School in Pleasanton starts Monday, and parents are busy buying back-to-school supplies and backpacks. But the district itself is still dealing with a bit of baggage from the previous school year that has yet to be packed away and forgotten.
The turnover of principals in the past few years and a series of nasty allegations by and against teachers and administrators has parents concerned about the effects on students and programs, and has left many questioning what could be causing the change in leadership positions.
The number of principals leaving the district - coupled with the former Walnut Grove principal's claim against the school district, large financial settlements paid to two employees, complaints made by teachers against another principal and the backlash from parents, and a general sense of distrust inside and outside the walls of the schools - is making Pleasanton schools less desirable than they used to be, according to Pleasanton parent Chris Jacob.
Jacob told the school board at its Feb. 22 meeting, "As a parent and a taxpayer I say the integrity of the Pleasanton Unified School District is damaged far beyond repair and it's time some of you step down."
"When you see lots of staff switching positions or leaving the district, it makes me think they aren't happy," said another Pleasanton parent who asked to remain anonymous. "The district is putting up a facade of 'We're a happy place, everyone's happy,' when that's not the case. They don't want to be transparent and there's a lack of communication."
Like this parent, many in the middle of the turmoil, and even those watching from the sidelines, won't talk on the record.
"We either have kids going to schools in the district or we work in the district," said one. "We're scared of the repercussions our children or job may face."
The Pleasanton Unified School District has experienced major changes in site administrative staffing in the past three years -- 44 to be exact, according to information supplied to the Weekly by Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi.
"Without knowing the type of turnover that other like school districts have, we cannot say if ours is high or not," Board president Jamie Hintze said. "We know the reasons why our administrators have come and gone and it does not seem unreasonable."
Since October, when Jon Vranesh, a well-liked elementary school principal, was abruptly put on administrative leave, most school board meetings have been standing-room-only, packed with teachers, parents and community members. Public comments addressed to the board have been filled with emotion and allegations.
Then in April, the teachers union vice-president, Janice Clark, disclosed at a school board meeting that there had been multiple employee grievances filed against Terry Conde, principal of Hart Middle School. Clark also cited results of a union-conducted survey, documentation of complaints and grievances and letters from staff about Conde that were presented privately to Ahmadi and the school board last school year.
The nature of these complaints, which Clark said included unfair labor practices, are not known.
Between June 1, 2013 and June 1, 2014, out of Pleasanton's 16 schools, six principals and three vice principals left their positions for one reason or another. Three principals resigned (Stephanie Ceminsky, Donlon; John Dwyer, Foothill High School; Ben Fobert, Mohr) and two retired (Jim Hansen, Amador Valley High School; and John Whitney, Pleasanton Middle School).
One principal was removed from his post but is still a district employee (Jon Vranesh, Walnut Grove). Three vice principals have left; two retired (Rick Sira, AVHS; and Lori Vella, AVHS) and one resigned (Richard Gorton, Foothill).
By comparison, during the same timeframe, San Ramon Valley Unified School District, which has 38 schools, has had three principals leave their schools, with two being promoted to district positions. Five assistant principals have left their positions, two to vacant principal positions in the district.
Livermore Unified School District, which is a comparable size to Pleasanton with 17 schools, has had three principals and two vice principals leave their posts in the same timeframe. One vice principal was promoted to principal, so he is still in the district.
Since June 1, two other Pleasanton principals have moved on. Mindy Bolar, the Lydiksen Elementary School principal, was promoted to the Pleasanton schools director of curriculum for the 2014-15 school year. Terri Quesinberry left her post as Alisal Elementary principal in late July when she accepted a principalship at a Livermore elementary school.
Ahmadi told the Weekly there was nothing unusual about the reasons most of these employees left their positions. According to Ahmadi, in the past two years five site administrators have left the school district because of either a change of residency or a better opportunity at another school district (principals Giglio, Ceminsky, Dwyer, and Fobert, and vice principal Gorton), and five retired (Colleen Henry, principal of Lydiksen Elementary School, Hansen, Whitney, Sira and Vella).
She also noted there are people who have left the district over the past two years and have been rehired (Aileen Parsons, principal, PMS; and Amy Simione, principal, Donlon).
"We try to promote from within as much as we can when possible," she added. "I look at this as a strength of the school district that we are able to retain wonderful people but we're also able to bring in and attract quality people here. We're very luck to have that."
Ahmadi acknowledges that some parents feel that a lack of leadership consistency is affecting the district negatively. However, she believes the district's accomplishments in the last four years paint a different reality.
