The Sonora High School Federation of Teachers declared a vote of no confidence in the district board of trustees following the district’s decision to negotiate with a Sonora non-profit on a deal to swap land near the school for Wildcat Ranch.

The teachers union also took issue with hiring a recruiting firm to quickly select a new superintendent rather than naming an interim after Superintendent Pat Chabot retires at the end of the school year.

“For too long we have watched this board devalue our classrooms and the educational services our members provide. Our students deserve better and we have a responsibility to take a stand. For the success of our educational community, we demand a change,” said Sonora Union High School Federation of Teachers President Debbie Hopper.

Nearly half of the 50 people in attendance stood as Hopper spoke.

Other teachers said a lack of leadership has been apparent for many years, extending to the Measure J school bond, the “financial turmoil” of layoffs and increased class sizes, and the hiring of a consulting firm at a rate of less than $16,000 to search for a new superintendent in a limited period of time.

“At this moment, our district desperately needs strong leadership that considers itself accountable to our educational community. Our board has demonstrated time and again that they will not not be deterred by the suggestions, concerns and feedback of the people they serve,” Hopper said.

The teacher’s union had previously advocated for an interim superintendent due to the limited time for hiring a superintendent and the lack of stakeholder input in the selection process of the recruiting company.

Board member Kathy Ankrom defended the board of trustees, related her own disillusionment of the “bureaucracy” of the position that she said she entered into unopposed.

“You just try to do your best,” she said. “I’m sorry that there's this turmoil in the school right now and I think it’s made worse by some of the rumors.”

Ankrom said that public “hearsay” about the board’s decision-making process had led to many of the misconceptions about the governing capabilities of the board.

Hopper said the no confidence vote was meant to let the board know how teachers feel.

“It’s a public notification,” Hopper said. “It doesn't necessarily have the teeth, but it is public. And they don't seem to listen, so I’m not sure they were listening tonight.”

Wildcat Ranch

The board voted 2-1 to enter into negotiations with The Park Foundation, a Sonora-area non-profit that proposed a land swap of the 137-Wildcat Ranch with the 22-acre property adjacent to the high school.

Jeff Norstrom and Rob Lyons did not attend the meeting. Board president Jeanie Smith and Ankrom voted to ratify the proposal and board member Kimberly Norton voted against it. Student representative Levi Houghton also voted against the proposal in a symbolic gesture of opposition.

In their statements, Ankrom and Smith voiced a receptivity to a negotiation that would be non-binding and could illuminate a potential deal.

“I don’t know why we wouldn’t ratify an agreement to hold discussions,” Ankrom said. “I think that there are things to explore. I’m not comfortable not exploring them.”

All the people who spoke, except two representatives of the Park Foundation, voiced their opposition to a proposal that they said would undercut the district’s commitment to the high school agriculture department.

“The ag community the ag program is not in support of selling the Wildcat Ranch or a portion of the Wildcat Ranch,” agriculture teacher Stacy Ingalls said.

Sasha Farkas, second vice president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, labeled the proposed land exchange “ridiculous.”

“You guys are being real short sighted. I don’t think it’s fair to the kids,” he said. “This is Tuolumne County. We were founded on agriculture, and we need to keep this community alive.”

The Park Foundation president Ron Jacobs sought to assert that the community’s interest in protecting the Wildcat Ranch for young people and agriculture aligned with the organization’s goals.

“For the people that say we want to preserve our ag, I say we are singing the same tune,” he said. “Let’s make this a win for our community.”

Much of the public input criticized the Wilson property as problematically sloped and not zoned for livestock that would characterize an agriculture program.

Smith, who said “personally I like the Park Foundation’s concept” noted the “good likelihood” that the Wilson property was undercut with old mining operations. Smith said the California Department of Education would not approve a land exchange if there were mines under the property.

“This is just a matter of bringing in experts to identify how to use the land most effectively and I think that you have a great resource right here abutting your property and this would be a great opportunity for you,” Park Foundation Chief Financial Officer Jay Canavan said.

Search for a superintendent

The public discussion with a representative of McPherson & Jacobson, an Omaha, Nebraska, based recruiting firm hired to recruit a superintendent, was the most clear indication that the district community wanted leadership that exemplified public trust.

During the more than an hour-long, public strategy session to determine a potential superintendent candidate’s hiring criteria, Hopper asked McPherson & Jacobson representative William Huyett if he has ever sought out a replacement while a teacher’s union had formally declared a vote of no confidence.

“At least three districts come to mind where that was very much the case,” Huyett, a former superintendent in Lodi and Berkeley, said, but added that successful candidates could still be located.

“Oftentimes we happen to be at a district in turmoil,” he said. “But we think this is a process that will bring people together and address issues.”

Huyett took a seat near the board and hosted an impromptu roundtable discussion on the characteristics that would define a prospective replacement for Chabot.

“We depend on you in your role. You have a very important role and they have a very important role,” he said.

The public emphasized a series of requirements: a familiarity with an agricultural, rural community, a collaborator with district stakeholders, a focus on student goals and welfare, and most importantly, someone who could be trusted.

“A good collaborator is someone who listens and does something with it,” Huyett said, responding to community member Carol Doud’s suggestion that a new superintendent be an “innovative” thinker that “tells me the truth.”

The board emphasized a strong and decisive managerial leader who could nurture positive relationships with the community, but also make the difficult decisions as it pertained to the tenuous financial state of the district. A superintendent should have teaching and prior superintendent experience and knowledge of the education code as well, they said.

Chabot did not offer any suggestions.

Huyett said the board still intended to hire a replacement that would start in the position by Aug. 1.

Starting on May 16, the position would be publicly advertised, he said, and stakeholder group meetings with teachers, staff and community members would be held on May 31 and June 1.

On June 12 during the regularly scheduled board meeting, the board would review a stakeholder input report, and on July 10, candidates would be selected for final interviews.

Social, expansive interviews, including meals with the board members and individual panel questionnaires with stakeholders would be held from July 16-18, and in the following days, a special board meeting would be called to announce the new candidate.

The dates were flexible, he said, to accommodate certain changes in availability.

Much of the teacher response to the schedule expressed a concern that stakeholder input might become largely unavailable while the teachers were not in school during the summer months.

“You get opportunities to provide input in all those steps of the way, so your input will be considered and there is a process that they go by they consult with the district and the various groups identified by the district. So we are trying to be inclusive in this,” Ankrom said.

Despite the time constraints and concerns of the community, Huyett expressed confidence that a suitable and successful candidate could be located.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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