In response to a torrent of questions and criticism over the surprise removal of four school principals, Mountain View Whisman Superintendent Ayindé Rudolph sent a letter to parents Tuesday offering the district’s first explanation.
The letter suggests conflicts between the principals and teachers over student education were at the root of the decision.
“We want leaders with an unwavering commitment that learning and teaching is at the forefront of all of their schools’ efforts and that each child gets an excellent education,” Rudolph wrote. “Great schools always have the two elements of great principals and great teachers who want to work with them.”
In an email to The Daily News, board President Laura Blakely added: “When the many qualities that go into creating a successful school that delivers great educational outcomes for all students were analyzed in the context of each of our school sites, the District arrived at the extremely difficult conclusion that changes in leadership at the sites in question were necessary for us to best serve the students at those sites at this time.”
At its March 1 meeting, the school board voted 5-0 in closed session to remove four principals and offer them other positions in the district, effective June 30. But the board didn’t explain the action after it convened in open session, and the district didn’t elaborate until Tuesday’s letter went out.
The principals are Steve Chesley at Landels Elementary School, Ryan Santiago at Theuekauf Elementary, Marcela Simoes de Carvalho at Mistral Elementary and Kim Thompson at Graham Middle School.
Alan Wessel, a Graham Middle parent, started an online petition (http://bit.ly/2DrZEKf) a couple of days later to reinstate Thompson, and it had received almost 1,000 signatures as of Wednesday. A separate petition to reinstate Chesley had received roughly 450 signatures.
Wessel said a district announcement sent to parents the day after the meeting was so vague that many parents thought some of the principals actually were being promoted for the 2018-19 school year.
“Each of these principals has been offered another position in the District, creating principal vacancies at these schools,” the announcement stated. It also said that Heidi Galassi, assistant principal at Graham Middle, would become the new principal at Landers Elementary and that Santiago would become Graham Middle’s new assistant principal.
Wessel said the removal of Thompson, who has been principal at Graham Middle for seven years, is troubling because the community credits her with much success including bringing in new programs for Hispanic students, who make up 41 percent of the school’s population. And the shuffle comes as the school is switching from a seven- to an eight-period schedule.
“We are absolutely gobsmacked that they would choose to release Principal Thompson in this fashion,” Wessel said. “She’s won awards and been strong supporter of all members of community, especially the Hispanic community.”
Stephanie Spaid, a parent of four children who attended Graham Middle, said Thompson has positively impacted the lives of every one of them, especially her oldest son, who is disabled. Spaid said Thompson formed “Best Buddies,” a club where “mainstream” students buddy up with special-needs students during lunch and recess.
“My son who is now a senior in high school still sees some of those same kids in the ‘Best Buddies’ club at MVHS,” Spaid wrote in a letter to the board. “This is super meaningful to him and to me. This unification between the special needs kids and the mainstream kids was a highlight for Mrs. Thompson and something she was very proud of.”
Laryssa Polika-Engle, the PTA president at Landels Elementary, had similar praise for Chesley, who became the school’s principal in 2015 and prior to that was assistant principal at Graham Middle.
“Steve has been a dedicated principal who has worked to create bonds in the community,” Polika-Engle said. “He’s gone to every PTA meeting we’ve had, public or otherwise. … I was in shock at the news.”
Polika-Engle said district officials are unaware of what’s happening at the schools, adding that she’s never seen Rudolph at Landers Elementary or anyone coaching Chesley. She contested Rudolph’s statement in the letter that he and his office team spend two days a week at a school twice a month and that principals regularly receive coaching from district officials.
She suggested Chesley and Thompson are being removed for disagreeing with district policies since Rudolph became superintendent three years ago.
“We don’t understand how the principals are being evaluated,” Polika-Engle said. “We don’t understand how somebody who is making such a positive impact on the community can just be removed. … It feels to us that they may have been outspoken. Perhaps (Rudolph) was using any excuse to surround himself with ‘yes’ men.”
The PTA president, who is also lobbying for the reinstatement of the principals, said the district needs to be more transparent and do a better job of engaging the community in arriving at its decisions, such as by creating a parent interview panel for possible new principals. She said the district didn’t involve the community at all in its decision to make Galassi the new principal at Graham Middle.
“The lack of transparency is disturbing in the district right now,” Polika-Engle said. “Why was Landers given a new principal without community input? … The thing we’re struggling with is we haven’t been told how these changes will benefit us in terms of the (district’s) strategic plan.”
Polika-Engle, Wessel and others say that if trustees don’t reverse their decision or significantly change the process for hiring and firing principals, the community will vote them out of office and push for Rudolph’s resignation.
“What they’ve done … is fracture our community, because now you have people questioning the superintendent being there,” she said.