Just recently, Hearst, Donlon, Walnut Grove, Vintage Hills and Mohr Elementary schools were named Distinguished Schools, two high schools ranked in the state's Top 100, and students consistently receive awards for academics or sports. PUSD has a graduation rate of 96% and a 99% passage rate of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE).
And in the area of finance, Moody's Investor Service has given the district an A++ credit rating and a strong credit rating of "Aa2."
"We take pride in the fact that our parent community and staff, including our principals, teachers and classified members work collaboratively together to ensure our students have positive experiences at school and reach their fullest potential," Ahmadi told the Weekly.
"Our district has been at the forefront of some very innovative educational initiatives because we are focused on what is best for students," she said.
Jon Vranesh was placed on administrative leave from his position as principal at Walnut Grove Elementary School Oct. 25, 2013, for allegedly creating a hostile work environment by using vulgar and intimidating language.
When Superintendent Ahmadi notified the school community via email Nov. 5 that there was an interim principal at Walnut Grove, with no mention of what happened to Vranesh, parents and other community members were up in arms. (See Pleasanton Weekly stories on Nov. 14 and Dec. 19, 2013.)
This was the beginning of school board meetings with large crowds and parents holding signs and wearing t-shirts in support of principals, and public comment filled with tears, anger, accusations and a lot of pain.
"Losing a popular principal is hard and if not handled well can be very harmful for a school," said Alameda County Office of Education Superintendent Sheila Jordan. "However, our schools are workplaces and people make decisions that, although are sometimes painful, are often necessary for any number of reasons."
Citing privacy and personnel reasons, Ahmadi and the school board were not open about why Vranesh was not at Walnut Grove after Oct. 25. Community members, particularly parents, quickly became frustrated by the lack of information.
"The lack of communication has not helped the parents," said Walnut Grove parent Jeremy McCarthy at the Nov. 26 school board meeting. He said he learned of Vranesh being placed on administrative leave when his kids started asking where the principal was.
"All you guys have done has created mistrust in this community," said Bruce Henry at the same meeting.
Vranesh is not the only principal whose performance has become the subject of controversy.
Teachers and their union have been urging Ahmadi to remove Hart principal Terry Conde for over a year, according to comments made by union vice president Janice Clark to the Weekly after the May 13 school board meeting.
Walnut Grove and Hart teachers who lodged complaints against their principals both used the phrase "hostile work environment" in their written allegations.
A complaint against Conde was filed by a school employee, whose name and position is redacted from the documents, but presumed to be a teacher.
This is one of several complaints filed against Conde, according to comments made by Clark in April. Clark did not produce documentation of the other complaints, nor were any provided by the district in response to a Public Records request made by the Weekly, which only included a timeframe between March 1 and June 30, 2014.
Clark declined repeated requests for comments.
Clark reported during the April 22 board meeting that, "An APT survey, documentation of complaints and grievances and letters from staff were presented to Superintendent Ahmadi and the school board in September of 2013 and in January of 2014. The documents presented defined issues of trust, favoritism and unfair labor practices set forth by the principal that have had a negative impact on a great number of teachers."
Based on this documentation and survey, a vote of confidence was taken by the teachers at Hart on April 16. Forty-six of the 53 teachers answered yes or no to the question: "Do you have confidence in the principal's leadership," with 26 voting yes, 20 voting no and 7 abstaining.
Clark reported the vote results saying, "The results represent a strongly divided staff, where over one half of the certificated staff refused to support the principal in this vote."
Clark told the board that the vote and documentation show an "undeniable problem that cannot be ignored for another school year."
"It is unfortunate," Clark continued, "that so many of our dedicated teachers at Hart are still suffering."
According to documents obtained by the Pleasanton Weekly under the California Public Records Act, Hart parents have lodged at least one complaint against a teacher for slander and defamation of students.
The complaint is in reference to an email sent in the latter part of the school year to, according to one writer, more than 90 parents, students and district personnel. The email named students who would not be allowed to participate in an activity because of their behavior, which was described in the email.
In her April 22 comments, Clark said tensions at the school escalated when a group of parents were made aware of the no confidence vote taken April 16 and a parent-generated letter was circulated that "denounced teachers and supported the principal."
"Even more alarming, some students were asked to petition for the principal during the school day," Clark said. "A few students wore T-shirts in school to support the principal, which could potentially create a safety concern between students on our campus."
Community members, parents, and students at these two school have shown their support of the principals in visible ways, Hart students signing a poster that said "Hart Students Support Conde" and wearing T-shirts to school that said "Students support Mrs. Conde" inside a heart.
