‘Allowed to disintegrate’: Former director says Nevada County’s Sierra Montessori Academy lacked leadership as it spiraled downward
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories discussing the abrupt closure of Sierra Montessori Academy.
When he accepted the position of director at Sierra Montessori Academy, Stephen DeSena said he saw good reason to be optimistic about the school’s future.
His experience with teaching in alternative education programs seemed a strong fit for a Montessori school, where children lead their education experiences, with teachers as guides, and learn lessons at their own pace. Sierra Montessori, a public K-8 charter offered both classroom-based and independent study curriculums.
“It sounded a lot like what I used to do with outdoor education — taking city kids and putting them in the outdoors. Having them experience new things here where they could be guided at their own pace,” DeSena told The Union in August 2018, four months into the role of director.
DeSena said he knew he had “big shoes to fill” but he looked to build on the success of former director Henry Bietz, who had helped grow Sierra Montessori Academy’s enrollment 56% over a three-year period to its highest number of students, 156, in the school’s history.
“I want to continue to build on what Henry Bietz has brought to this point,” DeSena said.
One year later, though, DeSena pointed to his predecessor as part of the problems that led to the sudden closure of Sierra Montessori Academy in October.
‘BREAKS MY HEART’
DeSena said issues predated his arrival. Bietz ran the school “on a razor’s edge,” said DeSena, balancing a tight budget. Early into his tenure, he said that tight budget forced him to lay off three teachers in the first three months of 2018-19, which made people unhappy.
DeSena said Bietz also essentially ran the school’s board, not the inverse, creating “very little understanding of board procedure” among board members.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Bietz said.
Under his leadership, Bietz said, the school had built “a huge reserve” and the highest enrollment numbers in its history. Bietz said he was always accountable to the school board, and that there were never Brown Act violations when he was director.
“It breaks my heart that this individual and the board allowed the school to disintegrate to the point that it did,” Bietz said.
The longest serving board members, those who served during Bietz tenure — Michele LaGamma and Bonnie McKeegan — were all gone from the board by the end of the 2018-19 school year. Dann Craven was also gone from the board by that time. While he did not serve during Bietz’s tenure, he was supportive of the director.
“Under Henry Bietz the school was doing great,” said parent Drew German, who pulled his children from the school in October 2018. “The students were happy, the teachers were happy, things were fair.”
Pamela Down, a former business manager who resigned in 2016, agreed. “I left that school in great shape compared to where it had been,” said Down. “(Bietz) was a fair, good person. He knew what he was doing. We had great teachers.”
‘VIOLATION BUT NO CRIME’
According to the 2016-17 Sierra Montessori administrative salary schedule, directors or principals were paid by credentialed administrative experience: $46,000 for up to three years, $61,000 for three to five years and $78,000 for five years plus.
The school board changed the salary schedule for the 2017-18 year on May 1, 2018, raising the interim executive director’s salary to $85,000. However, records provided by the school district indicate no meeting occurred on that date.
Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay said that’s because the action was enacted retroactively (or backdated to May 1), after the county office inquired as to what was happening.
Lay said the county office often received the same documents from the school stamped with different dates. An agenda for a May 21, 2018, meeting shows the board was slated to take action on the salary schedule that its documents show was already approved.
“We were never made clear who agreed to the $85,000,” said Lay, adding that Business Manager Pam Hemminger and school board President Jodi Reavis appeared to offer approval, but that couldn’t be verified through documents.
In fact, “There are several versions” of documents highlighting board approval to the 2017-18 salary schedule, Lay said.
In either case,“(DeSena) should have been (paid) $46,000,” said Lay, which was aligned with his administrative credentials.
DeSena was due to be paid $85,000, according to his May 15, 2018 contract, provided by board members. This occurred prior to the special meeting where the “approval” was scheduled for discussion on May 21.
There were also issues with how DeSena was hired, for which Lay said his office could not find official meeting minutes recording the board’s approval. According to unofficial meeting minutes provided by two board members — but not published on the school’s website — DeSena was hired by the board during closed session at an April 26, 2018 meeting. Conducting such actions at an unofficial board meeting violates California Government Code.
Former board members said they never saw DeSena’s contract.
