On the first day of classes at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, a PE teacher greeted Evan Myers’ seventh period construction management class. It was unusual, but the sophomore took it in stride.

Then the class, which teaches construction skills like using tools, began skipping all of the hands-on activities they had planned. Several weeks into the semester, a substitute took over and his class turned into a study hall.

“I was expecting to be doing something by now,” Myers said.

What Myers experienced was a consequence of conflicts between the Morgan Hill Unified School District and the local teachers union. A combination of sudden changes to high school schedules and faculty compensation practices has prompted teachers to refuse teaching extra classes for what they said are cut-rate wages. The district has instead turned to long-term substitutes, some of whom lack formal training. As a result, students like Myers do homework in these classes.

While a national teacher shortage has led the state to relax certification requirements, teachers say the district manufactured the problem in Morgan Hill. The root cause of these issues, parents and teachers said, is the new superintendent, Carmen Garcia, who began her tenure last year after she abruptly left her last district leadership position in Southern California two years ago.

Unexpected changes

Since Garcia started at Morgan Hill, faculty say the district has enacted several sudden and inexplicable policy changes without teacher input, turning the work environment hostile.

This is not Garcia’s first controversy.  When she was hired by the district in May 2021, some parents raised concerns about the new superintendent’s past at other Southern California schools.

She came under fire as superintendent of the San Marcos Unified School District in 2019, when nearly half of a district elementary school’s faculty quit after Garcia replaced its principal and vice principal with administrators she’d worked with at her former district job. Parents accused Garcia of nepotism and she abruptly resigned in September 2020 after parents repeatedly flocked to board meetings to complain about her leadership.

Garcia was hired at Morgan Hill eight months later. There, teachers and parents have pointed to these past controversies as further evidence that Garcia is behind rising tensions at the district.

Garcia defended her actions at other districts.

“Although I feel it is a low blow to attempt to attack my professional record, I can further state that I will never apologize for hiring the best and the brightest leaders that our students deserve,” Garcia told San Jose Spotlight.

In recent weeks, anonymous letters and a Nextdoor post have circulated among district faculty and parents claiming teachers are “going through hell,” crying at work and looking to quit due to favoritism and bullying of faculty, by the new administration.

Decision without input

Over the summer, Morgan Hill Unified School District announced that it would add a seventh period class to high school schedules, just weeks before classes began. The district billed the class as an extra learning opportunity for students.

District spokesperson Lanae Bays told San Jose Spotlight the decision allows students to take more credits and broaden their educations.

The district scrambled to fill new positions the change suddenly created, but couldn’t find enough staff, Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers President James Levis told San Jose Spotlight.

“It was interesting that, at a time when it’s hard to fill positions, the district added (more teaching jobs),” Levis said.

Santa Clara valley has a severe teacher shortage due to the high cost of living, housing and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a temporary fix, administrators asked some teachers to lead an extra class. Ann Sobrato High School teacher Regan Stuart willingly took on the extra period.

Historically, the district pays teachers an additional 20 percent of their salaries for doing this, but the superintendent announced in a meeting with union heads that she would no longer honor this past agreement, Levis said. Instead, faculty said they were offered an hourly rate of $38. A veteran teacher could lose $13,000 in annual earnings under this arrangement, Levis said.

When the district refused to pay teachers their usual wage, the union asked Stuart and her colleagues to stop teaching the extra period. Now a substitute leads her student government class, causing “mayhem” in her usually orderly classroom, she said. Stuart fears the time she’s invested in her students, especially the reserved ones, will go to waste.

“Every day I’m not in that classroom to catch that kid, they just get closer and closer to being lost again,” she said.

The problem is worse in career and technical education classes like Myers’ construction management. When Myer’s mother, Jen Klem-Myers, a teacher at Barrett Elementary School, learned a PE teacher taught the class due to a wage dispute, she sent a complaint to district administrators.

“If you’re going to offer this (class) to the students, one would hope you would have teachers that are qualified to teach those classes,” she told San Jose Spotlight.

The day after she sent her complaint, the school sent an email to parents, telling them they’d found a new teacher. Parents interpreted this to mean a qualified, full-time teacher had replaced the sub. But the new teacher was still a sub, according to teacher certification records.

“We’ve had two instances of my son losing his supposed teacher for these long-term subs,” said Dan Carmichael, another frustrated parent whose child is in the same class as Myers. “It’s a bit of a head-scratcher that you won’t pay an experienced teacher, but you’ll pay a sub to come in and babysit the kids.”

The district has now hired an “industry professional” to replace the subs and teach the construction management courses, Bays told San Jose Spotlight.

Currently, the district only has three vacant teacher positions, she claimed. But the district’s online job board lists at least 14 open teacher positions. Bays declined to clarify this discrepancy.

The district and the union are in negotiations to resolve contract issues around pay. Teachers said it wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place if the district simply honored its past agreement to pay them fairly.

Garcia said the district is meeting students at their level of need.

“This requires a shift in our practices which can, at times, be difficult for some of the adults working within a school district,” she said.

An ’embattled’ workplace

Elementary and middle schools also saw scheduling changes this year. Levis said some teachers didn’t know about these changes until they arrived to teach their classes in August.

“We were not necessarily averse to these programs, it was the lack of input in implementing them,” he said.

Some teachers point to Garcia as the source of the problem, describing a tense work environment. Most spoke to San Jose Spotlight on the condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation from the district.

“There has been a pattern of Garcia making decisions for the entire district without consulting parents or teachers, and then pushing them through,” one district teacher said, adding that administrators had been chastised last spring by Garcia after teachers asked about COVID-19 safety protocols.

Garcia claimed she has solicited feedback when making decisions for the district.

“Throughout this past year, I have listened and learned from students, parents, faculty and the community on the need to provide more academic and enrichment opportunities for our students,” she said.

Stuart said the politics of the district make it difficult for her to say Garcia is the sole source of these issues, yet she’s certain conditions have grown untenable.

“I feel embattled this year,” the high school teacher said, “and I’ve not felt that way ever in my career.”

This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight. Please use the original link when sharing: https://sanjosespotlight.com/silicon-valley-santa-clara-county-morgan-hill-unified-school-district-conflict-leaves-students-in-limbo/

Brian Howey, San Jose Spotlight

CalMatters