Three weeks after long-brewing trouble at Clayton Valley Charter High School boiled to the forefront at a school board meeting May 21, disappointment, dismay and the resolution of troubling issues remain cloudy.
The school, dealing with personnel issues, has turned to third-party California-based Oracle Investigations Group to look into still more confidential complaints.
Growing pains and disagreement on the path the school should take had administrators, teachers, parents, students and the community at odds with each other, resulting in board meetings May 21 -- in which operations and athletics director Pat Middendorf was fired -- and June 11, where there were plans to discuss the possible removal of board president Tom Branich, before that and other related items were taken off the agenda.
In separate follow-up interviews, the school's executive director Dave Linzey, administrative services director Neil McChesney, Middendorf and two teachers at the school aimed their comments at clarification.
"There's a personnel issue that I can't speak on that is the background to this whole problem," said Linzey on June 9.
Asked to explain the board's public discussions at the May 21 meeting regarding some members' recusal during the closed session, he said, "For corporations, employees can't serve on the boards. It's a gray area for charters, but there are laws of conflict of interest that have to be followed."
Middendorf, Amber Lineweaver and Diane Bailey -- board members and school employees -- argued against, but were asked to recuse themselves during the more than four-hour closed session that resulted in Middendorf's dismissal on a 4-1 vote (Branich dissented).
Middendorf said June 11 that her attorney and a California Teachers Association attorney said the forced recusal was not legal.
"In an important issue like this, we were taken aback by it," she said. "I've never seen anything in the charter about that."
McChesney, joining Linzey for the interview, said the recusal was required by the Brown Act.
Following the closed session in that May meeting, a majority of community stakeholders protested against the administration's lack of transparency. Debra Gonsalves said the dispute between administrators and teachers was "dividing our community in half."
Laurie Arbour, a speech pathologist at CVCHS, said "top-down management, lack of respect and low morale were the reasons the charter was started" and regretfully, appeared to have resurfaced."
Students, including senior class president Kyle Metz, spoke about their teachers.
"Absolutely none of my success would be possible without my teachers. I've not seen the administration provide any support in two years," Metz said.
At the May 21 meeting, and in emails to this newspaper, Linzey supporters had suggested teachers encouraged students to attend the meeting and protest the administration's actions.
He answered, during the subsequent interview, that "students should never be used as pawns. That's an ethical violation by school employees. That's the most disheartening thing of all, in this process. ."
Additionally, he said Middendorf's firing had "nothing to do with the meeting that night or the involvement of the student protest. She was terminated without cause."
Middendorf said she had not talked with students -- "not even one" -- until after the May 21 meeting.
"No one has ever stated why I was fired, so I have no idea. I filed some complaints in this investigation that is coming up. That's the only thing I can come up with. I'm perplexed by it."
She said she is scheduled to talk to investigators but had not been informed when that would happen.
Assessing whether to contend her dismissal, she said,"I've not made that decision. I'm open to that, but I want to see how the investigation goes. It's a big step and everything was so abrupt, I need to take more time to think about it."
Linzey said problems could have been avoided because he has an open-door policy and board members have a set of protocols to follow when presenting complaints.
"She should have addressed her concerns to me. She never has. After addressing them to me, if she was dissatisfied, she could have addressed them to the chairman of the board or the entire board."
Middendorf said, "I took all those steps. I did speak with him."
Social studies teacher Jenny DeAngelis, who's been at the school for seven years and championed the conversion, said the charter process was new.
But the accusations that students were being manipulated by their teachers was a concern.
"We never discussed it. My students didn't ask me about the governance of the school until the claycord.com publications. (Letters and emails were published arguing both sides.) Our students formed their own positions."
DeAngelis said the ongoing disruption, especially suggestions that Branich should be removed from the board, increased her concern.
Cate Sundling, who has taught English at Clayton Valley for 19 years, wrote a letter to the board, excerpts of which were published on claycord.com. She still struggles with its being made public.
Visibly upset during the board's lengthy closed session June 11, she said, "It was difficult to write the letter. It's hard because the problem has been ignored for a long time. The people who've been saying we have a problem, they've been dismissed as being disgruntled, veteran teachers. This growing, low morale is pervasive and bigger than administration thought."
Importantly, Clayton Valley's success as a charter school includes new, approved teacher contracts with retroactive pay raises and increased health benefits, a six-year term accreditation awarded by WASC (Western Association of School and Colleges), graduation rates up from 83 percent to 95 percent, and a 62-point jump in the API rating that Linzey boasts is "the largest in California for a large high school."
Ironically, success has been a contributing factor to the upheaval. Four hundred students on a waiting list and an intense loyalty to serving area students led Linzey to seek what he said was charter expansion, based on board approval.
Middendorf was driven by similar impulses.
"I jump-started the stadium in 2003. Working with the community, we brought in that stadium. I love that school. Our charter took months and months to write. We spent every minute of spring break to write it."
But about the expansion, she said, "I never saw a charter draft for a satellite school until after they were submitted to the county. They were signed by three administrators, not the teachers."
She supplied a copy of the document in which Linzey and McChesney petitioned the Contra Costa County Board of Education for approval of a "Clayton Valley Charter Collegiate Academy." The expansion effort ran into roadblocks and has been tabled.
If there is common ground among all the players -- and there is -- it's their devotion to the students and the school. Linzey said he'd like to expand if it doesn't negatively impact the students. McChesney described the school's summer schedule chock full of curriculum and technology institutes, character-building workshops and leadership conferences for teachers, staff and administrators.
Middendorf said, "My background, my whole life has been devoted to the betterment of that school. I love that school. I had nothing to gain by what happened."
At the school board meetings, administrators, teachers, stakeholders and students said they are hanging onto their hope that the community will heal and move forward, united.
"The high school is more than an executive director," Linzey said. "It's a team building a community. We've had a setback, for sure, but we'll overcome that."