Indian Valley packs school board meeting

Mona Hill

    Approximately 40 Indian Valley residents filled the Plumas Unified School District's boardroom Tuesday, Feb. 9, awaiting their opportunity to address the school board. A standing-room-only crowd spilled into the hallway; some sat on the floor.
    They came prepared with specific details and requests for the district's attention, which they believe is required at Greenville High School, a mere 24 hours after a meeting in Greenville with Superintendent Glenn Harris and district administrators.
    Board president Brad Baker opened the public comment portion of the meeting by reading from the Education Code, included in the agenda, with regard to public comment: “No action or discussion shall be undertaken on any item not appearing on the posted agenda except that members of the board or Plumas Unified School District staff may briefly respond to statements made or questions posed.”
    Baker said there were rumors flying around the community that he likened to the perennial rumors of a MacDonald's franchise opening in Quincy.
    “There is no talk of Greenville High School (closing); there is no conspiracy. There is no talk of closing Greenville Elementary School; there is no intent not to support Greenville,” Baker added.
    Travis Rubke, a longtime GHS teacher, spoke first, acknowledging the cost per student at GHS might be more than other high schools but that the board needed to establish priorities. He added a half-time administrator was insufficient.
    Addressing the subject of building a financial reserve as recommended in the School Services of California's review of the district's financial health (available at, Rubke said that while it was probably sound financial advice, it was counter to long-term goals, given the current situation.
    He illustrated his point by referencing his son's small business, saying that without an infusion of cash, there would have been no business in business in following years.
    In closing, Rubke urged the board and the district, “Invest in the here and now and deviate to support Greenville High School.”
    In all, 13 Indian Valley residents addressed the board with personnel examples of the dire situation at GHS.
    Christy Brown, parent and parent club president, told the board a part-time administrator had not worked in the past and was not working now. She said students were suffering because of lack of access to principal Laura Blesse on issues ranging from discipline to teacher and parent access.
    Brown also told the board there was a critical need for remedial and advanced placement classes-not every child is in the middle of the road she said. Brown said she feared Greenville students would not be ready for college.
    Several speakers repeated that theme. Stacy Kingdon told the board her son was forced to take Spanish III because no Spanish II was available. She broke down when she said her son told her he felt no motivation for school; he spends second period in the library because there is no class for him to take.
    Several parents repeated that story: Their children had no classes to take or had to miss classes they needed because of schedule conflicts.
    GHS faculty and staff followed with the same laundry list of issues: insufficient leadership, too few classes and not enough choices were the causes of inadequate academic preparation for graduating, college-bound seniors. The consensus was the district is failing in its educational obligation to students.
    The two most electrifying presentations were made by John Holland, former GHS teacher and coach, and Bill Gimple, a concerned Indian Valley resident who followed Holland.
    Holland's comments were essentially the same as those he made the previous evening: He is “disappointed in the board for creating a death spiral in Greenville.” He said students in Greenville deserve the same opportunities that other schools (in the district) have.
    He added that in the past the state of California had held the school district's board personally liable for the physical safety of the district's building and asked, “I wonder what would happen if you are personally liable for the curriculum?”
    Gimple systematically challenged Harris, citing the newspaper report on the November 2009 board meeting that Harris has said was misinterpreted; Lisa Balbioni's remarks at the same meeting; trustee Jonathan Kusel's remarks at the December meeting and again at the January board meeting regarding meetings he'd had with students; GHS senior Haley Fox's e-mail correspondence with Harris and his subsequent meeting with GHS students in January; and Rubke's and Sue Weber's remarks at the January board meeting.
    Gimple said, “Plumas Unified School District has a very serious communications problem and a lack of transparency.”
    At that point, board president Baker erupted: “You're wrong!” Baker repeatedly tried to shout down Gimple until Gimple said, “I told you this was my perception of reality; perhaps yours is different. If I may be allowed to continue my remarks ...”
    Gimple warned that Harris faced a loss of credibility and the board faced a crisis of conflict. He concluded by calling for a meeting with board member Sonja Anderson, Baker and others-specifically without Harris-to redress parents' grievances.
    Harris responded by stating his appreciation for residents' time the previous evening. He summarized the issues as a need for more sections with diversity of selection, more full-time administration, improved morale and facilities.
    Harris said it was not an easy fix; that the problem had been many years in the making: declining populations, lost businesses, etc. and that it would take time to change things.
    Anderson said she'd been on the board two terms and it wasn't for the $20 a month trustees receive. The decisions the board has had to make were not easy ones, but there was only a finite amount of money.
