PUSD protesters decry teachers, staff resignations

Photo by Bob Hembree/Lake Powell Chronicle
Children join protesters in front of Page High School ahead of the governing board for the Page Unified School District No. 8 meeting.

PAGE – An alarming number of teachers resigned in the last few weeks. Protesters gathered in front Page High School last Tuesday in response.

On April 13, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors accepted 17 staff resignations, including 11 certified teachers. On March 2, another 15 staff members resigned, including 12 certified teachers and one substitute teacher. The resignations were from Page High School, Desert View Intermediate and Lake View Primary.

The Chronicle was on the scene to talk with protesters. Most blamed Superintendent Larry E. Wallen. Many believe teacher resignations result from Wallen’s authoritarian managing style, though no firsthand experiences were given as examples. Protesters said they all know the teachers who have had issues with Wallen, but they are afraid to speak publicly for fear of retribution, either getting fired or getting poor references for future jobs. Others mentioned Wallen is “restructuring,” though it isn’t clear what that entails.

The Arizona Department of Education graded Page High School as ‘C,’ Desert View Intermediate received a ‘D,’ and Lake View Primary received an ‘F.’

Wallen served as Page High School principal from July 1988 to June 1993. Wallen’s LinkedIn page shows a long list of accomplishments and work experience demonstrating his expertise in education, including a successful turnaround of Pinon Unified School District No. 4.

Wallen responded to the Chronicle’s questions Tuesday morning. He highlighted concerns, including declining enrollment, reduction of state funds for online learning, which means PUSD must adjust to a nearly $2 million shortfall.

Regarding additional state and federal funds distributed to schools to soften the blow of the pandemic, Wallen said, “It is important to note that the referenced funding in that presentation is a bubble of federal and state monies coming together over the next three years. Keep in mind that these funds are what I call ‘bubble funds,’ subject to one-time appropriations and, as a result, are not sustainable funds. So, the expenditures of these funds must be restricted to expenses that can go away.”

In response to protester claims of teachers forced to resign, Wallen said the agenda for the April 13 board meeting contained several staff resignations.

“The resignations were all voluntarily submitted to our HR department and followed the district’s process,”

Wallen explained. “One member of the district’s administrative team submitted one of those resignations and is not in agreement with my decision to reorganize the district office to align the district to better support our schools. This individual’s close friends in the community have taken it upon themselves to create as much chaos as possible through social media posts and the protest, which we all witnessed last week.”

“I am not a follower of Facebook and would not have known about these posts,” Wallen said, “but they were shared with me by many members of the public and those within the PUSD community. These attacks have become personal in nature and mention nothing about the importance of moving PUSD to a high-achieving district and getting our schools out of the C, D, and F ratings that we have experienced for the last several years. Our students deserve better than this, and our teachers are most certainly better than this.

“I am saddened by the level of unprofessional behavior that has been exhibited, especially when it comes from individuals who are employed by our community partners but have accepted that I cannot change it.”

Protesters planned a second demonstration for a board of supervisors special meeting Tuesday, but the meeting was canceled. Because meetings are held on Zoom for coronavirus safety reasons, the requirement for public comments is fulfilled through letter submissions, supposedly to be read during the meeting. Some letters were sent but were summarized rather than read. The Chronicle obtained copies of the letters submitted to the board from teachers and citizens, including former Mayor Levi Tappan.

Tappan told the Chronicle, “It’s like a mass exodus. These are all teachers that have bought houses in Page and are committed to Page, and we have a superintendent that is a renter here. His home is in Flagstaff.”

Public records indicate Wallen has a home on Skeet Drive in Flagstaff.

Tappan is known for his use of sarcasm to make a point. In his letter to the school board, he wrote, “Your 90s ax man is doing a hell of a job. Staff seem to be resigning in droves. Yet in the last year the school has gone from Bad to worse. Mr Wallen was hired without community input.”

