Editorial: Monkton school is in crisis

With the resignation of half of the teachers at the Monkton Central School last Thursday night, it’s fair to say the school is in crisis. What led to the massive resignations, and what the school system and the public can do about it should dominate the school community’s focus over the next several weeks.
What the Independent learned at the school board meeting last Thursday is that nine out of 18 of the elementary school’s teachers, grades K-6, turned in their resignations as a mass voice of discontent over how the school was operating. At issue is a lack of trust teachers have in the principal’s office and agreement with management style and practices.
The difficulty at this point is putting specifics to the general aura of discontent. No teacher would go on record with our reporter to share their discontent; the school board itself did not engage in a full-throated discussion on Thursday of the resignations or of a telling survey showing overwhelming discontent among the school’s teachers; and the school principal is keeping a tight reign on the conversation while being aloof from the community.
What’s known is this:
• The Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) survey of teachers conducted in March and April is a statewide poll taken anonymously to assess teaching conditions at schools across the state. Though only half of the teachers statewide filled out the survey, in Monkton 100 percent of the teachers filled it out. Of that 100 percent, it appears that all but one teacher was dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied with the relationship between teachers and the administration. (See story on Page 7.)
• While concerned parents had asked the school board to put a discussion of the survey’s results on this week’s board agenda, the district declined to do so — citing uncertainty as to the validity of the survey.
• The central school board has taken a hands-off approach to the apparent conflict (thinking they should not get involved in an administrative struggle between teachers and a principal) and the superintendent’s office may have been slow to respond, or perhaps, did not realize the conflict was as grave as it has become.
• Parents tell of reports from their children in which sixth graders had “gone on strike” recently in which they had taken over the jungle gym and were chanting “we want freedom, we want it now.” A parent reports that the school “is run based on fear now.”
If ever there were signs of dysfunction, this defines it.
The community’s next step is deciding how to proceed. There are systems and processes in place for circumstances like these that are helpful to follow.
First, the elementary school board may have been right to avoid siding with either side in this conflict, but they certainly should have informed the superintendent’s office and had management conduct an investigation by interviewing teachers, the principal and parents to help determine the problem.
Second, teachers could have gone through the process of filing a vote of no-confidence against Principal Susan Stewart, who has been there for the past three years, but because that process was not undertaken it’s likely up to the remaining teachers to follow that course with the help of their union representative, or now that the issue has the superintendent’s attention, wait to see if appropriate action will be taken.
Third, the school board should welcome concerned parents to the next meeting and present a full accounting of the situation as they know it, followed by initiating recommendations for improvement, and then open up the floor for a thorough community discussion. The absolute worst thing the board could do (which happened this past Thursday) is to stymie questions and comments from parents who are sincerely concerned about their children’s education. Ideally, the community should be able to express its frustrations and concerns, as well as share experiences of their children so the depth of the problem can be fully understood, and then move to fix the problems.
Above all, what this school board, superintendent and community must understand is the gravity of the situation: In a quick polling of area school officials, no one could remember a similar crisis of this magnitude in more than 30 years. It’s extremely rare that half of a school’s teachers would resign en mass and lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of poor relationships with the principal’s office. There is no sugar-coating this. It’s a serious crisis within the school system that needs a prompt response from all parties to get the school back on course before classes start in the fall.
Angelo S. Lynn

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