October 27, 2005
Klamath-Trinity School District struggles for calm
TO HEAR SOME PEOPLE TELL IT, THE LAST PLACE a person would have wanted to be over the past couple of years is at a Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting. "It's one of the nastiest social clubs I've ever known," said one bystander, who asked not to be identified, a couple of months ago. Another onlooker, who also didn't want to be identified --- fear of retribution in the sparsely peopled district runs high --- said the board meetings were pure "chaos" with parents and trustees "yelling and screaming" and even threatening each other at times.
"The board was so dysfunctional it was difficult to run meetings," observed Joshua Saxon, of Orleans and a Karuk tribal member who works for the tribe. "There were people on the board who didn't like the superintendent, and they would obstruct his administration. And it made it difficult for decisions to be made. It was pretty much a three-ring circus." Saxon is a candidate in this November's election for the district's Area Five seat, which was left open when the board chairman resigned last December. (Four of the seven-member board's seats are up for election on Nov. 8, either because of resignations or the end of their terms.)
Saxon has directed various youth programs in the district and started helped start a youth forum at Hoopa High for kids to communicate with the administration. "It was awesome, the kids felt that they had a voice," Saxon said, adding that he even invited some of the students to a board meeting once. "There are some incredibly intelligent kids at that school ... and they left in disgust."
The geographically large Klamath-Trinity District, with its thousand-plus students, encompasses communities of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes in Orleans, Weitchpec, Pecwan and Hoopa Valley, as well as the largely non-native community of Willow Creek and also Salyer (just over the border in Trinity County). It has four elementary schools --- Hoopa Valley (where most students attend), Trinity Valley and the tiny Jack Norton and Orleans schools --- and two high schools: Hoopa Valley High and the continuation school Captain John High. Hoopa High and Hoopa Elementary have been listed as "program improvement" schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, with Hoopa El holding that unenviable status the longest (Hoopa High was released from program improvement this year). Hoopa El's enrollment also is growing.
Meanwhile, over in Willow Creek, Trinity Elementary School is suffering an enrollment decline --- some kids are requesting transfers to coast schools, and the community itself is shifting to a retirement base. In response, about 100 kids each year are bused from Hoopa to Trinity just to keep that school's enrollment up.
So the district has its challenges. The recent turmoil, however, surged from controversy over Superintendent Arturo Vasquez and a confusing cloud of allegations that ran the gamut from allegations of Brown Act violations to claims of sexual harassment. Lawsuits flourished. Vasquez was brought in as a consultant more than five years ago by the state to pull Hoopa Elementary out of its academic freefall and later was asked to become superintendent. At first, he said, things were rosy. But late this summer he was booted from his position and placed in a non-functioning role, with the agreement from the district that he would draw a somewhat reduced salary until next June.
Right: Arturo Vasquez. Photo by Heidi Walters.
Vasquez and his wife, artist Sonya Fe (who taught art workshops to students in the district), say they stepped on too many toes and pissed off powerful families. During his tenure, Vasquez "released" or demoted about 20 employees, some teachers, some staff: "Some for drug-related issues, some for poor attendance, some because of complaints," Vasquez said. And his troubles began. "All hell broke loose," said Fe. "They started making his life a living hell. Friends and family [of those fired or demoted], they were out to get Arturo." Fe said they received nasty phone calls and hate letters, and some people referred to her as Vasquez's "gal pal" before they were married. They also complained about his high salary, which was negotiated and agreed upon by the district. "I had a young guy come to my office, and he asked me to come outside and fight him," Vasquez said. Someone else sent him a letter claiming to be having an affair with his wife. "A lot of people have stopped going to the board meetings," Vasquez said. Fe added: "And they've stopped talking about the children."
Perhaps the elections will settle things down --- that is, unless the lingering bitterness and sides-taking persists. Saxon is running against Penny Johnson, also of Orleans, who was appointed to fill the short remainder of Pryor's term --- the two battled earlier for the appointment, but the board couldn't reach a majority vote (Saxon said two holdouts against him hated that he supported the superintendent), and it wasn't until April that Johnson gained the seat. Johnson, because she is on the board, said she couldn't talk about the Vasquez affair. She said she was running for election because she wanted to maintain continuity and instill a strong sense of spending accountability.
Saxon said he hopes to continue programs Vasquez started. Vasquez pushed literacy and founded the annual Literacy Renaissance Faire, and he sought to bring the district, students and teachers into the computer age with technology training. Vasquez also was big on "relationship building" in the multicultural district. "He was the first superintendent to walk across the street and talk to the Hoopa Tribal Education Director," Saxon said. "He embraced the local tribes and wanted to work with them."
But not everyone enjoyed the superintendent's influence. Mary Ann Fattig, of Salyer, is running for Area One's seat against incumbent and board chairman Gene Genoar of Salyer, a Vasquez supporter whom she calls a "flip-flopper." "During the four years of my opponent's term, our school district has gone from a thriving district to, last year, having to borrow money," Fattig said. She blames not only statewide education cuts but also poor administrative decisions. "There were a lot of trips and junkets," she said, pointing to two trips to South Dakota by a Klamath-Trinity delegation of staff, teachers and students to learn about a program called the Circle of Courage. "It's just a flash in the pan," she said. "I can't name one program that was successful that [Vasquez] implemented." She also said she was bothered when Vasquez sought to have Sonya Fe, before they married, covered by his insurance. "It was underhanded," Fattig said. But the underlying trouble with the district, she allows, goes back to when the timber industry nose-dived as environmental pressures forces companies into more sustainable harvesting. The resultant, uncushioned economic crash severely wounded community morale, she said. "We have formed a green ghetto."
Genoar became chairman after trustee Rod Gilliam resigned (citing health reasons). He acknowledged the district board has been in a bit of "an uproar," but said things have simmered down. "I've worked hard to create an environment where people feel free to disagree and don't feel threatened," he said. "Now that I'm acting chairman our meetings are longer, but people feel like they're able to be heard more than in the past." Genoar speaks highly of the Circle of Courage, a four-phase Native American-based forum for teaching couched in the concepts of "belonging, independence, mastery and generosity." He cites other innovative programs Vasquez introduced to the district, saying, "Arturo, he brought excitement. He was excited about learning, and he was excited about school." l
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