According to Clark's comments to the board, there had been further deterioration of the site environment at Hart, where she is a teacher, because "not only teachers have been pitted against teachers, but now parents against teachers, students against teachers and possibly students against students."
When asked about the perceived tension between the parents and teachers, Ahmadi said, "I would not characterize the relationship between our teachers and parents as contentious in our district. There are strong opinions at times in certain situations. I would venture to say that you would encounter that in any district or entity, especially where there is a change."
Documents obtained by the Weekly show that dozens of emails were sent to Ahmadi and school board members shortly after the vote of no confidence in Conde's leadership; the emails appear to be from parents, although names were redacted.
The writers stated that Conde is a "kind and compassionate advocate for children," "a wonderful role model for our community" and a "consummate professional that demonstrates exceptional leadership…" and models "positive parent and teacher collaboration to solve problems."
They expressed anger and disappointment, making claims that Conde was being targeted for removal because a small group of Hart teachers were feeling pressured by Conde to improve their performance.
One email states, "I hope the district administration and the trustees are able to see through any baseless attacks made by teachers toward Ms. Conde. The new tactic of the incompetent teachers in our district is to go on the warpath. Through the help of their union, they ban together to disrupt their schools and attack our leadership."
Another Conde supporter emailed, "We fail to see how acting in the best interest of children by asking those who teach them to do the right thing creates a hostile work environment. In truth, administration consistently intervenes to stop certain teachers from creating hostile learning environments for our children."
The similarity between "hostile work environments" allegedly created by Conde and Vranesh was not lost on parents and community members.
Victoria Glenn, parent of Amador and Walnut Grove students, said during public comment at the April 22 board meeting, "Recent events at Hart sound all too familiar and I have to questions whether there is a common theme with the dismissal of the Walnut Grove principal."
Also referencing the similarity, an email writer stated, "you stress they are not analogous and are very different situations. They may be. But from the outside looking in, parents see vague board agendas, cryptic reports of 'safety issues at Hart' in the Weekly and an out-of-control union wielding all their weight and power to 'defend' the rights of a few bad / entitled teachers."
Neither APT president Peggy Carpenter nor Clark has responded to multiple requests for comment.
The population least involved and probably the most impacted by the infighting, distrust, tension and changes in leadership is the students.
"Our parents, teachers, and administrators work very closely together to support students in our schools," Ahmadi said. "Parents and teachers share one thing in common; they are passionate about students being successful, although at times they may have a different approach to things."
Audrey Purnell has a fourth-grader at Donlon and said he has had a new principal every year of the five years her son has been there.
"He actually thinks that's protocol, that every year you get a new teacher and a new principal," Purnell said. "I think part of the reason for the high turnover is that being an administrator in Pleasanton is a tough job."
Jacobs reminded the board during a previous meeting that, "One of the main functions of the school district is to support their administrators. You have clearly displayed failure in what you are paid to do." He furthered that the board has "buckled and allowed the bullying tactics of the teachers union …" to sway their decision to remove Vranesh.
In response to Clark's comments about Conde at the April 22 meeting, Erika Schmitz, a Hart parent, said to the "teachers at Hart who filed complaints and the teachers union that is backing them… shame on you, you are not here for the kids. You are here for the power and the politics and don't think our community doesn't recognize that simple and inescapable fact."
"We know about the hit list," Schmitz continued. "Your plan to target principals who seek to hold teachers to a higher and honorable professional standard. You look at an administrator like Terry Conde, who is trying to build something better for our kids and your first thought is how that affects you and your control.
"The teachers who filed the original grievances, with the union's backing, looked at those standards and instead of examining themselves, instead of rising to a challenge - an opportunity to make something better for yourself and your career - you decided it was better, cheaper and easier to fire the principal."
Brian Schwartz, whose wife Kirsten is the president of the Hart Middle School PTSA, said at the April 22 meeting that most community members are strong supporters of the schools, staff and teachers, "but many of us do not support the tactics that are being used by a group of disgruntled teachers at Hart to attack Ms. Conde."
"The issue here isn't Ms. Conde," Schwartz said. "The issue here is what happens when we have poor performing teachers."
When asked by the Weekly about the perception that the teacher union is bringing allegations against principals to protect under-performing teachers, Ahmadi said, "Government code affords teachers the right to be represented by a union with regard to these rights; however, our administrators have the right and the responsibility to guide, support, supervise, and discipline employees as appropriate."
None of the five board members nor Clark responded to requests to comment on this issue.
Schwartz also said he hoped community members were watching the Vergara v. the State of California lawsuit, "which does a very good job of illustrating what happens when students are forced to endure poor teachers."
