It’s not all about Sloan

Move forward by uniting community to improve schools

Illustration By Tina Flynn

Andrea Lerner is a professor of English and American Studies at CSU, Chico. She was appointed director of University Honors Programs in 2002. She is the mother of two boys, a fifth-grader and a seventh-grader in the CUSD.

When word broke in March 2004 about the possible reassignment of popular Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan, few imagined the story would dominate news headlines for more than a year. Now, following months of detailed and confidential investigation, the grand jury report submitted on July 8 has brought the matter back into public scrutiny.

While much of the media attention surrounding accounting issues raised at MJHS and the subsequent reassignment of Sloan fashion the story as a drama of personalities, it is much more than a personal or personnel matter. It is a story about education, about our schools and about leadership.

Although school site administrators are often moved about the district, the case of Sloan and his assistant principal, Frank Thompson, took on an opaque and ominous turn when allegations of misuse of funds were publicized. The Sloan camp steadfastly denied wrongdoing, while district leaders raised allegations, bringing in high-priced lawyers and reams of documents to bolster their case. The debate polarized the community and led to a heated school board election as well as, ironically, allegations of the misuse of funds by the district superintendent and accounting irregularities throughout the school district.

This is a community with a passionate interest in our children’s education. Before the events of last spring, I had never heard of Jeff Sloan. Yet as a parent of elementary-school children in the Chico Unified School District, I made it my business to research local junior-high and high schools. I wanted to know how Chico schools ranked nationally and statewide. I wanted to know how recent pedagogy was being implemented. I wanted to know what colleges our students were gaining admission to and how they performed on standardized tests.

While these are not the sole indicators of a school’s success, as a consumer I looked to these features to evaluate what for many of us is the most important feature of a community: the quality of our children’s schools.

In January 2005, Education Week reported that a study by the Rand Corporation found, “California’s education system is lagging on every measurable standard of quality, from funding to teachers to student achievement.” The state’s K-12 system was judged to have declined from one that “30 years ago was widely recognized as one of the best in the country.”

As an educator and parent, I find myself asking the same uneasy question brokered by that report: “How are our schools doing?” Just as important, “What can be done to make them better?”

Leading educators offer some solutions. While most plead for legislative action to increase school funding, they also encourage the creation of school/business partnerships, decentralization in district leadership and enhanced relations between families and schools.

The California School Recognition Program, founded in 1985 to publicize and reinforce the priorities of the state Board of Education, identifies and honors some of the state’s most exemplary and inspiring schools with the California Distinguished School Award. This highly sought-after award is granted to about 5 percent of schools statewide. In 2005, only one school in Butte County has been selected as a nominee for this prestigious award: Marsh Junior High School.

Under Sloan’s leadership, the school held every marker of being a highly successful academic environment: Parental involvement was enormous, fund-raising reached extraordinary levels, and it honored student achievement. Incredibly, even as the superintendent acknowledged Marsh’s success, he suggested that those achievements constituted an unfair advantage to the school. Families whose children attended Marsh were labeled “elitists.” Sloan was subjected to unfounded allegations and what amounted to character assassination.

The results of the grand jury’s investigation stand in sharp contrast to the year of accusations against Sloan. The compelling report includes the following findings:

• “CUSD is not consistent in its implementation of the policies, procedures and advisories that it quotes in its disciplinary packet against the former MJHS Principal.”

• “[Sloan] does not appear to have personally benefited or ‘misused public’ funds as stated in the disciplinary charge filed against him”

• “Neither district funds nor public funds were misspent and no audit performed by any CPA indicated that any money went off campus improperly until this school year, after the accused principal had been re-assigned.”

It is puzzling to note—as the grand jury report details—that this year thousands of dollars are missing from numerous school sites, and to date we have heard of no administrative reassignments. And no computers were snatched. Moreover, district accounting practices continue to proceed exactly as they did at Marsh.

Equally as troubling as the grand jury’s account of inconsistencies throughout the district is the report’s characterization of “a tenor of complacency and defensiveness” displayed by top administrators in the district.

At the conclusion of the section on the Marsh investigation, the report recommends: “Since a great deal of media attention has been given to the former Principal at MJHS alleging misuse of public funds, CUSD should issue a public statement clarifying the questioned practices occurred throughout the district or issue a public retraction of those allegations.”

The best educators learn what parents know early on: Sometimes we rush to judgment, or we make decisions that seem right at the time only to find out later that we erred. Yet we teach our children that more important than our day-to-day decisions is how we continue to revise and reconcile our views when new evidence comes to light. Well-intentioned people come to varying conclusions, but effective leadership models good listening, responsiveness and a willingness to take the appropriate actions to set things right.

It is certainly my hope that the district leadership will model these ideals and follow the grand jury’s recommendations. An apology should be proffered to Mr. Sloan, and he should be returned to a position of administrative authority in the district. Moreover, we might do well to study Sloan’s methods of success in promoting academic excellence and inspiring community support.

As the district moves forward, the energy of its leaders and the community at large can be better spent on making our schools the best in the state. Parents see their children as their future; nothing is beyond our expectations for them. We need educational leadership that sees our schools in the same high regard.