"The Lottery" is a famous short story by Shirley Jackson about an annual small town drawing whose winner is stoned to death. The story makes the point that small towns can be mean places. Lately, some major meanness has afflicted the local schools. A portion of Anderson Valley's school staff — the biggest payroll in the area — has outdone itself with an extreme, inchoate hostility for their boss, Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins.
The first letter from staff denouncing Ms. Hutchins was forthrightly signed by two persons — Nicole Mclain and Stephanie Ewing. Their letter said "90 percent" of staff agreed with the vague complaints listed, but that the almost unanimous majority didn't want their names made public, which means the 90 percent figure is meaningless, unproven and unprovable by the rest of us, who also wonder who the ten percenters are, and why they didn't sign Hutchins' execution warrant.
Not to be too much of a moralist here, but if "90 percent" of your colleagues wanted to see you living out of a Safeway cart, wouldn't you want the opportunity to confront your accusers? Or at least know their names?
Not a single person on the 90-person staff of the Anderson Valley schools has said a public word in support of the Superintendent. Does she have any supporters? Have her supporters, assuming they exist, also been bludgeoned into a cringing, anonymous silence by those willing to snipe from behind Nicole Mclain and Stephanie Ewing?
Ms. Hutchins can't be all bad, given that the school board, on a 3-2 vote, extended her contract for a year, through June of 2019.
All we know about the schools is what we hear and what we read from the occasional document wafting our way. School business is almost entirely conducted in closed session. The schools are otherwise incommunicado.
For instance, when Superintendent Hutchins invited Mark Scaramella, an ace numbers guy, to sit in on a budget meeting to present a standard list of budget cutting options that governments typically choose from to fairly cut expenditures, he was asked to leave, the assembled teachers saying, in effect, that the meeting was a school staff session, not a public meeting. Scaramella departed, relieved to be excused from several hours of mind-numbing school budget discussions, but before he left he saw that the teachers and the high school principal had prepared their own list of cuts, which conspicuously exempted themselves from their share of cost savings.
The school board, as per ancient custom, is dependent by choice on district-paid lawyers whose advice is as infamously flawed as it is famously expensive. Lawyers and staff are the tail wagging the school district dog, which is not new here, but means no one specifically hired to run the schools can take charge. Ms. Hutchins original sin seems to be trying to do what she was hired and paid to do.
We have no way to judge the validity of the complaints against the Superintendent because those we've seen, or at least heard about, don't add up to grounds for dismissal, let alone death dances. They are too vague.
Ms. Hutchins herself has said she has made mistakes, apologized for them, especially her initial blunder with the food service program. And she concedes she could have handled several personnel matters better. Isn’t there some kind of statute of limitations on beefs most adults would have gotten past by now?
But the condemnation of Ms. Hutchins by the self-alleged 90 percent is taking hostility to the next level. A second petition aimed at the Superintendent is circulating. It's signed by no one but also claims to be from a large group of people — parents this time — and signs off by saying, "See attached signature page(s)."
Which isn't attached.
The second letter contains this sentence: "Because of her poor leadership skills, moral (sic) is low among staff, this causes a stressful environment for our children (my emphasis) and can affect the learning environment."
Question: Is it good for children to see their teachers playing on-the-job Gotcha? Is it sound moral instruction for young people to see their parents and teachers signing anonymous hit pieces? "Yeah, yeah, I'll sign but please don't tell anyone!" That's good ethics training for a kid?
And what does “poor leadership skills” even mean? That the Superintendent doesn’t roll over for every demand from staff?
Going through the second letter, and both are aimed at ruining Ms. Hutchins' chances for election as Superintendent of County Schools, if not her life, it's stuff she's already said she regretted, especially the aforementioned major changes in the food service program. But it also includes three charges she isn't guilty of, including an "alleged assault" on last year's elementary school principal.
