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Parents and teachers accuse school district of retaliation

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
December 15, 2017

Several parents and teachers in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District are now coming forward with alleged, alarming cases of retaliation. The claims of retaliation are in response to voicing concerns and criticism towards the district’s handling of health and safety or any topic regarding the school district that may be challenged in any way.

The following story is a compilation of interviews with five current and former parents/teachers/community members, who were either involved with the school district or worked with current school board members. Together, they paint a sordid scene of retaliation from the top down — where the superintendent, two board members and un-named principals are among the incriminated. It is important to mention that their claims have not been verified and each person’s story is an alleged account.

 

Barbara

Barbara Ruch has two children in the district, a daughter attending elementary school in RP and a son in his last year of high school. She wrote an email to four board members and Superintendent Robert Haley regarding her alleged experience with School Board President Tracy Farrell.

Ruch, who says she is an active player in her children’s schools and in the community, believes the retaliation stems from criticism she expressed toward the school district about what she sees as a lack of concern for student safety.

This particular incident began at Ladybug Park, where Ruch was watching her daughter’s friend play soccer. During the game, she and some other parents were chatting about their concerns with the school district, according to the email.

As described in the email Ruch said, “While I was talking to one of the parents we were discussing issues and concerns. In the middle of the conversation with this parent they tell me to stop because Tracy is coming. At this point, I did not know Tracy as anyone other than a soccer coach… I did not realize at that time that she was on the board.”

What occurred next, according to Ruch, was an attempt to use her daughter against her “as a way to keep quiet,” via an indirect threat.

“While at the game, Tracy… walks up to us and asks, ‘How are you?’ I thought she was speaking to me, so I began to reply and she cuts me off mid-sentence and asks my daughter how she is enjoying Evergreen. I find this strange because we have recently moved and changed schools, which has been a hard transition for any child. My daughter replied to Tracy saying she liked it. At this point, Tracy looked at me, back at my daughter and says to a 10-year-old, ‘Well be careful, things can change quickly.’ I was in complete disbelief as to why she would say that to a 10-year-old. After thinking about it for a few moments I took that to be an indirect threat because of me being vocal,” Ruch said in the email.

In an interview, Ruch said she believes she was targeted because of her outspoken views regarding the district’s handling of safety concerns, such as the changing of air filters after the Sonoma firestorm.

“I had been very vocal about my dissatisfaction in what is happening in the district,” Ruch said. “So, I sat on it for a little bit and talked to a couple of people who I’m close to, who I trust and respect because I wasn’t sure what to do (following the incident) and they said I should probably contact the superintendent.” She chose instead to send her email to the board “to see what would happen.” 

Trustee Tim Nonn asked Amy Miller, a district teacher, to read Ruch’s letter to the board and audience members at the Nov. 13 board meeting. Nonn hoped the matter would be addressed, but said “the complaint was swept under the rug.”

Superintendent Haley would not comment specifically about the claims, which he considers to be confidential, but did state that all allegations are taken seriously. 

Haley confirmed for The Voice that concerns and suggestions regarding the district, such as those made by Ruch, are reviewed by the board. 

“We do look at and respond to suggestions made directly to the school district, but we do not generally respond to ones made on social media,” Haley said. The superintendent said he was not aware of Ruch’s concerns “prior to meeting with her recently,” However, the email Ruch sent to four school board members, and the superintendent himself, was dated Oct. 8.

Haley has since looked into the allegations and finds “the very public charge” alarming in the way that it was brought forward. He also claims to possess information that contradicts Ruch’s account of the incident with the school board president, Farrell.

 “Ms. Ruch must certainly be aware that contradictory information is readily available to the district that disputes what she put in her email,” Haley said. He declined to give specifics and, said the board does not usually consider sharing information about “confidential situations or investigations” with the press to be “good practice.” 

According to Ruch, acts of retaliation have continued since she made her initial complaint following the first alleged incident.

 

Anonymous 

A Rohnert Park community member and teacher who wished to remain unnamed, also shared her story. 

The former high school teacher voiced concerns about campus gas leaks and the air quality in her classroom. She claims she was the target of maintenance staff and the superintendent because she challenged them. The teacher says the district has failed to adequately address what she says is “a lack of oxygen,” which has impacted her health negatively. A court gag order prevents the former teacher from discussing any further details about the case, including health concerns, specifics about the gas leak and air quality improvements made following the complaint. Hence, the details she could provide were limited.

“I was clearly sick and coughing for a month,” she said. After expressing several health concerns, she was transferred to teach seventh grade at Thomas Page School, with little-to-no prep time, reduced pay and no assistance to move her things into her new portable classroom, according to the former teacher. She alleges she was told to have her students help her. 

“When we moved into Thomas Page we had no help,” she said. “We had to move all of our furniture, furniture that we found that we tagged with post-its in the dumpster the next day. We were not given computers that worked… they were very old and broken down and could not run the attendance software. We had to buy computers to run the software.”   

 

Andie

Andie McHatton, who served as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)) president for 14 years, says she was targeted for retaliation by Haley in 2011, following union contract salary negotiations. According to McHatton, she got a sense “right away that he didn’t want to work together” and at one point during negotiations, he allegedly got up from his chair and walked out. She said he refused to continue answering questions directly, relaying all further negotiations through his assistant superintendent.

