Tales out of school

Marsh students, parents, staff defend targeted principal

BYTING BACK <br>With Superintendent Scott Brown in the foreground, students cheered in support of Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan, who’s been accused of mishandling student body funds.

With Superintendent Scott Brown in the foreground, students cheered in support of Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan, who’s been accused of mishandling student body funds.

Photo By Tom Angel

Open or shut?
The Chico school board is set to see the Marsh Junior High audit at a March 29 meeting held at 6 p.m. at Chico Junior High School. Superintendent Scott Brown said Marsh Principal Jeff Sloan can choose to have the meeting open or closed. The meeting is required by government code before negative information may be placed in an administrator’s personnel file.

In the wake of an audit that targeted popular Marsh Junior High School Principal Jeff Sloan, supporters have rallied to his side and hope to turn the tables on Scott Brown, the superintendent who they believe is on a vindictive crusade to oust their favorite principal.

On March 12, Sloan and Vice Principal Frank Thompson were sent notices that they could be laid off or reassigned. The Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees had signed off on the “pink slips” but was told little about what was going on.

It turned out that the district, with the school board’s OK last fall, had commissioned a $2,500-plus audit by a Sacramento firm to investigate how Marsh was tracking and spending its nearly $280,000 a year in fund-raising money.

The district has refused to release the audit at this time, but once it got out through other sources, the document left many wondering if that was all they had on Sloan.

What the audit reveals ranges from the trivial to the troubling. Associated Student Body (ASB) monies, under the Education Code or by advisement, can be spent only on certain things benefiting students and excluding classroom supplies. But at Marsh, money went toward lunch for Parent-Teacher-Student-Organization (PTSO) volunteers, a washer and dryer for student uniforms, classroom televisions and furniture for the staff lounge, among other things.

Brown alleges in the audit findings that Sloan, who was ultimately responsible for how the money was handled, had too much control over spending, showed a “blatant disregard” for rules governing spending of ASB money, personally benefited from some expenditures and ultimately misused public funds. Brown even forwarded the audit to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey.

In a written response, Sloan said that, despite having no guidance from the district, the school’s part-time accountant managed the money the way she does at Chico Junior High. “Every penny is accounted for,” Sloan wrote. “No one at our school was ever trying to do anything inconsistent to what we thought was permissible.”

As a show of protest, more than two dozen staff members on March 17 signed a letter charging “a tactic of aggravation and harassment” and deposited school computers on the District Office steps demanding the return of Sloan’s seized computer.

Brown said the district took the computer to see the degree to which Sloan was involved in the accounting procedures.

That night hundreds of Sloan supporters crammed the City Council Chambers for the Board of Trustees meeting, saying that the missteps they read about in the audit weren’t anything that couldn’t have been avoided with better training or fixed with a warning.

“It’s correctable,” said Marsh teacher Mark Wilson. “At what point did Dr. Brown decide to use this report as a weapon instead of a teaching tool?”

Many students spoke, saying Sloan knows all 685 of them by name, makes them feel safe and special, and, along with Thompson, serves as a role model.

Teacher Gary Janosz told the board, “I cannot work for you if you fire my principal.”

Last week, CUSD District Office staff members were left to haul in computers left on their doorstep by Marsh employees. “If district personnel can walk on campus and take our principal’s computer in such an underhanded and deceitful manner, than they could walk into our classrooms and take our computers, too,” a letter asserted.

Photo By Tom Angel

Some said they’re certain Sloan is guilty only of innovation and perhaps some sloppy bookwork, and the investigation is more about a Brown vendetta than accounting procedures. “Perhaps it’s not Jeff and Frank that have to go,” said Jan Campbell, the PTSO president in 2001.

Meanwhile, the recent release of demographic information by the District Office have left some wondering if there was another worry in mind all along.

When Marsh Junior High opened in 1999, Sloan was thought by some to have “stocked” the school with favored staffers from his prior campus, Chico Junior High. But now the district is looking into why many students of color who live within the Marsh boundaries choose instead to attend Chico Junior.

Because of students transferring in and out via Form 10s, Marsh is 81 percent white instead of 74 percent white. Twenty-two percent of Marsh students get free or reduced-price lunch instead of 31 percent. And if transfers were not allowed, Marsh would have 13 percent of its population in Gifted and Talented Education. Instead, transfers mean that 19 percent are G.A.T.E. students.

Brown said that, while the district has suspected for some time that the numbers were out of balance at Marsh, he didn’t realize “how deep the hole really is” until hearing community concerns in recent days. “As a byproduct of [the monetary investigation] other issues seem to be raising their heads,” he said.

Sloan said adamantly that he neither recruits students nor discourages them from attending Marsh. “This is probably the most accepting and tolerant school in the district,” he said. “Every child is treated with dignity and respect, and that’s why they do well.

“I certainly didn’t control where they built the school—near California Park,” he added, alluding to the wealthier socioeconomic class that lives in the neighborhood.

Two Marsh employees, counselor Pam Bodnar and Multicultural Club adviser Brian Mullins, contacted the News & Review to express their dismay at any implication that their school is less than welcoming to minority students.

They said they encourage children from all feeder schools, including Chapman Elementary, to come to Marsh, and if their parents are choosing otherwise it might be due to transportation issues, the lack of a Spanish-immersion program or other things in the District Office’s control.

If there were any administrative prejudice, Mullins said, “I wouldn’t tolerate it. … I want to be at a school that’s got a good ethnic mix.”

Sloan said that any success enjoyed by Marsh should not detract from other schools. “Bidwell and Chico Junior are both terrific schools with great principals,” he said.

On March 19, Brown sent out a press release blaming Marsh administrators for leaking information and creating “upheaval at Marsh.”

This week, Brown said he was not surprised by how the public has rallied behind Sloan.

He said that because of personnel rules he can’t say whether more information will come to light. As a result, each answer seems cloaked in innuendo and raises even more questions.

“Not everyone has all the same facts at the same time," Brown said. "I am one of the few people who have all the puzzle pieces."