When more than 100 people packed the board room at the Old Cambria Grammar School on Thursday, April 12, many of them brought the same message: The district’s reassignment of 10 classroom teachers will hurt the quality of education in Cambria.
In a show of unity, several teachers on the Santa Lucia middle school staff arrived wearing blue team jerseys, and members of the Latino community turned out in force, as well, comprising perhaps one-quarter of the audience.
The turnout for the 4½-hour meeting was in response to the fallout from Coast Unified School District’s decision to reduce its teaching staff, through voluntary retirements, by 5.5 positions. The reduction forced district to reassign some of the instructors who remained.
But according to several teachers who delivered public comments at the Aug. 12 meeting, half or more of those 10 reassignments were involuntary. Moreover, they said, some of the instructors affected were being asked to teach during their normal prep periods.
“This is worse than holes in a boat,” said Santa Lucia teacher Sherry Aguilar. “We are sinking. There may not be teachers left at Coast. There are teachers that are looking elsewhere.”
Speakers addressed at least three specific programs that are being affected: technology, art and English language development, or ELD.
This year, a pair of student teams finished near the top of the national Cyber Patriot competition under the direction of Coast Union technology and business teacher Ayen Johnson. (The program teaches students how to prevent computer hacking and familiarizes them with cybersecurity.) But Johnson has been reassigned to Santa Lucia Middle School, where he’ll teach language arts and history instead.
Johnson, who said his daughter was getting ready to enter high school said he was “questioning whether I even want her to attend Coast Union.”
Members of the local Latino community, meanwhile, approached the podium together to express their concerns that the changes were hurting the district’s ELD program.
“The parents of Cambria’s Hispanic community are very concerned, particularly in how this will affect English language development in our schools,” said parent Esther De Alba.
“Sadly, this district has decided that ELD is not a priority,” eighth-grade teacher Emily Mills said. “There is no reason for us to be here tonight except for those kids. … You are taking away their teachers, you are taking away their programs, and you are taking away their futures.”
The Santa Lucia art program will also be changing. Suzette Morrow, who had developed seamless course of instruction that spanned the middle school and high school years, was transferred to Cambria Grammar School half time (she will continue at the high school). Morrow, the district’s teacher of the year, told the board that the move threatened the continuity of instruction she had established.
But the effects of the move didn’t stop there. With Morrow leaving the middle school, Colleen Poynter was chosen to step in as her replacement at Santa Lucia. Poynter has a degree in art history but no experience teaching studio art and, compounding the problem, she has been assigned to teach during her normal prep period, giving her no chance to get up to speed on her new duties, Morrow said.
“What appears to work on paper may not work in the classroom or be best for the students,” said Poynter, who at one point broke into tears. “This is super upsetting, and I’m not sad,” she said. “I’m just passionate about my kids.”
The district has been searching for ways to tighten its belt in the face of rising retirement costs and declining enrollment, but some members of the audience asked whether those challenges warranted the kind of action the district has taken.
“We have more money per student than any other district in the county,” Santa Lucia librarian Suzanne Kennedy said, “so I’m wondering where our money is being spent.”
At previous board meetings, some teachers and community members questioned raises given to administrators, particularly the superintendent, as the district tightens its belt.
On April 12, Sue Nash, a former trustee, told the board that, whatever the budget constraints, they weren’t enough to justify the changes.
“It really disturbs me that, in a public school system, teachers and parents are begging for an education,” Nash said. “If we do not have the funding, it is up to us to make that funding happen.”
Vote already taken
Superintendent Vicki Schumacher said the reassignments had already been voted on by the board and implemented, but some teachers said they were given little or no input regarding changes in assignment.
Teacher reassignments are as follows: Justin Gish to third grade at Cambria Grammar School; Dan Hartzell half time to Leffingwell High School; Thom Holt to social science at Coast Union; Johnson to an elective and language history at Santa Lucia Middle School; Morrow half time to art at the grammar school; Ron Poulos to middle school math; Poynter to middle school art; Daniel Schalk half time to grammar school ELD; Sean Spradley half time to Leffingwell High; and Mary Stenbeck to high school counselor.
Morrow said she received papers about her reassignment to sign the day before spring break, and Poynter said she refused to sign hers because they indicated that the reassignment was voluntary.
“I didn’t volunteer to do this,” she said.
Santa Lucia Middle School Principal Kyle Martin said the reassignments were more disruptive than he’d been led to believe they would be, because they affected more than the 5.5 vacant positions. “It totaled up to eight different periods, not 5½,” Martin said. “It wasn’t clear. It was an inaccurate document that was voted on, and now we’re being held accountable for it.”
With the reassignments already in effect, the only issue scheduled for consideration April 12 was whether two days of staff development time should be set aside for teachers whose roles were changing.
Some speakers said they’d take the two days, because they needed all the time they could get; others were incredulous.
Morrow’s husband, Brian Morrow, said it was unrealistic for a teacher to get a handle on a new subject in the space of two days. “A two-day period to learn curriculum someone has spent years developing is just a joke,” he said. “You’re forcing an individual who has a different area of expertise (to teach a new subject), and you’re giving them two days?”
Trustee Dennis Rightmer suggested holding a special meeting to consider the item May 10, and board member Tiffany Silva seconded his motion. Although the meeting was called specifically to address only the two staff development days, board President Samuel Shalhoub suggested that the agenda could be reorganized to take another look at the issue of staff reassignments.
Rightmer’s motion was approved 4-1, with board Clerk Del Clegg dissenting.