The Big Oak Flat-Groveland School District, no stranger to unrest, is now hip-deep in a controversy that could cripple its operations.
Reacting to the dismissal of a popular Tioga High School math teacher and coach, a group of students and parents have launched a petition drive to throw out all five members of the school board. The teacher, Ryan Dutton, said he was "blindsided" by the board with accusations that he plagiarized a draft of a paper he turned in while working for his teaching credential at Fresno State.
Trouble is, state privacy laws prohibit board members and Superintendent Mari Brabbin from discussing the case. And Dutton, on the advice of his own lawyer, won't talk further about it.
But this has done nothing to quell the ardor of those who would have the trustees' heads. At a time when patience, dialogue and understanding are needed, board opponents are drafting recall petitions that demand the ouster of trustees Bryan Berger, Lillian Cravens, Dave Gookin, Mary Kelly and Chuck Day.
Cooler heads have not prevailed.
Resorting to recall, written into law as a remedy of last resort, is like trying to put out a fire with napalm. It is destructive and divisive.
A look at the realities of recall:
? It's expensive: Tuolumne County Elections Supervisor Jackie St. George estimated the special election will cost the district $9,000. That's cash that could be spent on textbooks, classroom supplies or field trips.
? It's time consuming. Once draft petitions are approved by the county, recall backers will have 60 days to collect the necessary 900 signatures to force each of five recalls. Once signatures are verified, recall elections must be scheduled within 120 days. The entire process could take more than six months.
? It could produce new trustees supported by only a small minority of voters. Recall ballots have two parts. On the first, those casting ballots vote yes or no on recall. Then, those who vote to throw the incumbent out choose from a list of replacement candidates. The replacement candidate getting the most votes even if it is far fewer than a majority assume office.
Consider this very plausible scenario: One of the incumbents is recalled by 52 percent of the voters. Then that same 52 percent chooses among four replacement candidates. The winner takes office with 27 percent of those votes. That's 27 percent of 52 percent meaning the new trustee has the support of only 14 percent of the district voters.
Less easily gauged is the toll this political drama could take on the district's schools. Tioga's students are already involved in the recall campaign and have missed classes to protest. Teachers will be pressured to take sides. Tioga Principal Sandy Bradley has already lined up against Brabbin and the board, saying trustees "don't respect" the students.
Project out what has already happened for six months and consider what kind of learning environment it will foster and the hit district's reputation will take.
Now, let's look at what has already happened. Yes, teacher Dutton is a sympathetic figure. A former college All-American and NFL football player, he is a well-liked coach and teacher at Tioga. Yet an irregularity in his academic record convinced all five Big Oak Flat-Groveland trustees to vote for his dismissal.
Such unanimous votes don't typically come on controversial issues. And this board was not elected as a slate or during a one-issue campaign. Instead, it is a mix of appointed and elected veterans and newcomers who seemed to have constituents' best interests in mind.
Until now, when at least among some trust seems to have evaporated. Still, there is this spectre: a new board is elected, looks at the closed-to-the-public Dutton file, and is forced by law and logic to agree with its ousted predecessors.
Other critics say the Dutton issue is "the straw that broke the camel's back," the latest in a long list of board misdeeds. But these other issues which may include the division of cash and resources between the district's Tioga and Don Pedro high school campuses are not personnel matters and are instead grounds for discussion and dialogue, which should be given every chance to work before a damaging recall election is pursued.