Jessica Boucher: Small minds with big beefs shut down Sierra Montessori Academy
In recent articles about Sierra Montessori Academy, some have suggested it failed because of poor leadership or a mismanagement of funds.
As a teacher there last year and an observer to the events as they unfolded, I believe the school was broken apart under the millstone of rumor and spite. Three people in particular are being dragged through the mud of public opinion in this case: Stephen DeSena (principal), Pam Hemminger (business manager), and Jodi Reavis (board member). As the seventh and third grade teacher last year, it was my experience each of these people are all good, hard-working folks who cared for students and success of the school.
I was excited for my new job last year. However, once the school year started, it became clear I stepped into a school culture that was divided. On the one side was a group of teachers, staff, parents and board members who gossiped and complained about everything. On the other side were those who refused to engage with rumors, those just trying to do their jobs, teach the kids, and make the school a better place.
Some of the earliest gossip was teachers complaining after a staff meeting that the principal actually expected them to work their contracted hours. Can you imagine the gall of a boss who actually expects you to work your hours?
Next, I heard rumors of the principal being antisocial and unwelcoming. What preceded that? DeSena kept his office door closed and locked when he wasn’t there.
Any school principal will tell you they cannot leave their office door open when they are not there. Principals handle documents with delicate and private information about students and families. This information includes which students have learning disabilities, who is in foster care, students’ medical information, etc. That information has to be kept private to protect the students as minors. The principal explained this in a staff meeting, but members of the rumor mill were upset they couldn’t enter his office when he wasn’t there.
So, the rumors continued while he was hosting school barbecues, rewarding perfect attendance with lunch with the principal, helping staff in the lunch room and visiting students during lunch, meeting with parents in his office, and engaging in other activities that demonstrated his commitment to the school.
I believe Hemminger and Reavis were attacked by the rumor mill group for their support of DeSena.
Hemminger, our business manager, was frustrated by certain board members and staff who could not seem to comprehend basic concepts of school budgeting. The simple truth about the budget was that the school needed a higher enrollment and better attendance or it would not be able to sustain the number of teachers. During board meetings, certain board members would insist Hemminger could take the money from one program and put it toward teachers’ salaries. She explained that governmental money that is earmarked for a specific purpose cannot be used for any other purpose besides what it was earmarked for. It was embarrassing to watch the governing board be schooled publicly about how the budget works, something Hemminger had to do repeatedly. She was viewed as uncooperative or in league with DeSena because they both agreed that there are just certain things you can’t legally do with a budget.
To address the enrollment issue, DeSena put together a marketing campaign for the school and began to implement it. However, at every turn, the teachers in the rumor mill bucked every change and complained that wasn’t the way his predecessor did things. Behind the scenes, the rumor mill was in full swing chatting amongst themselves, stirring up parents online using social media, and board members even sticking their heads in cars while parents drove up to the school to pick up their kids.
At a certain point, a decision was made by the rumor mill to oust DeSena. I believe this is the reason Reavis was targeted to be removed from the board. She is the kind of stellar parent every teacher wants to have in his or her classroom. Her presence was seen daily on campus, helping out where needed. When we had a nest of hornets terrorizing and stinging the kids, it was Reavis who roped it off and helped our maintenance man battle them. She volunteered at every event and even checked on the teachers who weren’t even teaching her kids to see how they were doing.
But, she was also one of DeSena’s strongest supporters. If the rumor mill wanted to fire him, they would need a majority vote from the board. At the time, only two of the five board members were in favor of that. In my opinion, Reavis was a key piece in a game of numbers. As DeSena’s strongest supporter, she was the most logical target.
With the rumors going around and dissent at board meetings, parents began to pull their kids from the school, which only added to the budget problem and the need for higher enrollment. As the rumors spiraled out of control with twisted facts and spiteful behavior, the attendance dropped. When layoffs had to be made due to declining enrollment, classrooms were combined, and more parents pulled their children from the school.
Believe what you will about budgets or leadership, but I know what I believe. Sierra Montessori Academy was destroyed by small minds with big beefs.
Jessica Boucher was a teacher at Sierra Montessori Academy during the 2018-2019 academic year. She taught seventh grade, and then was moved to a third grade teaching position after layoffs occurred.
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