Douglas administrators make case against ‘Whittell 7’
Seven Whittell High School teachers won’t be suspended if they can convince Douglas County School Board trustees that they didn’t participate in a 2003 sick-out.
Tuesday’s proceedings began with testimony from Whittell Principal Janie Gray, who said she got word Oct. 21 from a staff member who overheard in the lounge that teachers were planning something to make her “look bad.”
Nine days later Gray said she arrived at school at 7 a.m., 30 minutes before the starting bell. Administrators within and outside Douglas County School District would be visiting the campus to observe teachers and classroom behavior as part of the site’s school improvement plan.
Gray said her head secretary, Diane Rey, notified her that 11 of the school’s 17 teachers were absent.
Gray said she pulled the first administrator to arrive, Lisa Fontana, director of curriculum and instruction, into her office.
“I just said to Lisa, ‘I have 11 people out. I don’t know what we’re going to do,'” Gray said.
Randall Cahill, an organization specialist with the Nevada State Education Association, peppered Gray on her awareness of the number of prearranged absences for that day. Two teachers who missed that morning had sporting and music events, Cahill contended, while others had medical reasons.
Rich Alexander, assistant superintendent of human resources for the Douglas School District testified that Whittell school counselor Karen Boulet came to him on Oct. 29 at the district office in Minden to tell him that there was a planned sick-out by several of Whittell’s teaching staff.
“She indicated to me that things were bad at WHS,” said Alexander. “She had concerns about communication between the principal, the teachers and the students. She indicated to me that something was going to happen. She indicated to me there was going to be a sick-out on Oct. 30.”
The following day, 11 of the school’s teachers failed to show up due to personal or family illness, and it happened to be on a day when teachers were being observed. The district honored four of the excuses of the 11 who were absent.
But Boulet and the rest of the teachers say that there was no sick-out planned and they all had legitimate excuses.
“There’s no way in hell that I said we would go on strike,” said Boulet, explaining that she had gone to Alexander to talk to him about problems going on at the school and that the information had somehow gotten twisted.
“I was talking about programs collapsing, not about a sick-out,” she said, during a break at the hearing. “My reason for talking to him was because of the potential cancellation of programs like Black and White Choir and drama. (Principal Janie Gray) wasn’t willing to work with the kids, the teachers, the program director. She was willing to just let these programs die.
“Each one of our team had a valid reason for being out that day. All of these teachers have had exemplary careers – 20 years or more.”
Alexander testified that he heard about the sick-out a second time, immediately after talking to Boulet, from Norma Villasenior, who is in charge of personnel services at Whittell. Villasenior called Alexander and said she had heard from the superintendent of groundskeeping Jimmie Bell that one of the groundskeepers Gary Alves overheard teachers talking about participating in a sick-out.
“Mr. Alves told me that he had heard rumors about teachers calling in sick,” said Alexander. “He was reluctant to give names. He said it was teachers, and more than one.”
District superintendent John Soderman talked in length about information he received from the observers, who traveled from five counties in Nevada to Whittell on Oct. 30. He quoted many of them, including Howard Bennett, former principal at Whittell, who Soderman said had heard several boys talking about the teachers being on strike. Clyde Baker was another member of the team who Soderman said heard students talking about teachers being on strike.
“Baker had said that a girl said, ‘The teachers are sick because you were coming,'” said Soderman.
“We believe the hearsay and rumors will be disproven when our side speaks,” said Boulet.
“I’m going to get convicted by kids. I cannot believe that,” said Larry Reilly, one of the seven teachers at the hearing.
The teachers facing potential discipline are Reilly, Boulet, Jeremy Smith, James Hynes, Steve Vaughn, John Houghton and Jasmine Gouveia.
The teachers requested the hearing because they were already facing detention and they would get a chance to give their side.
“They were going to give us the 15 days, so we requested the hearing,” said Gouveia.
The district is recommending that six teachers be suspended for three weeks and the seventh for two weeks, said Alexander.
Alexander said Boulet would not reveal which teachers she had heard the information from, but only that she had overhears “a lot of teachers’ conversations.”
“She indicated secret meetings during that week. She wouldn’t indicate who was involved,” said Alexander.
Jo Johnson, one of the Whittell’s secretaries, was quoted by both Alexander and Soderman as saying that she had heard teachers “joking about medical complaints.”
Besides Alexander and Soderman, investigative interviews of approximately 20 staff members were conducted by school district attorneys Mike Rowe and Jim Hales.
Soderman said he interviewed Boulet twice. He said in a Oct. 31 phone conversation Boulet said, “There were rumors that (the teachers) would be gone on Oct. 30 as well.”
In a Nov. 4 phone conversation with Boulet while she was on vacation in Montana, Soderman said, “She had a different approach – like maybe she wasn’t involved. Like maybe nothing happened.”
Soderman said he had heard there were problems with communication between Whittell teachers, students and Gray, who took over as principal for the 2003-04 year. He had received a list compiled by teachers, citing comments such as too many meetings, more classroom observance and not being able to admit mistakes.
“It was known that the transition period with the principal was having some difficulty,” he said.
He said he had been working with Gray on developing better communication skills.
The hearing will continue on Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the district office at 751 Mono Ave. in Minden.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, Carson City lawyer Wayne S. Chimarusti will make a recommendation to the board and the board will make its final decision.
— Jo Rafferty can be reached at email@example.com or 782-5121, ext. 213.