Scott Carpenter
The Union Democrat

The drama played out practically by the hour. A closed session discussion of the employment of two popular administrators at a board meeting in Twain Harte provoked a frenzy Tuesday afternoon, only to fizzle in a collective sigh Wednesday evening.

Parents and staff at Twain Harte Elementary-Long Barn School District received an email at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday notifying them that two administrators, Jeff Winfield, superintendent, and Dan Mayers, principal, were up for discussion during closed session at a 4 p.m. meeting Wednesday. The topic? Their employment.

That afternoon, parents and staff mobilized on Facebook. At the meeting Wednesday, about 40 people filled the district office conference room, perhaps seven or eight times the usual.

They had heard about recent administrative changes at Summerville High School, whose board recently reassigned Principal David Johnstone and Grade Level Coordinator John Contreras. And they had just emerged from a turbulent period during the recession when superintendents lasted scarcely a year at a time. Relations between the board, the staff and parents had bottomed out, and had only recovered with the hiring of Winfield and Mayers.

One after another, parents took the floor to voice their concerns. One audience member compared the ominous-seeming agenda item, combined with the short notice, to a visit to a doctor who had nothing but bad news to tell.

The board then went into closed session.

Wendi Roberts, president of chapter 818 of the California State Employees Association, was waiting outside the closed-door meeting. She said the opacity with which the board was conducting business harkened back to the turbulent post-recession years, when trust was at an all-time low.

“After years of turmoil, we feel secure as a staff, and we feel like now the rug has been pulled out from under us, and it brings back all the fear and anxiety that we felt for so many years,” she said. “If they had posted it a week ago, it would have seemed OK.”

Parents expressed similar frustration. Daniel Richardson, a parent of six students who have either graduated from Twain Harte School or currently attend, wrote in a statement he read at the meeting that the special agenda item was a prelude to a staff “reorganization.”

While he appreciated the school fully abided by the rules, he wrote, “How the school board conducts its business matters. The way you are going about this reorganization is legal, but what’s legal isn’t always ethical. In the court of public opinion, we being the public, believe you are falling short.”

Then, at close to 6 p.m., the board reconvened. Winfield took the floor. He apologized.

Winfield, who is bound under a three-year contract to devote 75 percent of his services to Soulsbyville Elementary and 25 percent to Twain Harte-Long Barn, sought to start a discussion with the board about what should be done if Soulsbyville decided not to extend the memorandum. He assumed, he said in comments to the audience, that discussion item was already properly agendized. It wasn’t. And by the time he realized it, he could only put it on a special agenda, Twain Harte’s general counsel told him.

“I totally get it,” Winfield said, “because this caught everyone by surprise.”

He said they were talking about evaluations and the memorandum.

“We’re not trying to get rid of Dan. We’ve talked about it, and now we’re going to share a little bit about the model.”

In the audience, sighs of relief were audible.

Nevertheless, while the board expressed its assurance that it, too, believed Winfield and Mayers were doing a fine job and they wished to retain them, Winfield’s leadership at Twain Harte is not certain. If Soulsbyville decides to make a change to the memorandum, that will be decided at a board meeting in May. Parents and teachers said they hoped to attend.

But it didn’t completely quell the sense that things had been blown a little out of proportion.

Someone said, “Well that was a waste of time.”