“We were told, as a group, ‘No, we don’t have time’ to interview other people,” said LaGamma. “To me, it was intimidation. ‘You got to shut up and be quiet because we got to get this done,’” she said, referring specifically to school business manager Pam Hemminger and Reavis’ plans to hire DeSena.
Reavis said the board intended to be “law abiding and morally clean.”
“We have always worked closely with legal counsel to ensure that all state codes and Brown Act legalities have been followed,” she wrote in an email to The Union.
DeSena said no improper proceedings occurred.
“My salary, my contract, everything was approved by the board,” he said.
But violations of the Brown Act, Lay said, continued to crop up even after board members received training.
Lay said a lawyer investigated the board’s hiring of DeSena and found that a “violation but no crime” occurred, resulting in no penalty. To enact legal consequences, Lay said someone would have had to file a lawsuit.
DeSena took a retirement package of two months pay (about $14,000) with health benefits, said Stuart Monahan, who was one of three remaining board members when the school closed. Lay said the deal was brokered between DeSena and Reavis.
Lay’s office asserted the board violated the Brown Act on Sept. 18 when it approved DeSena’s retirement package, said Darlene Waddle, chief business official with Lay’s office. The violation occurred, the county claims, because the board didn’t allow public comment on DeSena’s resignation and retirement package before taking the vote.
While the county hadn’t yet canceled DeSena’s payroll — thereby paying him for two months — Waddle said it contacted legal counsel to inquire about the violation. Waddle said the conclusion was “we’d have to take Stephen DeSena to court to have (the board) repay the overpayment.”
With all the legal fees having been racked up on the county office regarding Sierra Montessori to that point, Waddle said there wasn’t enough money to proceed with a lawsuit.
Despite this, on Nov. 5 — five days after the school’s doors were closed for the final time — the remaining board members held a meeting that included DeSena’s resignation as a topic. Waddle said this too likely violated the Brown Act because a board can’t conduct board business after its school has closed down.
Monahan, who resigned prior to the Nov. 5 meeting, called the decision to give DeSena a retirement package — which he dissented on — “unacceptable.”
“It was fairly simple how to correct this, and right the ship,” Lay said, but the budget went unchecked. “I’m sorry for the kids there and for parents that believed in that school.”
After the school closed, Hemminger took discretionary leave and failed to complete the school’s final audit, said Lay. Another problem surfaced upon learning Hemminger is the only individual with passwords to the financial accounts. County administrators had been reaching out to Hemminger via phone and social media to contact her.
“That was a wrench we hadn’t expected,” said Lay.
After, and prior to, Sierra Montessori Academy’s final day, students and their families had to find a new school.
According to Lay, they went to the Pleasant Ridge School District, Clear Creek and Chicago Park school districts and to Placer County schools. The majority, however, seem to have gone to nearby Clear Creek Elementary.
“Clear Creek has had a record high attendance right now,” said Dan Zeisler, who serves as dual superintendent of Chicago Park and Clear Creek districts, small districts that seek to provide small class sizes.
There are 14 families on the waiting list, Clear Creek Principal Carolyn Cramer said in an email. However, she wrote that not all of those are former Sierra Montessori Academy families. Eight families from the school have enrolled at Clear Creek since the spring, wrote Cramer.
“As a result of these new students, some of our classes have gotten bigger, but we still have class sizes that are average,” she wrote, noting the highest class sizes are in the mid 20s.
Pleasant Ridge Union School District Superintendent Rusty Clark said his district didn’t incorporate many students from Sierra Montessori Academy, and added one teacher from the closed school. Despite this, Clark acknowledged the district is growing, reaching 1,300 students this year which is about 260 higher than what it had projected two years ago.
“This is the first time we’ve had growth (in several years),” said Clark.
The superintendent said he doesn’t yet know what will happen to the former Sierra Montessori Academy facility, as it’s owned by his school district. The building has been closed once before, in 2010 after 50 years of educating children as Pleasant Ridge Elementary School.
Clark said he is giving Sierra Montessori Academy faculty and administrators time to clean up and decompress from the situation before arriving at a decision on the future use of the building.
Correction: Dann Craven did not serve as a board member for Sierra Montessori Academy while Henry Bietz was the director. The Union regrets the error.
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4219.
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