela Swartz Daily Journal

An interim principal for Taylor Middle School will likely be approved at the Millbrae Elementary School District’s board meeting tonight amid a time when parents, staff and teachers have been expressing concern over the overall climate in the district.

A push for change in the treatment of teachers and other staff was sparked by last month’s resignation of Principal Lesley Martin, who some felt was intimidated by the superintendent and school board into leaving. The school has been without a principal for more than a month and an interim would serve for the remainder of the school year while the district begins a search for a permanent principal. The district says it is making an effort to work more with teachers and staff.

“As suggested by our staff and parents, we have been more visible at the schools,” said Superintendent Linda Luna in an email. “These past two weeks, I have spent time with four of the five school staffs. I also have a full day scheduled to be available for all Taylor staff on the Taylor campus in the very near future. Through these face-to-face times with staff, I am able to hear directly from the staff what is needed to better support their work with our students.”

On Dec. 4, the Taylor Middle classified and certificated employees submitted a no confidence vote in Luna because of their fear that she was not providing good leadership. The board will also be discussing an employee climate survey to get a pulse on how staff and teachers feel about their working environments at tonight’s meeting with a recommendation to have a company assist the district.

Math teacher Debra Argenbright, co-president and lead negotiator for the teachers’ Millbrae Education Association, has taught at Taylor for 10 years and contends there is no question morale is really low throughout the district. There have been other issues such as lack of support in the classroom and still large class sizes, she said.

“MEA doesn’t have an official position on it, but obviously we support the Taylor staff and their vote of no confidence,” she said. “A common theme is teachers’ input is not valued by the district. There are low compensation packages here and we oftentimes feel like a low priority here for the board and superintendent. Many teachers see the priorities are wrong here. In the district office, the compensation is average, whereas ours is below.”

Still, Argenbright is hopeful the board and superintendent will change their positions and want teachers to be more involved.

President Denis Fama and Vice President Lynne Ferrario seem open for more visibility and other changes.

“We can’t change things we don’t acknowledge,” Ferrario said. “We need to listen and we need to be on campus more often and be there for the good and not so good. We’re going to make changes.”

The school district held two well-attended parent meetings at Taylor to discuss Martin’s resignation and address parents’ concerns.

One recent school board meeting grew tense during a heated verbal exchange between Trustee Frank Barbaro and a parent when MCTV temporarily went off the air during a public comment section. Karen Lotti, a Taylor physical education and health teacher, called the loss of transmission disturbing, while Taylor parent Rob Mantler said the transparency issues need to stop. The video was back up on the air minutes later and MCTV contends it was simply a technical error.

According to a video of the meeting, Taylor’s attendance secretary, Tina Mondani, told the board at the meeting it should know staff at all levels are seeking out other employment because of a poor working environment and lack of respect, noting a mass exodus of staff will impede the education of students.

“This could very well be the darkest time in our district’s history,” Mondani said. “We’ve been broken. We’re left without a principal, we don’t have a relationship with our superintendent and the school board has been very distant.”

Mantler echoed Mondani’s fears, stating that the district needs to get to the bottom of the hostile work environment.

“I have seen a procession of employees crying about working conditions,” Mantler said. “We have a crisis in the district because of lack of leadership.”

Trustee Don Revelo said, unfortunately, the number of times the board has this kind of participation in meetings is relatively few. He said he would like to be more visible on campus, but being a part-time volunteer impedes his ability to do this more.

Meanwhile, Barbaro said he talked to a lot of parents and teachers afraid to come to express their support for the district because they don’t have the same feelings as those who have been speaking out negatively about the district climate. He also believes it’s time to move forward and get back to the business of educating kids.

“There’s two sides to this story,” he said. “People get angry and walk out of the room and don’t want to hear the other side. There’s nothing to hide and we’re sorry we put our superintendent in front of the drilling that went on at Taylor two times in a row. It’s a lucky thing I wasn’t there because I wouldn’t have stood for it. Talk about bullying, thank you.”

The board meets 6:30 p.m. tonight at the district office conference room, 555 Richmond Drive in Millbrae.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 105



Tags: district, staff, board, taylor, school, teachers,

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