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Tomlin Out! Turmoil Roils The Valley

A 3-2 majority of Anderson Valley school trustees, meeting in closed session a week ago, had informally stated their intention not to renew the contract of Boonville high school principal, James Tomlin.

Monday night, before a large crowd in the high school cafeteria that was so large it spilled out the door, the 3-2 board majority held: Tomlin's contract will not be renewed.

Erica Lemons, Yadira Mendoza and Ben Anderson voted not to re-hire the high school principal. Board president Martha Bradford and appointed trustee Dick Browning voted to retain him.

That first closed session board where Tomlin's contract was discussed was supposed to have been confidential. But his close friend and ally, Superintendent Collins, sits in all closed sessions although he is not an elected person. The trustees are never allowed to meet solely as elected officials. The person they allegedly supervise, Superintendent Collins, is always sitting with them. He is, in theory, retired, but still works part-time for big money and benefits. Collins and board president Martha Bradford have, over the years, stuffed the board with Yes votes for whatever Collins and a core of long-time teachers want to do. (Trustee Browning, a retired school administrator, is appointed and he faithfully votes the party line, as he did Monday night.) This nexus of entrenched, and entirely self-interested power definitely wanted Tomlin to remain in place.

The shock of the 3-2 vote to fire Tomlin ricocheted around the Anderson Valley Tuesday morning. It's been the Lillipution equivalent of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

The high school staff's mobilization for their boss prompted Monday's night's showdown meeting of the school board.

But the Tomlin bloc seems to have underestimated their support.

Apart from a predictable cadre of high school teachers, no parents who are not school employees, spoke for Tomlin's retention, and several of the parents who did speak either denounced him and the high school faculty or suggested that they thought a change in the school's leadership would be a good thing.

As a packed house looked on, Monday night's meeting began with board chair Martha Bradford briskly instructing the audience that persons wishing to speak should sign up and she would call on them to deliver remarks limited to three minutes. The long-time trustee cautioned the packed room to behave themselves, and said the district's legal counsel had advised her and Superintendent Collins — the only persons who talk with that distant personage — that following public comment the board would retreat into closed session to vote up or down on Tomlin.

After an hour of public comment, the board duly withdrew to closed session and, 90 minutes later, re-appeared to announce that they had formally voted not to renew Tomlin's contract. The news was received with subdued shock by the many people who'd remained in the room for the verdict. There were quiet smiles from some, gasps of disbelief from long-time high school teachers.

The fallout from what amounts to revolutionary change in the managing apparatus of the school district is likely to be considerable but can't yet be predicted.

Tomlin himself was the first speaker. A tall, trim, youthful-looking man, Tomlin said he would gladly return to the classroom if that was the decision of the board. He said he was “shocked and puzzled” at this turn of events because of the school's many accomplishments. Tomlin said he was proud of the discipline policy he'd written and that there were in fact fewer disciplinary referrals than there had ever been. He defended his handling of a controversial discipline matter from the previous year and declared that Anderson Valley High School “was in the top two-and-a-half percent of high schools in the United States,” a bold assertion, versions of which were also made by several of the teachers who spoke.

However, according to the California State Department of Education's 2011-12 “School Quality Snapshot,” Anderson Valley Unified did not meet any the state's academic targets. More significantly, the percentage of 2011 graduates meeting the University of California's basic “a-g” requirements (which call for completing a number of semesters in a variety of subjects) is a mere 12% compared to a 40% state average rate. (Although Counselor Jan Pallazola insists that that number is artificially low because the school’s Spanish speaking students don’t take two years of “foreign language” thus making the number look much lower than it should be.)

This fact would be of first concern to a reputable faculty, but for years the core high school staff has, with an unseemly and suspicious intensity, sung its own praises.

Tomlin closed by saying that 24 of 37 high school seniors have already been accepted by colleges and universities.

Robert Pinoli, described by Tomlin as “an award-winning athletic director,” said that Tomlin had the respect of most of the staff and most of the students.

Pinoli was followed by his son, Robert Pinoli Jr., a graduate of the high school who went on to make a success of the famous Fort Bragg Skunk Line Railroad tourist attraction. Pinoli Jr. referred to what he described as “the picnic table syndrome, small talk” that undermines “the good that gets done.”