A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ruled June 10 that state laws virtually guaranteeing teacher jobs for life are unconstitutional. The Association of Pleasanton Teachers did not respond to requests for comment on the decision.
"While everyone's focus is being taken away (by) what's being done here, we're losing what's best for the students in all this," said Patti Eichhorn, a parent of students at Hart Middle School and Foothill High, at the May 13 school board meeting.
"The superintendent and cabinet are more concerned about the self preservation of their professional careers rather than doing what's right for our children," Jacob said.
The participation of one board member in particular, Jeff Bowser, in votes that involve the teachers union has come into question by some citizens, particularly the votes concerning Vranesh.
Bowser, who was president of the board during the time votes were taken on Vranesh, is married to a teacher and union official in the district, Patty Bowser. When the Weekly asked Bowser about this concern, he said, "I can tell you that I have had no conflict of interest, or need for recusal, based on my wife's employment with the District or membership in the teachers union.
"As confirmed with the district's legal counsel, 'conflict of interest' is limited to a board member's financial interest in a contract or a decision made." Bowser continued. "Outside of those, there is no general conflict of interest based on a board member's spouse's employment in the District or membership in the teacher's union."
"If you are intending to ask whether my wife's role in the teachers union has influenced me with regard to any matter involving Mr. Vranesh's employment status," Bowser said, "the answer is no. I intend to continue to fulfill my duties as board member in this and other matters."
In addition to the cost of time, energy and trust, the financial effect of the turmoil is also significant. Between October and March, more than $315,000 was paid to the district's law firm, and the open purchase order maximum for the fiscal year ending in June was increased from $335,000 to $455,000.
Another $14,429 was paid to the investigator, Shon Davidsen, to look into complaints against Vranesh.
Vranesh was named an itinerant principal in February and informed the board later that month that his only duty has been data entry on Excel spreadsheets. He also said he was performing this task at his current rate of pay of approximately $125,000 a year.
"It seems pretty clear that my doing data entry is a highly questionable use of our scarce district funds and a misuse of my educational and administrative skills," Vranesh told the board.
A potential cost comes in the form of a formal claim Vranesh filed April 16 "for money damages and injunctive and other relief against your local public or other entity, for amounts totaling significantly in excess of $10,000..."
The claim states that "PUSD and its agents and employees defamed Jon Vranesh" by "making or publishing false statement(s)," and by "making statements to third persons that disparaged Jon Vranesh's skills and services, especially to the public." It also claims Vranesh's right to privacy was violated.
Claims are generally required before a lawsuit for money damages can be brought against a public entity. In addition to naming the district, Ahmadi and assistant superintendent Luz Cazares, the claim also names the then-president of APT, Peggy Carpenter, as allegedly conspiring to "intentionally interfere" with the employment contract and the economic relationship between Vranesh and the district.
In conjunction with the complaints against Vranesh, in July, financial settlements of $245,000 each were made to two unnamed district employees who claimed they were subjected to sexual harassment by Jon Vranesh at Walnut Grove.
Community of Character
The Pleasanton school district describes itself as a "Community of Character," and the school district has character education as one of its goals. The website states, "In the Pleasanton Unified School District we will develop curriculum, create an atmosphere, and model behavior that instills personal, social, and civic responsibility."
Character education is "the study of the core ethical values that our society shares and holds important, including, but not limited to, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, honesty, justice and fairness, and citizenship and civic involvement."
Several speakers have referenced this initiative during public comments to the board.
Schwartz said on April 22, "It's a shame the principles of respect don't apply equally when the union is trying to put a spin on what's going on because a few staff members are feeling some pressure to improve their job performance."
And parent Victoria Glenn referenced the goal of teaching character when she said, "For the past three years under the current superintendent, our district has deteriorated due to poor leadership and bad decision making. Attending school board meetings over the past three years, it has become clear that the organizational structure is inverted. The administration and the teachers union are the ones making the decisions for our district.
"It is apparent that the administration has made a habit of making important, high-impact decisions without consulting the board," she added.
She continued that the board isn't aware of what is happening in the district and that board members have been "surprised to learn important information from speakers during public comment."
Some of the issues that came up during public comment that Glenn said the board was unaware of include Vranesh having requested a public hearing, as he is entitled, on the allegations against him and what his duties were as itinerant principal.
Glenn said she was particularly disturbed when Paige Wright, who is now a candidate for the school board, told the board that "someone in an administrative capacity" had banned her from substitute teaching at Walnut Grove because husband, Bruce Henry, had spoken in support of Vranesh.
"What kind of examples are we setting for our children?" she asked the board and administrators. "Are we giving lip service to character traits?"