Charter administrators fired despite protest

Charter administrators fired despite protest

Michele Ellson
Nea Community Learning Center

A prospective Nea Community Learning Center parent speaks out against a decision to place a pair of administrators on leave.

The nonprofit board that oversees Nea Community Learning Center voted Thursday to fire the school’s top administrator and the nonprofit’s chief operating officer after an emotional meeting at which students, parents and the school’s teachers defended the pair and called for their reinstatement.

The board voted to fire Nea’s lead facilitator, Maafi Gueye, and Lina Miura, the chief operating officer for Community Learning Centers, Inc., without cause; several board members were absent. Hiring and firing decisions are typically not aired in public, and reasons for the board’s decision to fire the pair were not given.

Nea’s assistant lead facilitator, Annalisa Moore, will run the school on an interim basis while a new lead facilitator is sought, Community Learning Centers, Inc.’s executive director, Patti Wilczek, said Saturday. Wilczek said the process for seeking a new lead facilitator for the school will begin in May, and that discussions about an assistant lead facilitator will start “in the next week or so.”

Community Learning Centers, Inc.’s governing board announced the firings in a statement to parents Friday in which they voiced a commitment to keep Nea and its sister school, the Alameda Community Learning Center, separate next year.

“We regret that these actions are upsetting to numerous members of the Nea community. These difficult decisions were not taken lightly and were made by the Board in accordance with its leadership and oversight responsibilities,” the statement, signed by board president Joan Uhler, said.

Parents, students and teachers who attended Thursday’s board meeting took turns chastising board members for their decision to place Gueye, who they called the “heart” of the public charter school, on leave on April 18 and for the way her removal was handled. Speakers also criticized board members for what they said was a lack of a plan moving forward after ousting the pair. And they questioned the nonprofit leadership’s commitment to the school.

“When we look at the current Nea, we see chaos,” said Evette Castillo Clark, who said she planned to send her son to kindergarten at Nea in the fall but would reconsider if Gueye was not reinstated.

Some of the nearly two dozen speakers who voiced support for the pair questioned the board’s commitment to Nea and said they want changes in how board members are selected and in how the board is run.

“This is such a major thing – why don’t we have all the board members here?” asked a Nea teacher, who said the school lacked formalized leadership a week after its top administrator was placed on leave.

A tearful Vivi McKee presented the board with a petition signed by 87 percent of the students in Nea’s upper village – its middle and high school – seeking Gueye’s reinstatement. McKee said that even students who didn’t like Gueye signed the petition because they didn’t like the way her ouster was handled.

“It wasn’t just my friends who signed it. It was the whole school,” McKee said.

The school’s teachers also signed a petition calling for Gueye’s reinstatement, saying they are “unsettled” by the board’s actions and that the decision was causing “extreme duress.” Teachers also expressed frustration that they and others at Nea were shut out of the decision-making.

“It is regrettable to find that our democratic model is no longer,” teacher Leah Wachtel said.

Parents also said they’re concerned about the damage the firings could do to the school’s reputation as it tries to recruit more on-Island students and also, that the turmoil could drive away teachers families don’t want to lose. A lease agreement to be considered by the school board Tuesday for space on the Woodstock campus calls on both schools to increase their combined percentage of Alameda students.

Incoming PTA president Samantha Morgan said one of the other PTA presidents who contacted her claimed she’d heard that Gueye was arrested and taken off campus in handcuffs, which is not true.

“I think this is the wake-up call that Alameda’s rumor mill in strong, and rumors that are inaccurate spread quicker,” Morgan said. “I am deeply and gravely concerned about our image in the community.”

The discussion also sparked questions about race, with some saying Gueye, who is African American, was an example of high achievement to non-white students and others questioning what they characterized as a lack of diversity on the mostly-white board.

A pair of speakers said they thought the school would be better off without Gueye, who has clashed with some former parents and teachers who have been vocal in questioning her leadership. One speaker called Gueye and Miura a “cancer” that needed to be removed, while another – who claimed to be speaking for the school’s “silent majority” said more parents would have turned out to the meeting if they opposed the board’s decision.

“If people opposed the board, they would be here,” the speaker said.

But others said the school may not be a fit for everyone and that people who have problems with the school or its leader can attend school elsewhere.

Separately, teachers from the schools pressed the board to again include school staffers in their ranks, and to support a contract for the schools’ teachers.

The board recently voted to remove school staff on an “interim” basis for further study, and teachers have been bargaining for a contract.

The meeting capped a tumultuous week that saw parents frantically coordinating an effort to get Gueye reinstated and students walking off campus in protest of the decision to put her on leave.

“This entire situation has disrupted the school,” parent Mary Beth Spencer said.

The K-12 school has been spread across two campuses for the past few years, but was set to reunite on the Woodstock campus, which it will share with Alameda Community Learning Center, its 6-12 sister school. But excitement over the move turned to fear when Wilczek floated scenarios for the schools’ future that included a potential merger.

After an uproar from parents at both schools, Wilczek took that scenario off the table, and the board voted not to pursue it. But the leave decisions renewed Nea families’ fears that a merger is still in the works – though the board’s president, Joan Uhler, denied that this was the case.

“There are rumors that our decisions are a path to shutting down Nea in some way. I wanted to tell you guys that this is absolutely not true,” Uhler said Thursday.