The “picnic table syndrome” seems to describe the mostly vanished morning coffee drinkers who met for years at the Redwood Drive-In to critique local events and personalities. It's members, however, have always been staunch, if often critical, supporters of the high school, especially of its sports programs.

Pinoli Jr. concluded by saying that Tomlin “is a great individual” and the Anderson Valley “is a wonderful community.”

The next six speakers, all employed at the high school, continued in the same vein. They included Jim Snyder, the teacher's representative, a young man who looks like he could be a high school student himself. Snyder read statements of support from two 13-year-old girls as if extorted remarks from children were meaningful.

* * *

The statements of the six school employees can be summarized by the following letter signed by Snyder and widely distributed in the community:

“February 19, 2013 — Dear Parents, Students and Community Members,

I am writing to you as a parent, a teacher, and as President of the Anderson Valley Teacher’s Association, urging you to take immediate action on and before February 25.

The Anderson Valley Unified School District School Board has called a Special Board Meeting on Monday, February 25 at 6:00pm in the High School Cafeteria to address the reelection of Jim Tomlin to the position of Principal at AVHS for the 2013-2014 school year.

It has come to our attention that a contingency of the School Board is preparing to not reelect Jim Tomlin to his position as principal, for reasons not being communicated to the general public. During this Special Board Meeting, there will be a period for public comment, followed by a closed session and a vote. It is crucial that the Board hear from the members of the community in regards to the issue prior to this vote.

It is imperative that we get as many parents, students and community members as possible to write letters to the Board and to attend this meeting to voice their support for Jim Tomlin and their concern for the future of the High School. I speak on behalf of the vast majority of our High School Staff in stating that we stand firmly behind Mr. Tomlin and his leadership at our school for several reasons.

During his three years as Principal, Jim Tomlin has:

• Designed and implemented fair and consistent discipline policies that focus on the safety and well being of students, often in cases where no policy previously existed. We have seen moderate and severe discipline issues on the steady decline since Jim Tomlin took on the job as Principal.

• Helped lead the school to higher test scores, guided the school through a six-year WASC-accreditation process, and helped us to achieve numerous prestigious academic awards such as our repeated Silver Medal from the US News and World Report’s Best High Schools Rankings.

• Has supported our sports teams, athletes and coaches through many successful seasons and league championships, including seeing our teams make it to the playoffs and 2 teams winning the North Coast Section.

• Has supported the teachers and staff to help create a positive and encouraging atmosphere where students, teachers and staff feel safe and supported; from this foundation has fostered a successful academic environment where learning can take place to its fullest extent.

We feel that the non-reelection of Mr. Tomlin as Principal would be a serious detriment to our school. It opens our small school up to a potential revolving door of principals who may come with little or no connection to our unique community and its rich history and character. It would erode the cohesive parent-teacher-student-community connection essential to our school’s function and stability that Mr. Tomlin has helped to build during his 22 years of service in the District.

Jim Tomlin has been a driving force behind why we are such a successful small school in academics, sports, and extracurricular activities, and why similar schools look to us for professional guidance and leadership. After these many years of dedicated service, Mr. Tomlin’s commitment to this school and its students is reflected in our past achievements and fundamental to our future success.

Please help support our efforts to retain Jim Tomlin at the High School and write to the School Board voicing your concerns. Letters may be delivered directly to the District Office or emailed directly to the Board Members themselves, but time is of the essence.

Email Addresses of Board Members (from the AVUSD Website):

Ben Anderson:

Erica Lemons:

Yadira Mendoza:

Marti Bradford:

Dick Browning:

Our Board Members are our elected officials, and it is important that they hear your voice. Please attend the meeting on February 25 at 6:00 pm in the High School Cafeteria. There will be a period for public comment followed by a closed session deliberation and vote. All are welcome to attend and speak.

Please pass this message on quickly to other members of the community. Thank You, Jim Snyder, Mathematics and Media Arts Instructor, AVHS President, Anderson Valley Teachers Association 707-895-3326 x113Æ

* * *

Bill Sterling, a member of the bond oversight committee, said that Tomlin “has been a steady advocate for the high school’s share of the bond money. Sterling, who has begun a volunteer Latin class at the High School, advised the school board, in Latin, to “scratch where it itches.”

