‘Uncharted territory’: Why did Sierra Montessori Academy close its doors? (VIDEO/PHOTO GALLERY) | TheUnion.com

‘Uncharted territory’: Why did Sierra Montessori Academy close its doors? (VIDEO/PHOTO GALLERY)

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories discussing the abrupt closure of Sierra Montessori Academy.

Sierra Montessori Academy saw its highest-ever enrollment in 2017-18 at 156 students. It marked the third-straight school year the south Nevada County charter had consistent growth among its students, up from 100 students in 2014-15.

Heading into 2018-19, those numbers gave the school and its new director reason to be bullish about its future, pointing to a population of 200 students as a two to three year goal.

But one year later, three months into the current school year, a total of 10 students remained enrolled. That was Oct. 31, when Sierra Montessori Academy’s doors were closed for the final time.

Over the course of the previous 12 months, teachers and aides were laid off, a board member was voted out, another “termed-out,” and two more members quit, as did an office manager.

The school’s new director resigned after a little more than a year into the role.

Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay described the situation as “uncharted territory,” watching a school close its doors in the midst of a school year within a month’s time.

“I’ve never seen students disenroll from a school at such a rapid pace,” said Darlene Waddle, chief business official with the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools.

Those involved at the highest levels of the charter — the school’s board and its directors — vehemently disagree on what led to the exodus of students, the school’s abrupt closure and dozens of families on a sudden search for a new school for their children.

“We’re heartbroken here,” Interim Director Jennifer Dearduff said on Oct. 3, announcing the school’s impending closure. “We just love our students, and we’re a family here. It’s definitely a hard time for parents and kids, and we just want to make the transition as easy as possible.”

BACK TO SCHOOL

By the time Dearduff made that announcement, after taking over as director following the September resignation of Stephen DeSena, around 40 students were enrolled at Sierra Montessori, according to Lay.

“It’s a fairly unprecedented loss of attendance,” he said. “You just don’t see that.”

Also troubling, Lay said Sierra Montessori officials reported inflated attendance numbers and understated financial concerns at the beginning of the current school year. The amount of state funding a school receives is directly tied to daily attendance and school enrollment.

Waddle said the county’s role is to monitor situations and process accounts payable, but the system only works if schools accurately report numbers to the county four times per year. In this case, Waddle said, the county heard concerns through “word of mouth” — not directly from the school.

“They have full responsibility of all operations for their school,” she said.

Nevada County Board of Education President Wendy Baker said although oversight is offered at the county level, it has limits.

“The hardest problem is we don’t have any control,” she said. “Even though we were the authorizer (of the charter), we were powerless to do anything.”

Baker said the county office, and she in particular, were treated like adversaries when offering advice to Sierra Montessori officials to help the school and balance its budget.

DeSena disagrees. He said the county has full autonomy to operate school finances and should not have been surprised by the situation.

“They know every number,” he said. “They write the paychecks for us. They do the insurance justifications for us.”

On Aug. 30, 2019, Lay organized a meeting with the school’s board president, Jodi Reavis, and school board member Stuart Monahan. Lay said he didn’t invite DeSena because he had received false information from him.

Lay said he recommended the board “look at everything,” including whether DeSena was a good fit.

DeSena said he resigned because Lay recommended it.

“The only reason I resigned was because it was represented to me that Scott Lay would do everything in his power (to) help the school financially if I resigned, and that’s what I felt was best for kids,” he said. Generally, DeSena said he thought the county office “overstretched” its role, exacerbating issues.

Lay said the reason county officials attended board meetings was to address complaints they had fielded from the school’s parents, staff and board members.

Before the board decided in September to close the school, it was netting $300,000 in losses, said Lay.

Board members Table:

‘Majority bullied the minority’

As a public charter school, Sierra Montessori’s board members are appointed, not elected school board representatives. According to records, the board consisted of five members in September 2018: Reavis, Monahan, Michele LaGamma, Bonnie McKeegan and Dann Craven.

One year later, the board consisted of just Reavis, Monahan and Jason Bice, who was appointed in November 2018. Duffy Ford was appointed that same month and remained on board until August 2019.

Charter school board members can be voted off the board by a majority vote, said Lay.

Former board members LaGamma and Craven, agreed with county officials that board meetings were not properly run, even after board members received Brown Act training to help them understand proper procedure, and that many board records are still not available — if they even exist.

In 2018, a parent demonstration occurred at Sierra Montessori to advocate for transparency.

