Fussin’ & Fightin’ At AV Unified
by Bruce Anderson, May 31, 2017
Confusion reigns at neo-turbulent AV Unified, with more confusion undoubtedly served up this Tuesday (30 May), but served too late for this week’s paper-paper. Last week’s hurry-up meetings, plural, saw a puzzled crowd of teachers and a few parents stuff themselves into Superintendent Hutchins’ office at the Elementary School late in the afternoon to mull over a five-item agenda that included a student expulsion; a possible hire of a hearing officer to oversee that student expulsion; extension of a contract with Jendi Coursey Communications to do public relations work for the district; an evaluation of the superintendent's job performance; the "dismissal, discipline, release of a public employee," presumably Keri St. Jeor, high school principal. That dismissal turned out to be the suspension, with pay, of Elementary School principal, Katherine Reddick.
Trustee Wynne Crissman chaired the meeting. Also on hand were trustees Natalie Matson, Kerri Sanchez, and Eric Arbanovella, the latter resigned as of June 30. (Apologies to Mr. Arbanovella for our assumption that he had already retired when he is much, much with us.) The only public comment was from Mark Scaramella who suggested that the Board make decisions more on what people do or don’t do and less on what they say they’re doing. It seems the Mendo chasm between rhetoric and reality has finally annoyed the veteran meeting-goer.
The Board seemed unprepared for the approximately 20 people who showed up to watch heads roll, but the board briskly proceeded through the few minutes of the open session part of what turned out to be more than three hours in closed session. Before they disappeared from public view, the board approved the contract with the Office of the Administrative Hearings (OAH), which permits AV Unified to pay through the nose for a retired judge to conduct an expulsion hearing. The expulsion process over the years has been a hearing before the local school board and an appeal, if any, to the County School Board. Bringing in a retired judge seems unnecessary, and is certainly expensive.
The question of extending the existing agreement with Jendi Communications arose because in the last three months the district has spent $6000 on having the sprightly Ukiah-based public relations person do things like update the school’s Facebook page; the $6 thousand was the initial funding limit on Ms. Coursey’s services.
There was a confusing discussion about one of the motions when Arbanovella, diving into a well worn copy of Roberts Rules of Order, insisted that he was allowed to move to postpone the Jendi Communications discussion. Unable to find the pertinent back-up in Robert’s Rules, Arbanovella withdrew his motion, and the board simply voted not to continue the contract with the stipulation that they can still authorize Ms. Coursey to do work on a case-by-case basis, one of those cases apparently being a statement of an allegation by the Elementary School principal that she was held against her will in the superintendent's office by the superintendent. (AV Unified is believed to be the only school district on the Northcoast with its own p.r. person.)
The School Board decided to abdicate their responsibility as a board to conduct an expulsion hearing by turning the job over to an outside lawyer who "knows the law" as opposed to "lay people,” as Mr. Arbanovella described himself and his fellow trustees. It apparently hasn't occurred to him that there are lawyers and there are lawyers. Some are capable, some aren’t, but they’re all expensive even if school district money seems like free money when it’s not coming out of a trustee’s pocket.
This Community might be better served if their school board exerted the authority vested in them by law and decide on the matters before them rather than continue to contract out routine disputes like expulsion hearings and the hiring out of "communications."
At one point during the discussion of the Jendi Communications agreement, board member Kerri Sanchez asked, "Can we come back to this after we have our new principal?" — implying that the decision to replace one of two principals has already been made.
Early in the meeting, there was a pause while a lawyer named Jennifer Nicks (Nix?) spoke inaudibly on the speaker phone, advising the board about various options and procedures, a phone call that probably cost the school district a couple of hundred bucks. As the four trustees then retreated into closed session, the pesky Scaramella said he assumed they would make an announcement out of closed session about the matters they talked privately about, but that a written announcement would suffice. The board agreed to what is anyway required of them from the state’s open meeting laws. Another hurry-up meeting was scheduled for the next day, Wednesday afternoon at five, venue to be announced but turned out to be the Superintendent’s office.
Blood in the water. The second hurry-up meeting of the Anderson Valley School Board in as many days, trustee Dick Browning presiding, convened promptly at 5pm last Wednesday afternoon to discuss a volatile two-item agenda. (Browning is just back from a vacation in Italy.)
Again, some twenty persons, mostly elementary school staff, supplemented by a few parents, crowded into the superintendent's office for three minutes of "open session," during which Browning, reluctantly responding to a question from your reporter about item two on the agenda, said it concerned the elementary school principal, Dr. Katherine Reddick.
That item read, "Discipline/dismissal/release," and apparently stems from an unhappy encounter between Dr. Reddick and superintendent Hutchins. Although her fate was being discussed, Dr. Reddick was not present.
The small crowd, as they had Tuesday night, filed out of the office as the school board, minus trustee Arbanovella, began what promised to be, by school board standards, an exceedingly tense discussion.
Superintendent Hutchins, also under fire from what seems to be much of district's staff, was present but soon left the building.