There was a moving testament to Tomlin from another school employee and mother of a special education student before Mark Scaramella, also a member of the school's bond oversight committee, pointed out that the statistics brandished by the high school faculty as evidence of its own effectiveness are flawed and incorrectly cited when they aren't flawed.

Scaramella read the following statement to the Board:

“The primary purpose of the school board is make sure that academic performance is a top priority. They should make whatever decisions they see fit to make sure that it is. As far as I can tell, given the available information, academic achievement is NOT a priority at Anderson Valley High School — it is not a standard agenda item as it is in other districts and it is never mentioned in school news or other press releases.

“In fact, the available indicators show that Anderson Valley High School is below average in academics as shown by the state’s latest school quality snapshot and by the fact that the frequently cited ‘silver medal’ award is a demographic anomaly which disproportionately weights the school’s predominantly Hispanic and low-income student body.

“While there are certainly some positive things about the school and a number of the graduates, most of things that are cited as positives probably would have occurred no matter who was Principal. It is the school board’s responsibility to evaluate these things, not the staff’s. Since the school is academically undistinguished and sub-par even by Mendocino County standards, the school board should make whatever decisions they deem necessary to make academic achievement a priority in Anderson Valley. (Mark Scaramella, Anderson Valley Unified School District School Bond Oversight Committee member. Boonville)”

As Scaramella spoke, long-time high school math teacher Kathy Borst rolled her eyes and giggled with the teachers seating near her, nicely demonstrating the smug obliviousness that so infuriates a large part of the community. Borst, of course, had spoken for Tomlin, concluding her testimonial with, “Please don't jeopardize what we have accomplished here.”

Debbie Sanchez, a veteran of 34 years with the local schools, calmly denounced her former colleagues as earning “full-time money for part-time work.” Mrs. Sanchez went on to say that the high school staff and the school administration has for years put its own interests ahead of student interests. She said the high school definitely needs new direction. This bracing presentation by Mrs. Sanchez cut through all the fuzzy-warm rhetoric and implicit self-praise off all the teachers who'd spoken before her.

An hour and a half later, Anderson Valley took a giant step towards new direction when they voted 3-2 not to renew Tomlin's contract as high school principal.


Random personal observations:

Last night's school board meeting revealed deep divisions in the community, many of whose parents feel left out, and when they're not left out, patronized or ignored by an entrenched school system that seems incapable of running a high school that includes everyone. Critics feel if they complain their kid will be retaliated against. Working class white parents feel the schools are run exclusively for the children of immigrant families who now comprise the large majority of parents. Wealthier white parents exercise the home school option. Or transfer their children to Mendocino or Ukiah. These feelings have festered for a long time. An alert school apparatus would have long ago made a real effort to put them to rest. Despite unhappy grumbles about school management, the Anderson Valley is not riven with racial discontent.

I should say that I've known Superintendent Collins for many years. He's a nice man, and he's not stupid. But he's loyal to a fault, and that fault has led him to create a school district that sees its teachers, particularly its high school teachers, as its first priority. The school board's first priority, at least the first priority of three of them, is the welfare and academic success of students.

Mrs. Bradford, school board president for 16 years, in tandem with Collins and a handful of senior high school staff, has run the schools for 16 years, and the prospect of change seems to terrify them. But Mrs. Bradford runs a good meeting, as she demonstrated with her usual aplomb Monday night.

As a personality, Mrs. Bradford, on whom the years have worn well — she seems unchanged — is equal parts 19th century Victorian, Nurse Rached, and Margaret Thatcher. She's old fashioned formidable, refreshing in her way, especially in the nambo-pambo context of school affairs. I've always seemed to alarm the old girl, but we've managed to remain mutually civil over the years.

The chronology of events leading up to Monday night's dramatic board meeting went like this: Mrs. Bradford forthrightly, as is her way, said she'd called Monday's meeting on her own authority as board president. She believes in authority to her toenails, and she's not reluctant to wield it. She said there had been no closed session vote to fire Tomlin. She said there had been a closed session “conversation to get a feel for the direction of the board.”

Or smoke out dissidents, as it turned out.