But some questioned whether the school would be able to move past the board’s actions.

“How do we move forward from something like this? I feel heartbroken. And tired,” teacher Heather Dutton said. “At a time that we should be celebrating our reunion on one campus, there not that much energy for celebrating.”

Related: Students protest principal’s ouster

Comments

Submitted by khandi (not verified) on Mon, Apr 28, 2014

"firing decisions are typically not aired in public, and reasons for the board’s decision to fire the pair were not given."

They can't - employee decisions are confidential by law and contract.

Submitted by Fred (not verified) on Mon, Apr 28, 2014

What does this mean?

"The board recently voted to remove school staff on an “interim” basis for further study, and teachers have been bargaining for a contract."

Submitted by MWilson (not verified) on Tue, Apr 29, 2014

NEA was a disaster for my son, from the administration to one of the "facilitators". Happy to hear that Maafi was removed. She told my wife and I that there was nothing she could do for my son and that if we didn't feel the school was a good fit that we should simply move on, told us the meeting was over and that was that. No care in the world for a discussion about our son's well being and trouble adjusting to their "system" from a more traditional school. Maafi was who we met with initially to discuss the transition and education methods, which turned out to be all talk. From the "tree" to the "facilitators" to "no homework" blah blah blah,.....I can see how the concept could work, but not with leadership like hers. Good riddance.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, Apr 29, 2014

Hey Fred: Thanks for asking, and sorry if that wasn't clear. As I understand it, the CLCS board opted to remove teachers from the board on an "interim" basis while a team researched best practices (though I get the sense there is some unhappiness from teachers about this decision, and some of the Nea families I have talked with have questioned it). One other issue that was raised at the meeting is that teachers (who were not unionized before, as I understand it) are bargaining for a contract.

Submitted by Mom First (not verified) on Tue, Apr 29, 2014

The comments from MWilson are nearsighted and tainted. That Nea did not work for your son, or that Maafi did not work for you does not mean that Nea does not work. Nea is an amazing school that grew under Maafi's leadership. That some are disenchanted by a strong leader is more common than not. Like Steve Jobs, she was not necessarily liked by all, but was respected by many. I do not think that the CLCS board or the statistically few detractors were prepared for the outpouring of support for her visionary leadership. Why aren't people like you talking about what worked for so many students there? Why are people not questioning the fact that Nea's similar school rating was an 8 of 10 while that of ACLC's (the school that is touted as the crown jewel of CLCS) was a 1 of 10? Why am I still wondering what schools ACLC seniors were accepted into when it has been seen in the Alameda Sun that Nea seniors were admitted into UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Cal Poly Pomona, UC Santa Barbara, Morehouse and too many more to name here. I am so tired of people spreading negative commentary about Nea and Maafi because she was no push-over. While I am no Maafi cheerleader, I recognize what works. "Some" unhappiness about the decision from the teachers? 100% of the teachers at Nea opposed this action. "Some" of the Nea families have questioned the decision? MOST of the families question the decision, and the placement of under-qualified, interim leadership. "All talk" from Maafi about Nea programs? Really? Rather, most people come to charter schools thinking they can push the leadership around to make the school that they want...that didn't fly at Nea.

Submitted by Alaparent (not verified) on Tue, Apr 29, 2014

There were many Nea parents who were not interested in a theatrical display, fighting something that was inevitable. So, yes, there were a lot of parents in attendance but there were a lot of parents sitting it out -- and hoping for the right decision. Maafi drove many good facilitators and staff and families away with her disorganization. The school community deserves a talented leader who comes without needing a cultish following. We won't ever know the reason why she was fired, but the board must have believed it was good enough to withstand the inevitable lawsuit.

Submitted by BackAtAlaParent (not verified) on Wed, Apr 30, 2014

I am amazed at the idea of a "cultish following". Are you attributing that the many who choose to send their children to Nea are like blind sheep? Well, it is an interesting concept. Nea has always run a far too slim administrative office, unrealistically setting up a situation that was difficult to sustain. Many visionaries are not as organized as the more rigid would like. Far too many sat back as you described you did (rather than participating in a solution) to see if the system would crack, as it has. Clearly you know the school has merit....that is why you are there. Maafi made that school and put together the model that you apparently love! And as to great teachers that left....meh....not as much as one would think. Parents are often out of the loop when it comes to teacher effectiveness and integrity, and too often judgements are made based upon popularity and whether the parents themselves have traumas to work out around their own educational experiences.

Submitted by Mary Robillard (not verified) on Fri, May 2, 2014

It is shocking and disturbing that seven self appointed Board members were allowed to remove Maafi from Nea, the school she fought to create and nourish these past six years. Despite the pleas of students, staff and families and their expressed support of Maafi, the Board chose to ignore what they heard at the two meetings they quickly arranged. This of course was done AFTER the abrupt disruption of the school seven weeks before the end of the school year. It is my hope that the self appointed Board is dismissed and the NEA Community democratically vote in a new Board with ethnically diverse members representing the NEA Community. I also hope that a lawsuit is brought against the Board for their lack of due process, public humiliation of the two women and the unnecessary assault on their reputations.
What a lesson for our children: Destroy someone to get what You want.