Trustee Arbanovella, by our clock, hurried into the closed session at exactly 11 minutes and thirty-five seconds after it had begun. If our timing of his arrival is inaccurate, we are confident the exacting Arbanovella will correct us. We also hope he will explain to us the difference between an employee "dismissal" and an employee "release,” and further explain (1) why he coincluded his resignation letter with the martyr-ish and self-pitying, “I won’t do this anymore” and (2) why, if he wouldn’t be around to live with his decisions, why was he still making them?
Unlike The Trump Administration, the seething Anderson Valley School District is rumor-tight. We were caught unawares of the turmoil at the administrative top of the district, and just as unaware that a large number of teachers, aides and classified staff are also unhappy with the leadership. We'd been told, in frightened whispers, that "something is about to blow." It has.
The following, prepared by the district’s public relations person, Ms. Coursey, discloses what the school board discussed in closed Tuesday and Wednesday’s closed sessions, some 8 hours of deliberations:
Elementary School Principal Put on Paid Leave
At a special board meeting on May 24, Anderson Valley Unified School District (AVUSD) Board members decided to put Anderson Valley Elementary School Principal Dr. Katherine Reddick on paid administrative leave while they gather additional information regarding a dispute between her and Superintendent Michelle Hutchins on May 17. Board members also asked that any complaints or concerns regarding either administrator be forwarded directly to the school board via board member Eric Arbanovella via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Board president Dick Browning said, “There’s been a lot of speculation about recent events. It’s our job to take appropriate action based on facts, not hearsay, and that’s what we intend to do.”
Board members have met twice in the past week to address concerns expressed by local parents and AVUSD staff members. When board members heard that some people may not be coming forward because they feared retaliation, board members temporarily changed the standard complaint practice, allowing people to share confidential concerns directly with the board.
Browning said, “We encourage people not to gossip. If you have concerns, share them with us. Otherwise, know that we are doing our best to get to the bottom of this issue while respecting the rights of all parties. Our first priority is always doing what is best for AVUSD students. As soon as we have enough information to take action, we’ll do so.”
* * *
Bad feeling between the principal, Dr. Reddick, and district superintendent, Michelle Hutchins, had boiled over early last week when Dr. Reddick filed a police report claiming that Ms. Hutchins had shouted at her and physically prevented her from leaving the superintendent's office.
As you can see, the press release also asked that any complaints or concerns regarding either administrator be forwarded directly to the school board via board member Eric Arbanovella via email at email@example.com.
And you will note board president Dick Browning’s oddly removed statement, “There’s been a lot of speculation about recent events. It’s our job to take appropriate action based on facts, not hearsay, and that’s what we intend to do.”
Referred to Arbanovella by Browning via the press release announcing that the elementary principal had been placed on paid leave, I dutifully wrote to Arbanovella to ask, "What is the present status of high school principal, St. Jeor?"
Arbanovella replied: "Please ask the Board President or the Superintendent. Individual Board members are not to comment on personnel matters, and I know that I do not have the latest information. PS: re today's blog, I only operate dictionaries when I'm writing or when I'm asked politely by a child, and I'd be happy to explain what I can about being late to yesterday's meeting to anyone who actually voted me into office."
THE OCD-ish tenor of Arbanovella's message serves nicely as Exhibit A of why the school board itself has exacerbated present tensions among staff. Why Arbanovella, who's finished at the end of June, is still involved in making decisions for the district… Well, such is the reigning confusion that the board refers people to the guy who's creating most of it and he then refers us back to Browning or the Superintendent! (OCD — obsessive compulsive disorder)
Superintendent Hutchins later confirmed that high school principal St. Jeor had been reassigned as a Spanish teacher for next year. She denied that she is seeking, or had sought, another position.
While we're talking local school management, the Boonville schools are diverting thousands of dollars to lawyers that should be going into the classroom. I'm sure Arbanovella, with his blind love for the legal profession, is largely responsible for hustling the trustees into "consulting" attorneys over stuff that ought to be sorted out by the school board itself. If basic decisions are going to be made for us by dubious, un-elected lawyers sitting in Santa Rosa, why do we even need a local school board?
Used to be, for instance, the board listened to the case for expulsion all by itself. If the kid expelled and his parents did not like the decision rendered by the board, they could appeal to the County School board. Didn't cost nobody nothin'.
I've dealt off and on over the years with the lawyers in Santa Rosa. That office is its own scam, begun by a slick character who parlayed his purely self-alleged edu-law expertise into a permanent, fat annual retainer for himself and, three decades later, he's got a small army of attorneys, the whole expensive show paid out of classroom money by ALL the schools of Mendocino County and, I believe, Sonoma County with, of course, individual nuggets of advice like we got by speaker phone the other night, costing their own fee. The upshot is that children, the funding units who pay for all this, are represented by no one.
The DA's Office said that no report on the altercation alleged between the superintendent and the elementary school principal had been received by his office.
* * *
If I were to guess, I'd say Arbanovella doesn't appreciate our coverage of his performance, which can be described as obfuscating bordering on clinically compulsive.