    Anderson said the high reserve amount was preparation against the time when the district was no longer a basic aid district and became a revenue limit district.
    California school districts are funded in two ways: basic aid and revenue limit. Basic aid occurs when county property taxes are more than the “average daily attendance (students in seats)” amount the state says a district should receive (revenue limit). Oftentimes that is substantially more than the revenue limit the state would allocate.
    When a school district is no longer a basic aid district, the drop in revenue is sudden and large.
    Kusel offered his thanks and appreciation for the turnout both evenings. He said, “We have kids who aren't getting what they need, period.”
    Kusel added, “If we don't provide more classes, we are setting up increased costs per students, because students will jump ship to get what they need.”
    In a flurry of comments from the audience, Sam Bear asked if the board really understood how many students would be pulled if something is not done, and Judy Gimple added, “Don't underestimate Indian Valley.”
    The final speaker in the public comment portion of the meeting was Faith Strailey, speaking in her capacity as president of the Plumas County Teachers Association.
    Strailey spoke to the board about the growing rift between the district and certificated staff. She said teachers were being expected to take on additional “responsibilities with a proportionate reduction in staff and student support.” She cited the preparation time required in addition to instruction.
    In prepared remarks, Strailey said, “A struggling teacher requesting help should not be ignored, cast aside, and labeled unsatisfactory simply because administrators do not have the time, desire, or personal expertise themselves to assist the teacher. A teacher who expresses concerns over the ability to meet unreasonable expectations that have been required of him/her should not be identified as hostile and a liability.”
    She said site administrators should be evaluated by district administrators just as teachers are by their principals and read a list of 20 desirable interpersonal attributes when interacting with staff.
    She closed her remarks by saying, “It is unacceptable that a district sitting on a 35.94 percent reserve in the amount of $9,091,000 would sacrifice the educational opportunities for our students and the health and well-being of its staff in an effort to acquire a total reserve of 45 percent. No other California school district has found it necessary to divert so much of its revenues to amass a 45 percent reserve.”
    With that, the board adjourned for a closed session to discuss negotiations, public employment and to conference with labor negotiator. Returning to open session approximately 90 minutes later, Baker reported the board took no action in closed session.
    Business Services Director Yvonne Bales reported that district contracts with respect to prevailing wage requirements for public works projects would no longer be actively monitored by the business department. Instead, the contractor would indicate his acceptance of that requirement by initialing the specific provisions.
    Bales continued her presentation with a defense of the district's reserves. She pointed out that while the School Services review recommended a five-year reserve, the board elected to build a three-year reserve, primarily funded by one-time forest reserve revenues, of 45 percent or an estimated $12-$14 million.
    According to Bales, two auditors had reviewed that amount and deemed it reasonable given declining enrollment, basic aid status and an economy in which the tax base was projected to drop off significantly.
    From there, Bales moved on to report a revision to her estimated costs per student at each of the district's high schools. Bales had made a similar presentation the previous evening in Greenville. She handed out tables of student projections and of costs per student showing her various calculations.
    The board also heard presentations from Superintendent Harris regarding negotiations to build broadband infrastructure to deliver greater capacity to district schools and possible ARRA funding; teacher support and motivators, impending crisis management training for faculty and staff; Tori Willits' report on the subject of grant funding for early childhood intervention for at-risk preschool children; and David Putnam's facilities and maintenance report.
    Following adjournment, board president Brad Baker responded to questions about his apparent anger with Bill Gimple early in the evening.
    Baker said most of the speakers had genuine concerns that were constructive and heartfelt, “one was insulting” and the speaker who followed bore the brunt of his anger.
    Pressed, Baker said John Holland had been insulting in the remarks he directed to the board. He continued by saying the board is not responsible for staffing decisions; it is responsible for policy-the superintendent is responsible for staffing.
    He attributed the problems at GHS to having had eight administrators in seven years and that the superintendent in charge at the time had made those staffing decisions, that the board does not get involved.
    He defended Harris saying, “Mr. Harris is not the person responsible (for the crisis in Greenville).”
    Asked who was responsible, Baker responded, “If
(Mike) Chelotti had directed demands to the board, the board would have approved.”
    Asked if he viewed the situation as a conflict between Chelotti and Harris, Baker said no. He added that he believed Chelotti's comments to the paper in November were “non professional, counter-productive and may have misled the community.”

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