Coleville principal reassigned to classroom

COLEVILLE - Of all the school districts along the Eastern Sierra, John McCann - a lawyer and retired law enforcement officer from Southern California - picked out tiny Coleville as the place where he believed his 9-year-old daughter would receive the best education.

He was impressed with how Principal Mark Spencer had updated the little four-school California district - introducing the Internet and securing accreditation from the Western Association of Schools.

McCann and other parents were impressed with Spencer's involvement in the close-knit community of Coleville, where school means much more than where kids go for an education.

That's why McCann and other parents, teachers and staff were angered and surprised by the Eastern Sierra Unified School District's decision to reassign Spencer to a classroom teacher's position at the end of the school year.

To McCann, Spencer has been much more than principal in charge of 260 students, 25 teachers and 20 support staff in the four schools on the Coleville campus. He's been a community leader since he arrived four years ago, just in advance of the 1997 New Year's flood which devastated Nevada and Northern California.

"After the flood, he organized a radio group and personally educated people so they could obtain their licenses," McCann said. "He made a strong contribution to the immediate safety of people, and we got a small emergency radio system going. Our most recent power outage lasted 14 hours and we were able to identify four people who needed oxygen. Mr. Spencer led the efforts to do that.

"He's active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he's raised lots of money to give to charity - clothes, other items he identifies that people need - toys, jackets, boots, stuff like that."

McCann said that unhappy parents are circulating petitions in the small town to take to the school board's next meeting March 15 in Lee Vining.

"All of this happened in closed session Feb. 6 and nobody knew about it until Feb. 21," McCann said. "The school board met on Feb. 23 in Bridgeport and 20 of us went down there, another 50 or 60 people sent letters of support. Every teacher in the middle school and high school, the Marine Corps commandant and a lot of community members said, 'We don't want this guy removed.'"

Spencer has little comment except to say he doesn't want to see the school and community torn apart by the board's decision.

"The board voted on the superintendent's recommendation that I be re-assigned. It's a purely administrative action handled by the board in closed session. There is the option to appeal and there are procedures for doing that, but I can't comment on it."

Spencer said the change is to take effect at the end of the school year.

"Any major change in school leadership causes some concerns, some feelings of uneasiness about what the future holds. They're just falling back on doing what students and staff need to do, which is focus on teaching and learning," Spencer said.

"The school is much larger than the individuals within the school. Although changes like this may seem traumatic, in the overall scheme it's about students' achievement and learning. No one individual should have an impact on that. That's what we need to keep in focus."

Superintendent Joel Hampton said he, too, was unable to discuss the issue.

"This was not an overnight decision," Hampton said. "The district has to base its decisions on something more than a popularity contest. There are people on both sides of the issue.

"We can't specifically say our side, and that makes us sitting ducks. There is a lot of misinformation out there. Unfortunately, what's happened is that it's been taken to the streets to tear the community apart."

McCann said the parents and other community members will continue to circulate petitions to encourage school board members to change their minds.

"We're afraid our appeal is going to fall on deaf ears. We called each and every school board member and pretty much got the opinion that this is a done deal, even though Mr. Spencer has had outstanding ratings and community support," he said.

"I don't know of a single parent who ever called the school and said, 'I want to come in and talk to Mr. Spencer,' and was told that he was too busy. He typically spends the first and last hours of the school day talking to parents as they drop off or pick up their children."

McCann pointed out that Mono County is 110 miles long and the board could decide to assign Spencer to the opposite end of the county in Benton.

"Some people are quick to characterize this as a personality conflict between Mr. Hampton and Mr. Spencer," McCann said. "That can be resolved. We just don't want some Johnny-come-lately (Hampton) to lose sight of what's best for the kids."


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