Esther Kang

Drama unfolds upon Mira Costa principal’s abolishment of teacher leadership body

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For at least 50 years, Ed Council has functioned as Mira Costa High School’s primary avenue for open democracy among teachers and the administration. New policies emerged from the group’s monthly meetings, which focused on issues ranging from department budgets and early dismissals to plagiarism policies and Student of the Year criteria.

At the March 4 Ed Council meeting, Principal Ben Dale announced his decision to disband the assembly, citing an irreversible dysfunction in the meetings he believed were overridden with hostility.

“Over time I have grown to realize that Ed Council is a place where ideas come to die,” he said in a pre-drafted statement. “I have expressed many times formally and informally that the greatest work I hoped we would accomplish was helping us as a school figure out how decisions are made; not endlessly dialoguing, agreeing to partial decisions but in the end scrapping the entire project for reasons completely unrelated to the issue.”

The decision came as a shock to Council members. Dale, who has served on Ed Council since joining Mira Costa administration nearly four years ago, said he felt he had done due diligence to reform the group before settling into this resolution.

“I just felt like it wasn’t going to happen, and we needed to set the reset button,” he said in an interview. In lieu of the Ed Council, he is proposing two new committees that will serve a similar function. “I’m looking for a shared governance system between teachers, teacher leaders and administrators that is goal-oriented, task-oriented and results-oriented in a way that’s positive and progressive for Costa. I feel like the group as constituted, the way it was functioning, was beyond the point of being transformed into that kind of shared governance body.”

Ed Council is a largely-elected body comprised of two co-chairs from each academic department, including art, physical education, leadership, library and guidance. Administrators, the school resource officer and the athletic director have seats on the council as well, in total numbering up to 30. In an agendized meeting, the group gathers on campus once a month to discuss and vote on important decisions regarding policy and curriculum.

“It’s a policy-making body with decision-making powers,” explained Shawn Chen, president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association. “It’s one of the only places where we still have an ideal interaction between administration and teachers. It’s truly a collegial body. He basically destroyed the thing which they claim they’re looking to create.”

Chen is among the swath of teachers who have expressed strong vocal opposition to the abolishment of Ed Council. Following Dale’s announcement on March 4, members of the council drafted a response rejecting his decision, stating that he lacked the authority to abolish the body. The following day during lunch, 81 teachers convened to protest this decision and signed their names on the statement, which was delivered later that evening at the school board meeting.

“I offer these signatures here now to you,” English department co-chair Alan Zeoli told the Board of Trustees at the March 5 meeting, “as tangible evidence of our universal rejection of this move and our feeling that Ed Council is an indispensable part of the process of making the decision that shape the present and future of this school.”

His conclusion prompted a standing ovation from audience members in the board room. Board members have not taken a stance on the issue.

The following week, Superintendent Mike Matthews issued an email to the Mira Costa faculty, stating that Dale had conferred with him prior to the decision and made the announcement with his blessing. He asked faculty to partake in the process of forming a new “shared governance” body that will “discuss agenda items designed to help students succeed.” In an interview with Easy Reader News, Matthews said Dale deliberated his decision with him a week before he made the announcement. He notified the board members when it occurred, he said, but they have not discussed this matter.

“What [Dale] has done, and what you have agreed to, is a breathtaking centralization of authority that is unprecedented in its scope,” history teacher Bill Fauver wrote in a public letter to Matthews. “…The decision to abolish this legitimate body was hardly ‘shared.’ It was unilateral, accomplished without warning and without discussion.”

Dale plans to form two new committees to replace Ed Council, bifurcating faculty-related topics from instructional and curriculum-based issues. He wants to convene a bi-monthly meeting, which he calls the Faculty Advisory Board, open to all Mira Costa faculty. “They can voice whatever they want in that meeting — that’s really open,” he said. “My only rule of Faculty Advisory Board is civility.”

The other committee is what he calls the Instructional Leadership Team, which would solely focus on curriculum and instruction. It’s still in free form conceptually. He said he wants to hammer out the logistics–like who would comprise the team and who would run the meeting—with willing teachers after the dust settles. He has extended an invitation to all teachers to take part in the new group, he said.

Chen and the opposing teachers largely see this move as an attempt to take away the process of democracy in the decision-making process at the school. Ed Council has historically been comprised with department chairs elected by their respective departments, with the knowledge that the chairs will represent them in the council. Dale rejected this claim, saying no guideline exists as to how department heads are selected. Some are elected, while others are appointed or chosen by an interview process.

“It’s been hoped that he can get a group of people who would do his bidding, but none of our teachers are interested in that job,” Chen said. “None of our teachers want to be a pawn in some larger scheme.”

Yet Dale said some teachers have come forward to express support for the newly proposed group. Choir Director Michael Hayden, who left Ed Council last April in frustration after serving as chair for three years, agreed it was time for a new model, one that shirks the “drama [which] overshadowed [their] ability to serve the students.”

“There were clear issues of a lack of respect in the meetings,” said Hayden, who last fall was recognized as one of five California Teachers of the Year. “At times it got very personal to the degree that people would leave the meeting in tears. It clearly impacted the ability for the council to do its work. I feel like the council has become paralyzed with personal agenda and a lack of wanting to accomplish tasks that are easily accomplished.”

Hayden sent an email to the entire faculty expressing his support for Dale’s decision, and he is the only teacher who has done so. He said several teachers have emailed him privately supporting his letter, but they are hesitant to come forward in fear of supporting the unpopular opinion.

“Right now, we need to step back and take stock of what’s happened and use this as an opportunity to create something positive that will get the job done,” he said.

Chen said the conflict in Ed Council meetings represented the inevitable process of democracy.

“Different people have different levels of tolerance for conflict,” Chen said. “Democracy is messy. People are going to have a certain degree of passion, and they believe that the passionate exchange of ideas rose to the level of unprofessionalism. There’s members on Ed Council who believe it could use some improvement; in fact, for the next Ed Council meeting they were going to be crafting a vision statement for Ed Council.”

Chen said Ed Council members will continue to meet every month with or without administrative support.

 

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