Mrs. Bradford went on to say that Superintendent Collins had been sitting in on the closed session “as Tomlin's supervisor,” and that Collins “had spoken with Tomlin about it,” confirming that Collins had run to Tomlin who soon got out an e-mail to his colleagues that he'd been sacked, a big time violation of the Brown Act not that anyone seems eager to impose sanctions. Mrs. Bradford went on to say, and to say emphatically, that the Tomlin matter had not been resolved in that closed meeting, but she hoped it would be at Monday night's session where a public vote, up or down on Tomlin, would be called. “We want to get this behind us,” she said.

“Us” refers to herself, Tomlin, Collins, and the high school mice.

Ever since the closed session that leaked the news that three members of the board want a new principal, the core high school faculty had frantically lobbied their perceived allies to appear en masse at Monday's meeting, apparently not realizing that if there wasn't widespread unhappiness with the high school, from all sectors of the community, it is unlikely three trustees would say they prefer a new high school principal. It's not as if the three of them woke up last week and said, “Today, we get Tomlin.” Discontent has been smoldering for years, and Monday night it boiled over.

Tomlin's staff supporters even suggested that the removal of Tomlin would be “racist” because students from Spanish-speaking homes would somehow be harmed if Tomlin were removed.

Jerry Cox summed up the consensus staff opinion.

“In answer to your question [I'd written to the Coxes to ask them if they were beating the drums for Tomlin], Kathy and I have spoken to and invited parents of present and past students under Jim Tomlin's watch, all of whom expressed their satisfaction with his job. I spoke with some Mexican co-parishoners. Many other people have been in contact with their friends. Your piece in last week's AVA was a culmination of 10 years of diatribe against the high school. I was there for 14 years with capable teachers, good pupil scores, and no serious discipline problems. Tomlin isn't perfect, but he runs a good program.”

Kathy Cox, writing separately: “I called many Spanish Speaking parents to inform them of the meeting and to encourage them to attend, regardless of their opinion. My motive was to inform them of the way the system works so that they could participate in the process. In Mexico there are no School Boards. I called, perhaps fifteen or twenty people and explained what was happening. Of the people I talked with, only one was in favor of the position to terminate Jim Tomlin's contract. I encouraged that person to attend as well as the people who were opposed to termination of the contract. The Spanish speaking population of the School is now close to eighty percent. In the democratic process it is important that all voices are heard, regardless of the language that is spoken.”

For the record, I've been criticizing the local schools since 1971, all the way back to Superintendent Mel “Boom-Boom” Baker. The first school board meeting I ever attended introduced me to Mike Shapiro, who was also there complaining about something to do with school buses, as I recall. As complete outsiders, we were not well-received, to put it gently. But I bring it up as evidence that I am Mendocino County's senior critic of public education, thank you, and please hold your applause.

I've said for years that the local schools were a nexus of insider hiring and sloppy all-round effort, but under Collins self-serving sloth got wayyyyy outtahand, with an incidence of nepotism and insider hiring and school board stooge-stuffing that was blatant even by Mendocino County's incestuous standards.

This is the way it has worked for a very long time. The late Tom Smith, a dedicated whistleblower, was on the small end of many 4-1 votes, so many that Superintendent Collins and his four board proxies got Smith removed on the phony pretext that Smith, whose wife worked for the schools, represented an ongoing “conflict of interest.” But Collins' wife, for whom the rules were jiggered to declare signing a foreign language, taught in the schools for years with no mention of “conflict of interest.”

Local guy Dan Kuny got himself elected to the school board and, for a time, was also on the short end of many 4-1 votes. Of course he was driven out by the school cabal's odd instinct for absolute unanimity, especially as it sings hosannas for itself. (Is it unfair to point out that German school teachers were always the most enthusiastic Nazis? Yes, very unfair so I won't say it.)

Going in to Monday night's special board meeting, Yadira Sanchez-Mendoza, Erica Lemons and Ben Anderson, the three trustees disinclined to renew Tomlin's contract, undoubtedly found themselves subjected to a deluge of whining calls and Jim Jones-like communiqués from the faculty to reverse their stance.

But they stuck to their principles, and because they stuck to their principles the Anderson Valley will be a better place for it.

No sooner had I typed those rosy, optimistic words than I learned Tuesday morning that Tomlin, and his award winning athletic director, Robert Pinoli, had fired Ben Anderson as high school baseball coach.

Reached by telephone soon after Anderson's thuggish removal as baseball coach, Mrs. Bradford and Superintendent Collins said they were working to un-fire the popular coach.

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