“We had to call in our head union representative to try and help mediate it all,” McHatton said. “That’s sort of when it went sour for him.” She says that was the point when the retaliation began and “things went downhill from there.” McHatton, a school speech and language therapy assistant, said soon after the negotiations, Haley “went to the school board and said we don’t need language assistance… and the board approved it.” She was told her position was being eliminated due to a lack of funds, leaving only one speech and language assistant still on board.

McHatton’s colleagues wanted to voice support for her role in the school district at a Board of Trustees meeting, but were allegedly told that they would lose their jobs if they spoke on her behalf. “That was a form of intimidation,” McHatton said. “He’s always going at somebody some way. It really wears you down when someone is wanting you gone.”

McHatton decided to retire following the events and wrote a letter to say she felt forced out. She applied for unemployment from the district but was denied. “I had the right to same pay, but they didn’t give me that,” McHatton said. “They offered me less (unemployment) and that affected me greatly and I had to go to court to file an appeal.”. 

After going through her own difficult incident and learning of similar cases of retaliation, McHatton said she does not want her grandchildren attending school in the district. “I like honesty and integrity...,” she said. “I really hope we can get back to that at some point.”.

Haley on the other hand, has seen no evidence of retaliation. In a previous Voice article regarding the case with Nonn, Farrell also denied witnessing or taking part in any retaliatory acts.

 

Kevin

Kevin Alfaro, a former St. Helena Unified School District board trustee where Haley was superintendent from 2009 to 2011, shared his own story that he says stemmed from his advocacy for more special needs services. Alfaro alleges the retaliation presented itself in a multitude of ways after Alfaro hired an advocate and attorney to represent his daughter, who was denied special needs services while in the school district.

Understood.org, an organization that and brings attention to learning and education issues, states that reasons for denial of services must be explained in writing following the child’s evaluation. Although Alfaro did receive written notification of the denial, he claims an outside evaluation determined that his daughter she did indeed require extra resources.  

“She first entered the school district at third grade, then we pulled her because we felt she wasn’t getting the services she needed,” Alfaro said. “We brought her back and the first thing they did, was Haley denied her needs for a multitude of reasons and we disagreed and went through the whole IEP process and going through the processes and bureaucracy, we were denied almost everything we were entitled to,” Alfaro said.

Alfaro said it was after he and his ex-wife got an attorney involved that Haley then sued them. “And when I mean sue, there is a process where there’s a letter sent to us that says that ‘we deny the services and the only way you’re going to get your services is you have to sue us back,’ and that went on for a couple years,” he said. Alfaro also said of the supposed retaliation, that if you were denied services and fought it, you could be sued and intimidated.

“He would use his knowledge of special-ed law, use his ability to have his school district behind him and a law firm to intimidate and push away students and parents that were not capable of fighting it,” Alfaro said.

Maha

Maha Gregoretti had concerns long before the specific incident that resulted in her retaliation case and caught local media attention in August. She claims she was treated more harshly than others when she took on a union leadership role. “When I was the vice president of the union, I had different things happen to me and at first I thought, is my principal a racist? I would be with other people and they wouldn’t get reprimanded, but I would get reprimanded for the same things they were doing,” Gregoretti said. 

As the situation continued, she came to believe the mistreatment was due to her union position and not racially motivated. 

According to her account, acts of retribution occurred while she worked at Technology Middle School. The new school did not yet have a new staff room and while they weren’t told to use that staff room, Gregoretti and her fellow teachers were shown the old staff room by one of the secretaries. She said her husband, who is also a teacher, walked into the room and she says she peered into the room from the doorway. Gregoretti later received an email telling her to come to the principal’s office with a union representative, where she said she was reprimanded for going into unauthorized places — the same place where her husband and colleagues had looked into. 

“I wasn’t written up, but it was a verbal reprimand and I just took it,” said the former union vice president. 

In a separate incident, Gregoretti left during her prep period to take care of some union ballots and was accused of leaving her students. However, she claims that she and others were allowed to carry out duties during prep-periods when no students were present in the classroom and that she wasn’t the only one to leave campus during a prep-period. Again, she was brought into the principal’s office and told she needed to bring a union representative because she was being reprimanded.

“That’s pretty unbelievable considering there’s people that leave campus every day,” Gregoretti said. “She (the principal) immediately backed off and it seemed like she had been put up to this by somebody else. She told me that the superintendent told her that I was caught doing this.

The last straw came after she voiced safety concerns regarding the fence removal at Rancho Cotate High School in 2015, which she explained in detail:

. “When I was president, there were several teachers that were concerned about the safety of having the fences removed. I spoke about it several times at the board meetings and Marc Orloff (one of the trustees) got his daughter to have her friend write a letter to say it was great to remove the fences (the letter was then read without parent permission at a board meeting). I sent them an email that night and said, ‘I don’t think it’s right for you to use a child to prove your point.’ Marc didn’t respond back to me, but Tracy did and she was very rude, very indignant. It started right out of the gate, like ‘how dare you question us?’” 