In that one, the assault was alleged by the alleged vic, who was alone in the room with her boss when it allegedly occurred, an episode of she said, she said. And what's an assault? A right cross to the jaw? A shove? A forceful instruction to sit down and listen? The district's lawyers, always ready to throw district money around so long as it doesn't cost them anything, decided to pay off the alleged victim on the condition she leave her job, which she did. Apparently, no physical contact occurred in this “assault,” but the way "assault" is invoked we'd have thought that Ms. Hutchins had hurled herself at the principal and battered her to the floor. (We understand that in fact Ms. Hutchins yelled at the principal and blocked the door when she tried to leave. The principal, hardly a shrinking violet herself, simply ducked under Hutchins and went on out the door.)
Then there's an indictment of Hutchins titled "Gun Control." A kid brought a handgun to school. Police were called, the gun was confiscated, the kid was packed off to Juvenile Hall. I agree there should have been a public explanation, but Ms. Hutchins is damned every which way no matter what she does. And since the episode happened at the high school, where was the high school principal? If he felt it was that big a deal, he should have gotten out an explanation.
A final charge is called "Social Media." It says, "Most recently was the statement on Facebook for all to read where she [Hutchins] questioned the honesty of her two union presidents. This is unacceptable and again embarrassing for our school district." But it's not produced in its original for those of us who aren't Facebook buddies. Most of us want to decide for ourselves what's acceptable and what isn't. Anyway, what's wrong with some give and take, some return fire from a person who has endured a torrent of abuse for two years now?
The simple fact underlying all this is that Ms. Hutchins was hired to run a school district that had gone unsupervised for nearly a quarter century. She tried to do her job and made some early mistakes which her enemies have never forgiven her for. Her critics are almost all clustered at the Elementary School. The high school staff is silent, presumably, but who knows for sure when the alleged "90 percent" are anonymous.
It's happened here before. Some years ago, a capable, pleasant woman named Marlene Smeed was hired as Superintendent. Staff preferred an inside guy who, of course, would be unlikely to disturb any of his staff by demanding that they do their jobs. The school board, as always, did as the staff wanted, and Ms. Smeed was driven out for no specified reason at all.
As Ms. Hutchins points out in her conciliatory public letter, she's guilty of some bad calls, but has always tried to make herself available for discussion. She also points out the true bottom line of any school district — many consecutive years of more or less educated graduates doesn't indicate that the schools are not doing what they're supposed to do — instill basic reading and math skills. (Schools are down to two R's — reading and math. Writing is no longer taught.)
The only public organization in the Anderson Valley that operates in the full transparent light of day is our Community Services District. Every other local public body is a twilight murk of secret dealing, sneak attacks and insider palsy-walsy-ism.
Notes: The annual school budget is right around $6 million a year. The district employees in include 40 classified persons — custodians, bus drivers, teacher's aides; 40 certificated teachers; 3 certificated administrators; 3 classified managers; 4 confidential assistants
ON HER END, Superintendent Hutchins lists what she sees as her accomplishments as superintendent of the Boonville schools:
In the last 5 years at Anderson Valley Unified School District:
· Teacher salaries raised 9.5%
· Classified salaries raised 7%
· Benefits for all staff maintained at full coverage
· Added two teacher controlled workdays to the school calendar
· Negotiated Reduced Work Program for teachers close to retirement
· Made a local campaign to hire new substitute teachers (hired 5 in 2018)
· Raised substitute teacher salaries 35% and provided paid teacher training
· Paid time for leading and participating in school improvement committees
· Provided intern teachers paid teacher mentors and additional preparation time
· Involved Unity Club (Women’s Service Club) in providing resources and supplies for classroom projects and lodging to teachers who live far away when it storms
· Created collaborative committees that explored and chose new curriculum
· Replaced chalkboards with newly purchased whiteboards
· Provided each teacher with a laptop, email and access to Google Classroom Suite
· Provided each classroom with access to 1-1 technology tools previously only available in a lab setting
· Updated safety procedures and coordinated drills with local first responders
· Created a new teacher training plan personalized to each teacher
· Modernized teacher evaluation tools and added an alternative for high performing tenured teachers to complete a leadership project
· Updated employment contracts to reflect new laws
· Sponsored new opportunities for teachers to socialize outside of school:
· Teacher Quiz - two schools form teams and answer local and relevant trivia questions
· Winter gathering at Boonville Hotel
· End of year Bocce Ball at Balo.