Menlo Park City School District employees were on edge Tuesday night as one of their colleagues lambasted the district’s new superintendent for creating a hostile work environment and unsettling the future of special needs education in the district.
“He’s bullying people until they leave the district,” said Olivia Mandilk, former Special Education Services Director, whose job will eliminated in June.
“Teachers can’t sleep at night, living in fear that they could be destroyed financially,” Mandilk told Patch.
Mandilk said that she was the latest in a string of employees who were presented with the three options: resign, retire, or take a teaching position in the district – if one was available.
She cited seven other employees’ surprising departures from the district as evidence of this alarming trend. Some of the individuals had worked in the district for only a few years, while others had been employed there for more than 30 years. She said all of the following people were victims of workplace bullying:
Dennis Hatfield, former maintenance and operations director; Clyde Pinto, former accounts payable employee; Jo Sauer Mitchell, former assistant superintendent; former Hillview Middle School principal; Carol Meltzer, former administrative assistant; Robin Redding, reading specialist at Encinal; and Toni Barone, instructional technology coordinator.
She said that on February 22, Superintendent Maurice Ghysels informed her that the district would be taking special education services in “a new direction,” and presented her with the three options, all of which would result in the elimination of her job.
“He doesn’t understand that the department goes in a different direction every year,” she said, describing the special education program that creates Individual Education Plans (IEP) for each of its special needs students.
Communication about this issue broke down, according to parents who say they were not consulted about how the department was addressing their child’s needs or their perspective of the program’s success.
Jennifer Kaufman is the mother of a 12-year old special needs student in the district named Joe, who often carries plastic hangers with him for comfort.
“Our child is not typically developing and doesn’t fit into curriculum mandated by state,” she said, noting that his IEP was as unique as his chromosomes.
Kaufman said the district's special education program is a “gem” without an equal on the Peninsula and credited Mandilk with its creation. She was surprised by the announcement that the district would be changing course next academic year, saying that no one told the parents.
“I don’t know about ‘the new direction’ that this district and how this impacts me,” she said. “I implore you not to let her go,” she told the board of education.
Menlo Park City School District is “an inclusive district,” which means special needs children are placed in classrooms with regularly developing and advanced students. About 90% of the special needs students take courses with the general population of students, according to mpcsd.com. While some parents say this is a good thing that enables their children to be seen as valued members of society by other students, not everyone agrees that this approach is being executed in the best way.
Janet Gough’s child shares a classroom with special needs children. She said her dissatisfaction with the special education services in the district inspired her to try to discuss ways to improve things.
“Some specialists were detriment rather than a help,” she said, describing the obstacles she faced while trying to discuss best practices with them.
She was especially frustrated with the poor communication between specialists in the school and the parents.
“There wasn’t a feedback form, no conversation, or any real way to give feedback,” she said, noting that she spoke on behalf of a group of parents who feel the same way.
“We tried our hardest to open a dialogue with Olivia, so all the stakeholders could come together and be able to discuss what’s going on," she said. “We were denied the right to organize; our dialogue was not welcome, and we were invited to meetings that were presentations,” she said.
The Menlo Park City School Board discussed Mandilk's and Borone’s employment contracts on Tuesday night in closed session prior to the regularly scheduled board meeting. When the board members emerged at 6 p.m., Board President Terry Thygesen reported that no action had been taken.
“These are always difficult matters,” Thygesen told about 65 parents and teachers in the boardroom that night. “We’re restricted by law and not allowed to comment about personnel matters,” she said.
Many teachers who spoke under condition of anonymity said watching their colleagues depart from the district under dubious circumstances made them fearful for their job and unlikely to try to present their opinions to district administrators in the future. None of them were told what type of special education services the district would have next year.
California law requires that public school districts provide special education instruction and services. The district had 214 special needs students as of December 2011, according to the latest data available from the California Department of Education. The County of San Mateo has a total of 10,136 special education students, while the state of California educates 686,352 students with special learning needs.
The school district's superintendent is responsible for shaping the district’s curriculum and staffing educators to support the educational goals set by the school board. The Menlo Park City School District hired Maurice Ghysels in on July 1, 2011, a move which is altering the way the public school system does business.
Mandilk said since Ghysels was brought on board, he’s engaged in “violent psychological harassment, terrorizing district administrators and creating a dramatic, hostile work place.”
“I’m angry at myself that I didn’t stand up before now,” she said. “I’m standing up here now for the district employees who’ve been mistreated,” she said, “so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
“A healthy work place used to be the norm, and must be reestablished as quickly as possible,” she added.
After hearing multiple emotionally-charged stories about the uncertain future of the special needs curriculum during the meeting, Ghysels addressed parents.
“Rest assured, I’m speaking from the heart here; I don’t want you to worry. The direction we’re going is very much based on collaboration,” Ghysels said. “My recommendation [to eliminate the job] is a reflection of listening to teachers and working with staff,” he said.
The board approved the elimination of the Borone's technology services coordinator position Tuesday night. It was on the consent agenda.
The future of Mandilk’s position was uncertain as of 10:40 p.m. when the board reentered closed session to discuss her employment. On Wednesday morning, sources confirmed that her position would be eliminated.
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