He added, “I was supposed to be part of the community committee to help hire him [Wallen]. They didn’t do any community outreach. I guess that’s their prerogative, but they had no community input on the candidates.”

Tappan also said the school board has not had open meetings for a year. He said, “I think they’re breaking open meeting laws. I’m going to see what the attorney general says about that. And they’re not reading the comments that people are sending.”

PUSD teacher Josh Brink sent a letter to the school board on behalf of 17 other teachers.

Brink wrote: “During the January Regular Session School Board meeting, Superintendent Wallen said, ‘You want to keep that as a number one way to reduce the budget, is through attrition.’ I am deeply concerned that this mindset has unintentionally, and unfortunately, led to a neglect for our teachers’ needs and well-being.

“To elaborate, this is not to say that our social and emotional needs are not being met. The district has made it clear that our mental health is important. We have been led through weekly breathing exercises, positivity exercises, and well-being checks. What has not been done however is the removal of those things that are weighing us down.

“It is joked in the hallways that if our district found us with a broken arm, they would ask us to take a deep breath and think of all the good things that happened that day instead of taking us to the hospital.”

Wallen added context to the quote given by Brink: “You want to keep that as a number one way to reduce the budget, is through attrition.”

He said, “In discussions with the Governing Board, I proposed that we use ‘attrition’ as a short-term measure to bring expenditures in line with the loss of funding so that we did not have to cut positions as we have seen many other districts throughout the State do in recent weeks. This meant that as staff resigned, we would not replace them if we could move existing staff around to fill the positions. This was not possible in all cases, especially when you get to the secondary levels at the middle school and high school as those classes and teachers are more content specific.

“From August to January, we used this as a tactic to keep employees working and staff serving students and community members, both on and off the reservation. In summary, this meant that we did not have to make any staff cuts during this time.”

Brink said, “Also, to clarify, we must not brush off these concerns as COVID caused. They are not. While COVID-19 has been an unprecedented burden on teachers, the problems that are causing teachers to leave are rooted within our district.

“The amount of concerns that the teachers that I have spoken with are far too many to include in a short email, but they largely stem from our district leadership. Our concerns are often brushed off and ignored. Swift and partially informed decisions are being made and the teachers, and ultimately the students, are the ones suffering the consequences.”

Brink closed his letter suggesting “an open forum to directly address the School Board so that we may begin conversations to heal the damage that has been done over the course of the last year.”

Board President Robert Candelaria acknowledged receiving public comments during the April 13 meeting. He summarized concerns and directly responded to Brink’s letter.

Candelaria said, “What I’m going to do, because of the nature of this, and we do this often if there’s much the same topic, we’ll acknowledge that. So, they are. I will say that the comments are really regarding resignations that we have seen, and some point out ‘like we haven’t seen before.’”

Candelaria said, “One of the main issues with the new superintendent coming on board was to really work on retention, because we were losing so many teachers. So, that is really an issue that we’re all concerned about and that we’re intimately involved with, because we’re all tied into this district. We’re a community. I know on that list are several folks that are leaving for personal reasons. I’ve talked to several of them myself. The one thing that we will continually do is to have dialogue with the superintendent concerning retention, concerning resignations, and concerning the causes of those resignations. So, I wanted to assure you that we aren’t operating in the dark.”

Candelaria specifically addressed Brink’s concerns in the meeting saying, “We’re all in the midst of what we have been calling the unique year for sure. And (Brink) indicated, ‘Well, it’s not an excuse for not having open communication.’ One thing you had suggested that I think we’ll really work at, and that is to really develop an open forum with teachers, if you give us latitude to do that in the coming weeks. We’d like to do that.”

Wallen would also like to setup forums with teachers moving forward.

Teachers and staff had a rough year, learning new ways to teach during a pandemic, steep learning curves for online teaching, then teaching their students to use the new tools. Change is stressful. One source said some teachers are worn out, need a break and may return after a year.

This is an ongoing story, and the Chronicle is waiting for responses to better understand the teacher exodus.

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