The Ontario school board at a June 24 meeting where several parents took to the podium to voice concerns. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
ONTARIO – Parents and residents seeking a change in direction have criticized the Ontario School Board and district administrators after the recent failure of a $25 million bond.
At a recent school board meeting, dozens of parents and community members packed the board chambers to express their frustrations and criticize the leadership of Superintendent Nicole Albisu and other district administrators.
Five parents took to the podium and mentioned concerns about lack of communication, recent teacher resignations, and the failed school bond.
Some said district leaders failed to convince its residents that a new bond was a good use of their money, while others think the number of district staff who live out of town is the root problem.
Lack of communication
Ontario parent Jenn Gerulf said she moved her two kids out of the Ontario schools because of what she felt was the “lack of friendliness, compassion and open arms” in the school district.
“When a parent offers to volunteer at a school event, the district makes you and treats you like you’re an idiot,” Gerulf said.
Long-time Ontario resident Brad Cook said there’s a lack of communication between school district leaders and the community.
“There needs to be a culture within the staff that needs to be promoted in the community,” he said.
Cook criticized the district leaders who live outside of Ontario, saying “more than half of Ontario district staff do not live in Ontario.”
He recommended that the board implement a residency requirement for its district administrators.
His wife, Megan Cook, said she would be happy to help the school district address the concerns of the community.
She took to the podium after her husband and echoed his concerns, saying that the district leaders could do more to improve their relations with students and staff.
“The culture that the kids see needs to be more positive,” Cook said.
Parents also accused the board members and administrators of being out of touch with the community.
Robert Boyd, a retired teacher who is a current Ontario Recreation District board member, said “a partnership with the community does not exist.”
When more than half of the administration and staff live outside of town, Boyd said, fewer are involved in the community that they are supposed to serve.
He criticized the administration’s recent hiring of more out-of-towners to replace those who recently resigned.
Several parents expressed frustrations with the number of teachers who recently resigned from the district. They claimed the Ontario School District has become an environment where teachers are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.
Boyd said the “alarming rate of staff turnover of well-respected coaches” at the district is a cry for change.
“The employment turnover is indicative of the lack of communication, positive culture and community within the school district,” said Brad Cook.
More than a dozen teachers resigned during the 2018-19 school year – eight from the high school, three from the middle school and six from the elementary schools.
Their claims of a campus where teachers are leaving in droves because of a so-called toxic culture, however, didn’t resonate with Albisu.
“Although members of the community expressed their concerns over turnover at our high school, they did not present any data proving we have an actual problem,” said Albisu in an emailed statement. “In actuality, we have a much higher experience average than ever before. This means that we are hiring more experienced teachers than we ever have before.”
She said teachers leave for different reasons.
“Some leave because they are not a good fit to education or possibly our schools and community, while others have spouses that have had to seek employment in other communities/states. Others simply want to advance within their profession (perhaps become an administrator) and there may be no opportunity here so they go somewhere else to advance,” Albisu said that “not one of the letters of resignation stated they were leaving because we are terrible and have treated them poorly.”
Meanwhile, other parents argued that the district’s inability to retain teachers is a chronic problem.
“If there is, indeed, a so-called problem with staff turnover it certainly hasn’t affected our ability to serve our students,” Albisu said. “Student achievement in the Ontario school district has never been higher.”
Albisu said the district’s top priority is to “put the best possible educators in front of our kids.”
“It has to be that way,” she said. “Our kids deserve that.”
School bond failures
The parents’ concerns prompted Board Chair Eric Evans to say the board should look into the culture that appears to be paining some community and faculty members.
Evans proposed that a district-wide community survey would be a way to “receive input from our constituents” and understand some of the discontentment as well as why the recent school bond failed.
Ontario’s most recent attempt to pass a bond was in May.
In total, 60% of voters said “no.”
Bond money was slated to pay for remodeling existing schools and putting up a new multipurpose building, sixth-grade building and small building with a couple of alternative school classrooms.
A district survey would help the board and administrators understand what went wrong.
However, several board members brought up concerns about the aim and mission of the survey.
“I want to know what is the intent of the survey,” said board member Renae Corn. “What will you do with the results?”
Evans said he doesn’t know what the survey will ask yet, but that would be the job of hiring a consulting company.
“I don’t know what is the information that we’re looking for or the silver bullet,” Evans said. “I just know it’s time to start having tough conversations.”
But board member Mike Blackaby also questioned the board’s role in crafting and conducting the survey.
”I don’t think we should approve this company to do the survey yet,” Blackaby said, citing concerns about jumping too fast. “I think we should discuss as a board further and not have one-on-one chats with little groups.”
The board ultimately disagreed with conducting a district survey. While Chair Evans and Derrick Draper said “yes” to the survey, the three other board members said “no.”
Ontario resident Kimberly Lopez, whose two sons graduated from Ontario High School, said her main concern was getting an explanation about the recently failed school bond.
“As you are all sitting around wondering how another school bond failed, and considering a costly survey as to why it did, I feel like the community deserves to have all the information, and they do not,” Lopez said, reading from her prepared statement.
During her public comment, Lopez referenced excerpts from old emails addressed to the school district administration and board regarding the failure of two previous bonds.
She said her goal was to enlighten the public about the district’s negligence with handling the school bond efforts.
“All the momentum and goodwill is gone and what we have left is an even more alienated community. Even if a bond were to pass today, construction costs have doubled since 2016,” Lopez said. “Even more frustrating is that there has been no accountability.”
“What a shame that we sit here today, some five years and two failed school bonds later, begging you to open your eyes and actually do something about it. You tell us: Where do we go from here?”
Lopez and other parents made not-so-subtle suggestions about where the problem lies.
“We have so many in leadership positions who are anonymous in the community, cannot vote for the bond and will not contribute financially,” Lopez said.
Lopez said the district’s ability to convince the community to pass a school bond is hampered by a large number of teachers and staff with out-of-town residences.
She found it frustrating that the school district would blame the number of young eligible voters who didn’t vote as the cause of the bond fail.
“It’s not because young people didn’t vote. Young people are voting,” Lopez said. “You guys are out of touch. You’re out of touch with reality.”
Lopez also criticized the district not building trust with the community.
“No trust, no bond,” Lopez said.
Albisu said the district is working on that.
“Community input meetings are already in the works for next year to have discussion and receive feedback,” Albisu said.
“One of my biggest concerns is that if this community continues to place residency as their top priority, above everything else, that our staff who live outside the district boundaries will leave. I have already heard from so many who tell me they feel de-valued and that what they do for our kids and community means nothing to those that live here,” Albisu said. “These are people who serve Ontario’s kids.
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