Although Craven’s wife and mother-in-law were involved, Craven said he had no involvement in the event. Monahan said though he agreed with Craven on the board’s inappropriate handling of budgetary issues, he found the demonstration misguided.

“(Craven) just didn’t know how to carry things out right,” he said.

At one point during the year, Craven said Pam Hemminger, the school’s business manager, refused to post a board meeting agenda online before a meeting occurred. Hemminger eventually did post the agenda, but Craven said it was not aligned with what the board agreed upon, thereby violating the Brown Act.

As such, Craven issued a motion to remove Reavis, the chair, from the board, which was successful in a 3-1 vote.

DeSena said Craven (and the board) violated the Brown Act in doing so. Craven said it wasn’t a violation because it was an “emergency situation.” (There was no agendized notice of the vote to remove a board member.)

Reavis later reclaimed her position. Craven didn’t challenge it because, he said, he didn’t want to take the issue to court.

In general, Craven, DeSena, Monahan and Lay all agree the board had issues following the Brown Act. Members were sent to multiple trainings over the year, including one from the California Charter Schools Association, to better understand how to properly run board meetings.

Afterward, DeSena said things became more open. Others, however, disagreed. Baker, president of the county Board of Education, said at an August 2019 board meeting, she tried to speak during open public forum questioning the board’s increase of salaries to $100,000 for credentialed teachers and administrators. She said she was silenced by DeSena.

At the September meeting when DeSena resigned, Lay said no one was allowed time to speak.

“It’s embarrassing the way they treated the public,” Lay said, adding that what happened at Sierra Montessori gives charter schools a bad reputation.

In May 2019, Craven was voted off the board because, he said, fellow members claimed he was not “‘a team player’” and because he requested help from Lay’s office. The vote for his removal was agendized on a May 15, 2019, board meeting.

While not all dissenting board members were voted off like Craven, others were termed-out or quit before the 2019-20 school year, like LaGamma and McKeegan. Lay said the majority bullied the minority out of power.

“If you had a dissenting opinion, you did not last on the board,” said Lay, “and that appears to have happened with staff, too.”

‘TOXIC ENVIRONMENT’

LaGamma and Craven, as well as some parents, staff members and county officials said ultimately the school’s problems fell on a few individuals: DeSena, Hemminger and Reavis, the board president.

While Hemminger did not respond to multiple requests for comment, Reavis provided a brief statement, saying the board intended to be “law abiding and morally clean.” DeSena said most of the school’s issues were due to the previous director, and a board that didn’t know what it was doing.

Craven said the board was “being manipulated” by DeSena and becoming “a rubber-stamp committee.”

Sarah Seward, who resigned after seven years as the school’s office manager, said Hemminger and Reavis “formed such a tight alliance with (DeSena). She and others said DeSena would frequently mistreat staff, yelling at people who challenged him and ignoring others. LaGamma said DeSena would mock teachers and parents, sometimes with a caustic attitude, other times more playfully.

“Stephen DeSena is really the reason why we are at where we are now,” said former board member Stuart Monahan. “He had a really radical business-like way of dealing with his staff (and) his teachers.”

DeSena denies claims of hostility and wrongdoing. He said people were unhappy because an unbalanced budget forced him to make hard decisions and lay off three teachers within the first three months of the 2018-19 school year.

Craven said the budget could have been balanced in other ways.

“We were lied to and we were told (firing teachers) was the only option,” said Craven.

Susan Alexander said she was laid off Sept. 6, after teaching at the school for six years. She was sent a cease-and-desist letter by the board chair one week later for allegedly defaming the school. She denied the letter’s claim. Alexander said she was afraid to speak out for fear of losing her job.

“It was a very toxic environment and a toxic place to work,” she said.

In the letter signed by Reavis, Alexander was accused of “contacting (Sierra Montessori Academy) students and families and asking them to unenroll their students, telling them that (the school) is closing its doors, and encouraging them to assist you in your efforts to get the School shut down.”

“(Sierra Montessori Academy) is not in fact closing down,” the letter continues, “and you have no basis on which to spread this false information.”

Reavis wrote that the school demanded Alexander to “immediately cease and desist” from encouraging parents to disenroll, from making false and defamatory statements and refrain from interfering with the operations of the school.

“Failure to abide by these directives shall result in the School seeking any and all appropriate legal recourse against you.”

The letter was dated Sept. 13, 2019.

Twenty days later, Interim Director Jennifer Dearduff announced Sierra Montessori Academy would close its doors on Halloween.

SierraMontessoriLetter

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email scorey@theunion.com or call 530-477-4219.


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