The next day, Orloff and Farrell showed up unannounced for a surprise visit to Maha’s classroom, stood in the back of the room and took notes. The teacher says the act was a form of intimidation, and the union agreed. After the incident, an “unfair practice complaint” was filed with Public Employment Relations. During the PERB (Public Employment Relations Board) case, Judge Donn Ginoza ruled in late August of 2017 that the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District violated state labor laws with their surprise visit. As reported by the Press Democrat, the judge ruled in Gregorettis’ favor since he said the visit created “a reasonable basis of fear.”

“They swept in my room and didn’t make eye contact and walked into my classroom,” Gregoretti recalled. “It was uncomfortable and when they left, the kids said ‘Who are they watching?’ I said they didn’t have to worry, but they thought they were being watched.” 

Despite Gregoretti winning the case, she said the whole string of events still negatively impacts her mental and emotional health. In a copy of Gregorettis’ stress claim timeline acquired by the Voice, it notes that starting in November of 2016, Gregoretti has sought ongoing therapy with Dr. Huynh at a Kaiser. Additionally, the claim states that she is also regularly seen by Dr. Bridges, who recommends Gregoretti see a psychiatrist “for medication for anxiety and depression,” following the recent events with the district.   

Some valid concerns

These five allegations and safety concerns lodged against the district begs attention and further validation of the claims themselves.

In regard to Ruch’s concerns about cleaning ash from school air vents following the fires, quality of air can be problematic at certain levels established by the air quality index. Monitoring and testing is necessary to establish air quality in specific areas. In an article reported by Time Magazine on Oct. 10, Jia Coco Liu, a John Hopkins research associate who studies effects of air pollution, explained the potential hazards: 

“Wildfires can dramatically increase the levels of fine-particulate matter, which are little aerosols that are so tiny they can travel through your lung tissues… Lots of research has found that these particles can affect health, especially in vulnerable populations like children.” The article written by Amanda Macmillan goes on to say air conditioner filters should be cleaned, which can help prevent these harmful chemicals from entering a room. 

In an article in the Press Democrat, it was reported that the California Air Resources Board installed several air monitors in Sonoma County schools following the fires, and have found many of the results determine good air quality.

According to Gregoretti, who still teaches at Technology Middle School, vents at Technology were changed just last week. But were other Rohnert Park and Cotati schools checked for air quality and were their vents changed? 

The Voice reached out to Ramiro Avila, the district maintenance and operations supervisor, Josh Savage, director of facilities and maintenance, in an attempt to answer that question; however, Avila and Savage did not respond prior to this publication. It should be noted that Haley issued a statement to those in the community who were part of the school district following the fires, which said that school filters would be changed. 

In a Nov. 12 Facebook post, Gregoretti wrote in a Facebook post, “that there was ash everywhere the day before Lawrence Jones Middle School reopened after the fire. No one was there cleaning anything, the parking lot was empty.” Along with her claims she posted photos of LJMS, one showing an air conditioning unit sprinkled with white ash, and another of campus foliage dusted in ash debris.

In terms of the mold and gas leak worries, there was a reported gas leak at Rancho Cotate High School in February of 2016, along with criticism for the time it took the district to respond to and make repairs. Another leak struck was detected around Jan. 20 when a gas odor was reported on the campus. According to the Democrat, Haley took steps to fix the problem, but more leaks were reported to PG&E by Gregoretti in February 2017. The utility company performed an inspection of the campus and detected leaks in several areas of the school, according to the Democrat. Despite teacher concerns, Director of RP Department of Public Safety Brian Masterson told the Democrat that the school has had leaks before and since they were small, they “didn’t pose any direct hazard.” PG&E’s gas safety website does recommend that if there is any sign of gas to “alert everyone nearby and leave the area immediately and to call 911 for emergency assistance and then call PG&E” immediately. 

Mold growth became a concern at Lawrence Jones Middle School last spring. In a report prepared by Redwood Empire School’s Insurance Group Director of Environmental Risk Services Will Davis, it was found upon inspection that no “fungal contamination” was present in the classrooms in question. However, the report does state that “limited moisture intrusion on the inside wall adjacent to the south-west door in room E9 should be corrected.” 

Lastly, there is no hard evidence to determine the validity of the retaliation claims; however, the number of similar stories is alarming. During contract negotiations in 2004, while Haley was the Sebastopol Union School District superintendent, teachers pronounced a no-confidence vote on Haley. The declaration was voted on by Sebastopol teachers 51-7 and as reported in the Sonoma West Times and News, the vote charged that the superintendent “Failed to provide responsible, collaborative leadership in decision making, problem resolution, negotiations and long-term planning and created an atmosphere of intimidation and uncertainty.”

“There’s been a shift from what’s been a more collaborative style of decision making and input from the staff to a more hierarchical process,” Sebastopol teacher Jeff Stucker told the Sonoma West Times in a May 2004 article 

When asked if the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District maintains a friendly, safe environment that encourages parents, teachers and faculty to discuss suggestions together and discuss concerns about the district, Haley wrote simply in an email, “Yes.”