New school learns the hard way
Chico Green School’s rocky start takes center stage during public meeting
In the world of Waldorf schooling, community is an education building block.
So when the Waldorf-based Chico Green School community seemed to literally fall apart in public at the Sept. 15 Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting, it was particularly ironic and unfortunate.
Trustees learned that the part-time principal was fired before the first day of school. They learned that several board members have recently resigned, and at least two of them have complained over what they viewed as a disregard for the spirit of the state’s open-meeting law. CUSD said it will investigate allegations of Brown Act violations that could even be misdemeanor crimes.
Chico Unified is also concerned that the new charter school accepted high-school juniors before beginning the accreditation process and perhaps in violation of its own charter petition, said John Bohannon, who oversees the CUSD chartering process for six independent charter schools.
That has left founding members struggling to get the school’s administration back on track as they pursue what board chairman Kent Sandoe calls a “big dream.”
Sandoe said Brown Act violations did not take place. “I am absolutely confident there is no basis to those allegations,” Sandoe told this reporter. “We have been meticulous about the Brown Act and have gone over all our practices with our attorney.”
The Green School’s Waldorf approach involves use of an interdisciplinary curriculum that includes the arts and hands-on activities like community service and gardening. But founding members want to infuse the entire curriculum with sustainability concepts. “We want [sustainability] to be social, economic, environmental … how we treat each other,” Sandoe said. “It’s a big dream. We want to change the world.”
And ironically, interpersonal relationships almost derailed the little school as it struggled to open this fall.
During a recent interview, Sandoe recalled how the board worked through the spring to build the kind of community the Green School needs to thrive. That community began unraveling over the summer as friction between teachers and the board of directors grew, culminating in the faculty’s no-confidence vote in the board on Labor Day. The teachers demanded that Sandoe and board secretary Selena Logan step down.
Sandoe and Logan submitted letters of resignation in response to the five teachers, who said they otherwise wouldn’t show up for work. But at the CUSD meeting, Sandoe said after getting legal advice and after more thought, he and Logan had decided to rescind their resignations and remain on the board.
They also replaced their fired part-time principal Tami Ritter, hiring a recently retired Waldorf high school administrator from Sacramento as interim school director. Cheryl Eining said she would be working two days a week with Chico Green School, helping it find a permanent replacement for Ritter.
Ritter, a well-known Chico resident who quickly won the support of the teaching staff when she assumed her position in July, described some chaotic weeks that led up to the school’s opening.
Ritter, a former director of the Torres Shelter, had been hired in May while she completed work in Philadelphia on a second master’s degree. When she returned to Chico in July, she found that no site had yet been selected for the Green School, creating a lot of “organizational tension.” She said she and a few others worked out of the Chico State teaching office of Sandoe, a computer science professor.
The group decided on the Cohasset Road site, set up the school and recruited the students. But Ritter said she soon found herself working 45 hours a week in a position that paid for 20 hours a week. She took the issue to the board of directors, and the board suggested she limit her unpaid overtime to five to 10 hours a week. She and the board often disagreed on how she could be most effective with so few hours.
Then, Ritter said, she defied board instructions to withhold information—specifically the school’s student roster—from CUSD. The Green School board placed her on administrative leave and asked her to show up for a second mediation session.
She said she refused to go through mediation for a second time without a representative, and she then received e-mail notification that she was fired.
At the Sept. 15 CUSD meeting, Trustee Rick Rees asked about multiple resignations from the board of directors. “I’m very interested in governance because what we are dealing with at the core is your tax money and my tax money, community tax money,” Rees told Chico Green School. “It’s very important this is vetted in public.”
One former board member has told CUSD that a quorum of the board met on one occasion without announcing a meeting, that comments from closed sessions may have been disclosed and that special-meeting notices were sometimes posted at Sandoe’s home instead of at the school site.
When Sandoe told CUSD trustees that he planned to remain on the board, Chico Green School teachers who had asked for his resignation were stunned. “I’m extraordinarily confused, and shocked actually,” teacher Jessica Vandehoven told the CUSD Board of Trustees. “This is news to the faculty.”
Vandehoven said teachers appreciated the roles Sandoe and Logan had played in developing a vision for Chico Green School, but the school was in need of a leadership transition. “They founded a school,” Vandehoven said of Sandoe and Logan. “How significant is that; it’s huge. Now they need to allow professional educators to do their job.”
Green School teacher Glenn Simpson told CUSD trustees that after the no-confidence vote, their jobs were advertised on Craigslist. In response, Logan said the board was looking for substitutes because the teachers had threatened to not show up for work.
Just as the discussion seemed to verge on looking like a reality TV family fight, Board President Jann Reed, gavel in hand, closed the hearing to further public comment and said the school would have to “grapple” with its internal problems.
It’s not yet certain whether CUSD will allow 11 high-school juniors to continue at Chico Green School. If they stay, the Green School has 24 months to acquire the accreditation it needs to ensure its first graduating class is competitive for California’s public universities. “We want to ensure that all [the Green School students] have the same opportunities Chico Unified students have,” Bohannon said.
Sandoe said the school is back on track, and the biggest challenge it faces is re-building trust between the board and faculty. He said Green School teachers “are a little scared right now” and feared retaliation after speaking publicly at the CUSD meeting. Retaliation is not under consideration, Sandoe said.
The crisis hasn’t deterred interest in the school. Eining said three or four students a week had been enrolling and there were 65 students by Sept. 21.
“I’m willing to admit we may have made mistakes,” Sandoe acknowledged. “Starting a high school is very hard work, but it’s the joy of my life.”