More complaints out of Chico High

Another teacher says she was treated unprofessionally

Anne Stephens was in the middle of her grad program and a leave of absence when she was unexpectedly called back to teach at Chico High.

Anne Stephens was in the middle of her grad program and a leave of absence when she was unexpectedly called back to teach at Chico High.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

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Anne Stephens, a Chico Unified School District science teacher who may be facing a termination hearing next month if a settlement isn’t reached this week, is the latest in a string of staff members who’ve come forward in recent months to complain about what they say is unfair treatment leading to their dismissals from Chico High School.

Stephens’ story began in the fall of 2006, when she accepted a position at Chico High. For two years thereafter she found herself teaching in intolerable conditions, including lugging her science equipment from classroom to classroom on a cart. Eventually, she got assigned to teach at two different schools, requiring her to travel between Marsh Junior High and Pleasant Valley High.

She eventually landed a spot back at Chico High after she told the district she’d be hiring a lawyer, but the veteran teacher then decided she needed a break.

Stephens was granted a leave of absence to pursue grad work at UC Davis and to take a visiting-educator position with the California Department of Education (all permitted by her teaching contract with the district), so she was surprised to receive a phone call from Chico High Principal Jim Hanlon 10 months into the assignment, asking her to return to the classroom three weeks later, just after the winter holiday season.

She had eight months left in her grad program; when she contested Hanlon’s request, she states, she was terminated. Stephens tried to handle the problem with the school district on her own, but allegedly was told she was being “too negative” by not handling her problems through the district’s lawyers, she said.

Stephens’ complaint comes on the heels of the involuntary transfers of popular Chico High teachers Kevin Dolan and Kevin Payne over the summer. And while the three teachers’ stories’ vary, they have one thing in common: They’ve all expressed the belief that they were treated unfairly and that personal vendettas are what led to their being booted from Chico High.

“There is a general feeling among teachers [in the CUSD] that they are no longer treated as professionals because of the things we used to do on our own accord and no longer can, like spending the summer updating your classroom,” Stephens said, referring to Payne, who spent a lot of effort updating his classroom’s welding equipment with grant money before being involuntarily transferred to another school site.

Payne was transferred to Chico Junior High School this summer just two weeks before the start of the school year. The move upset some of Payne’s students, as well as their parents.

Payne’s story followed Dolan’s high-profile exit in June, when the longtime leader of Chico High’s West Program was told his program was being shuttered for a lack of interest and that he would be headed to Bidwell Junior. When Dolan was transferred, some people pointed fingers, blaming the district and the high school in particular for a lack of transparency and for a tendency to treat its outspoken faculty members unprofessionally.

Many of Dolan’s students protested their teacher’s transfer and the loss of their beloved program by demonstrating in front of the school and the district offices.

Dolan said he felt the problem was a personal one between Hanlon and himself (Hanlon has subsequently said that he always tries to avoid making things personal). Payne acknowledges he had problems with the two other members of the three-person ag department. Stephens spoke up during the infamous “Sloan affair,” the highly publicized 2004 controversy centered around then-Superintendent Scott Brown’s efforts to demote Jeff Sloan and Frank Thompson, the popular principal and vice principal at Marsh. Stephens believes her outspokenness in support of Sloan may have left a bad taste in the district’s mouth.

While Hanlon can’t comment on Dolan, Payne or Stephens directly, he did speak in general terms about the transfer and dismissal process during a recent interview.

He said there are a number of reasons a teacher might be transferred involuntarily. The biggest is having too many teachers and too few students (insert Dolan). Other reasons include staff friction (insert Payne) and disciplinary issues.

Hanlon rarely has to deal with personnel issues, he said, and even more rarely has to resolve conflict between two individuals by sitting them down for a conversation. Most conflicts he deals with concern scheduling and other problems the teachers have, not personality conflicts.

“I’d say conflict can happen between anybody,” he acknowledged. “But we have a multitude of personalities here at Chico High, and for the most part people accept those differences and work through them very well.”

Most teachers work out isolated conflicts on their own, he said. However, when it becomes an ongoing issue, he has to consider relocating an individual.

“If two or more staff members for whatever reason are simply unable to work together, it becomes a negative working environment. It can even become a hostile working environment,” he said, although he was still unable to say whether he was referring to Payne.

Since Payne’s story appeared in this paper, some members of the community have surfaced to suggest that his transfer was a good thing. One of them is Ed McLaughlin, a Durham-area farmer and former county supervisor who is a member of Friends of Ag, a group of farmers who raise funds and promote enrollment of ag programs.

That group participated in cleaning up a CUSD-owned, overgrown property off Henshaw Avenue that had originally been intended as a school site but, left unused, became a dumping ground for neighbors. Friends of Ag cleaned it up and fixed the well on the 10-acre property, and last year a group of Chico High students harvested its first round of crops.

Payne refused to participate in the project, McLaughlin said.

“Payne said he didn’t want any part of that, didn’t want to help with that,” he said. “The two other lady teachers [from the CHS ag department] have been out there working hard and trying to compensate for his lack of interest in our efforts.”

However, Payne contends he put a “tremendous” amount of work into the project. In essence, he stopped working there due to concerns that the Friends group felt entitled to take control of the project.

Friends of Ag Chairman Rick Cinquini was hesitant to criticize Payne, but he was quick to quash the perception that Payne’s replacement at Chico High, Ronnie Cockrell—who has been involved with the Henshaw farming project and has been teaching for nine years—isn’t qualified to teach welding.

“He’s a great guy. He’s enthusiastic and what we [the farming community] think is that he’s going to be a positive influence on these kids coming into the welding program,” Cinquini said. “We’re pleased with the decision that they [the school district] made, and we’re supportive.”

For now, Dolan is in his new classroom at Bidwell Junior High teaching English. Payne is teaching industrial technology at Chico Junior High. And Stephens, who has taught science in Chico for 20 years, is trying to keep her job while also trying to find ways to express to the district that she and her colleagues are not disposable.

If she and the district can’t reach an agreement at her Sept. 8 hearing (after CN&R’s press time), the next step is her termination hearing in mid-October.

“They want us to be hole-pluggers. They want us to just fill a hole that they’ve created, and they don’t treat us professionally,” she said. “And there’s no way to fight it. There’s no transparency.”