Where’s my welding class?

Chico High teacher’s transfer eliminates popular ag elective

Former Chico High School agricultural-welding teacher Kevin Payne stands near a Chico High building that was renovated with grants he helped secure over the past three years. Payne also helped provide funding for new welding equipment.

Former Chico High School agricultural-welding teacher Kevin Payne stands near a Chico High building that was renovated with grants he helped secure over the past three years. Payne also helped provide funding for new welding equipment.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

Course queries:
Have questions about your Chico High student’s class schedule? Get answers from administrators and teachers at www.chs.chicousd.org.

When 16-year-old Joey Pierini went to sign up for his classes at Chico High School on a recent Wednesday, he was surprised to find out that the class he had most been looking forward to was not being offered.

Advanced agricultural welding was missing from his list of electives, and he did not know why. What he did know is that he already had two yearlong projects in mind that he planned to build alongside “Mr. Payne,” popular Chico High alumnus Kevin Payne, who had been teaching welding at the school for eight years and taught Joey the basics last year.

Meanwhile, Payne was in his new classroom at Chico Junior High, scrambling to prepare to teach industrial technology to a grade he’d never taught before, still struggling with the fact that he’d been “involuntarily transferred” from a job he loved.

“It’s been pretty stressful,” he said. “It’s given me some serious anxiety sitting in front of 35 eighth-graders, and 10 [business] days before class starts I have no curriculum and no direction. It’s a bad deal.”

In fact, Payne actually heard about the transfer through the grapevine about two weeks before the Chico Unified School District began its 2010-11 school year. The news that he would be swapping places with a woodshop instructor at Chico Junior High actually came directly from his replacement, with whom Payne had worked in previous years.

“I was completely blindsided,” he said.

Payne received official notice from the district electronically on July 28 (coincidentally, his birthday), but never received a certified letter that was supposedly mailed to him. It may have been sent to the wrong address, he said.

Payne said the reason given for the transfer was “staff friction” that existed between him and others in the three-person agriculture department at Chico High. Payne chaired the department for three years until Principal Jim Hanlon demoted him last spring after he had a disagreement with other members over how the department should be run.

Payne knew there were differences of opinion within the small department and says he tried to bring it up with Hanlon on several occasions, including a time after a particularly heated meeting.

“After a meeting at the district office, I said, ‘Jim, I had no idea this was the way it is. I’m willing to sit down and hash this out,’ ” Payne said. “[Hanlon] looked at the HR director and said he was not willing to resolve this issue.”

During a recent interview with the CN&R, Hanlon would not elaborate on Payne’s transfer, noting that it is considered a “personnel issue” and is therefore confidential.

For Payne, the timing of the transfer is hard to take. For the past three years, he had helped the Chico Unified School District’s grant writer secure $800,000 to update the high school’s nearly 60-year-old agriculture equipment, including its greenhouses, irrigation and electrical systems, and cabinets and hardware in classrooms that were old and “beat up,” Payne said.

He was able to reserve $100,000 of the funding strictly for fabrication and state-of-the-art welding equipment. This summer, he spent $38,000 on equipment he’ll never get to use. The remaining $62,000 will now be spent by someone else.

Had he known earlier that he would be transferred somewhere else to teach something other than welding, Payne said he could have spent the summer looking for jobs that were better suited for his background.

“It’s a complete railroad,” he said. “They timed it so horribly. And I don’t know if it was on purpose or what, but I was not able to apply for those jobs that would have been a better fit for me.”

Bill Pierini, Joey’s dad, contacted Payne when Joey broke the news that advanced welding would no longer be offered at Chico High. Pierini said that losing the course and Payne’s instruction is a huge loss for his son, who plans to use the trade in his future.

“He’s not looking to go to college; that’s not what interests him, at least not right now. But welding he’s really excited about,” the elder Pierini said.

In fact, Pierini was so upset that he transferred Joey to Pleasant Valley High School, which does offer an advanced welding class. Joey noted, however, that it’s housed in a smaller building and doesn’t have the same equipment.

But Joey isn’t the only student who is at a loss. Payne taught full classes of beginning, intermediate and advanced welding courses, and due to the new Chico High teacher’s minimal welding experience, only a few introductory courses are now offered, Payne said. This is a real loss to the ag department, since welding is such an important skill for any farmer to have.

Pierini said students besides his son are going to notice Payne’s sudden absence, and the administration’s apparent unwillingness to resolve its issues with him sets a bad example for the pupils. The ability to resolve conflicts among staff members is listed under “essential duties” in the CUSD’s senior-high-school-principal job description, Payne pointed out.

“[Hanlon] never sat us down as a department to talk about any issues we had,” Payne said.

(Hanlon did not answer the CN&R’s request for a follow-up interview.)

Payne also said he’s concerned about the status of the high school’s Future Farmers of America, a student leadership group that preps students who have a future in agriculture.

“Because this new teacher is not an ag teacher, none of those students can be involved in that leadership program,” he said.

Payne acknowledges that his teaching contract allows the district to transfer him, but making the switch on such short notice certainly has made for a rocky start to the school year.

“I know the guy that took over for me. I worked with him. He’s been put in a bad situation, too. They involuntarily transferred him as well,” Payne said. “He had a program at the junior high that he was happy with. This was all done behind the scenes.”

CN&R intern Nick Dobis contributed to this story.