June 27, 2013
Misty Volaski, email@example.com
The podium at the Ojai Unified School District’s board meeting got plenty of use Tuesday night, as resident after resident marched up to speak about a teacher’s reassignment at Meiners Oaks Elementary School.
Esther Gullatt, a kindergarten teacher at Meiners Oaks for the past three years, had been assigned to a fourth-fifth grade combination class for the 2013-2014 school year — something she vehemently opposed. As word of the reassignment got around, friends, parents and former students got organized. They put together a petition and met with Meiners Oaks principal Dawn Damianos as well as OUSD representatives, and eventually made their way to the school board meeting as a last resort to appeal the decision.
Gullatt, who has been a teacher for more than three decades, and her supporters felt she was making significant progress in her kindergarten class, which has a high percentage of English language learners. She explained to board members and meeting attendees Tuesday that she was once in their place, going to an American kindergarten speaking no English. “I’m a bilingual, bicultural teacher,” Gullatt said. So, she added, “I understand their long and difficult journey.” Gullatt said she created a program within her classroom to help those Spanish-speaking children succeed and learn English, but feels that she needs at least two more years “to really see a change in the student body at Meiners Oaks,” Gullatt’s husband, Mark, explained during his comments.
“It’s very inspiring to hear your background, going through public school, coming out as a teacher and then giving back to that same community,” said Board Vice President Kathi Smith, emphasizing to those present that the OUSD was by no means shutting down any English Language Development programs. “I’ve been on the board for four terms and I can tell you that … there have been a lot of heartbreakingly tough shuffles (of positions), and we will unfortunately have to continue to do so.”
OUSD Board President Linda Taylor, herself a retired teacher, commented that during her time teaching in six different school districts, shuffling of teachers was common. “I was moved to different classes,” she said. “I didn’t always want to (move), but I moved because that was my job. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t heard what you (Gullatt and supporters) have said, or haven’t taken it to heart. Dawn (Damianos) is here and she heard it all too.”
“One of the things I was pleased about was the support and enthusiasm for Meiners Oaks that was clear (at the meeting),” said OUSD superintendent Hank Bangser.
Principal Damianos explained the situation more fully after the meeting. “The reason for the change was that we have declining enrollment,” she said. Because the incoming kindergarten class is expected to be smaller than the outgoing sixth grade class, “We don’t have enough students to sustain 10 teachers anymore; we can only sustain nine teachers.” The other teacher, Damianos emphasized, did not lose her job, but was reassigned to Topa Topa Elementary School. And because of that vacancy, Damianos had to do some juggling with the staff to get everything to fit. “I had to use the teachers that I had, and use them in the best possible spot at Meiners Oaks.” Her decision, she said, was to move Gullatt to the fourth-fifth grade combination class, and put Martha Lepine into the kindergarten position. “I moved her (Lepine) to kindergarten because she has 15 years experience there and she is bilingual … and Mrs. Gullatt is more experienced in the upper grades.” Damianos explained that she gives teachers a survey each year to see whether they like their current grade or would like to move to another grade or another school. “We always try to accommodate people’s wishes, but it’s not always possible,” Damianos said. “It’s just like parents who want a certain teacher (for their child); I don’t have enough teachers to give everyone what they want.” In the end, she said, “I just felt this was what was best for the school. I want to give my teachers what they want, but I also have to do what’s best for the entire school, and this was the best fit.”
Damianos said she had been unable to get in touch with Gullatt to see whether she would ultimately agree to teach the fourth-fifth grade combination class next year, but emphasized, “She has a teaching position at Meiners Oaks School … I don’t know if she is going to take it, but she definitely has a job.”
After the 1.5 hours of public comment at the OUSD meeting Tuesday, Bangser introduced another controversial topic — whether or not the board would be supporting Measure V. The measure, to be voted upon Aug. 27 by current Golden State Water Company (GSWC) customers, will decide whether customers will buy out the privately held GSWC and hand over control to the publicly owned Casitas Municipal Water Company. Supporters — the most vocal of whom have been a group known as Ojai Friends of Locally Owned Water (F.L.O.W.) — say the swap would save most GSWC customers money in the short term, and a significant amount in the long run. F.L.O.W. representatives Pat McPherson, Richard Hajas and Ryan Blatz, along with GSWC coastal district manager Ken Peterson, spoke at the school board meeting. Hajas explained that the OUSD would see an immediate savings on its water bill of over $60,000 in the next year, and about $1 million over the next decade. Peterson urged the board to be cautious. “With locally controlled water, you’re basically at the mercy of the environment around you.”
During the board’s discussion period, Vice President Smith pointed out: “$60,000 almost buys back another furlough day every year; furlough days cost $75,000.”
“Like I said earlier, Golden State has been a good supporter of the Ojai Education Foundation,” said Thayne Whipple, board member. “On the other hand, (with) the savings we’re looking at, I just don’t see a downside for OUSD.”
The board unanimously voted to lend their support to Measure V.
The board also voted unanimously to allow Valley Oak Charter School to amend its charter to offer kindergarten through 12th grade education, paving the way for the alternative public school to get its full accreditation for 11th and 12th grades in the fall. The board also adopted its 2013-2014 budget. It included fewer reductions in staffing positions than it has in recent years, and also added two more days to the school year, as planned. One of those days is an instructional day, and the other is a staff development day. Should any additional funds come from the state, Bangser said, the OUSD is prepared to add another instructional day to the 2013-2014 school calendar.