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Mabton principal files civil lawsuit

MABTON - The principal of Artz-Fox Elementary School in Mabton, Fabian Castilleja, has filed a civil suit against the Mabton School Board, Chairman of the school board Manuel Guzman and school district Superintendent Sandra Pasiero-Davis.

The suit, which was filed Monday by Castilleja's attorney, J.J. Sandlin of Zillah, has three parts, according to a Yakima County Superior Court clerk. A summons and complaint was filed, as well as a motion for order to show cause and a notice of presentation.

"All I'm asking for is to be here in Mabton right now," said Castilleja. "I ask that I not be relieved of my duties."

Davis has recommended to the school board that Castilleja's contract not be renewed. The contract will go before the Mabton School Board Monday, May 23, where it is expected to be rejected by school board members.

Castilleja was hired by the Mabton School District last summer as the new principal of the elementary school after Davis and a group of parents chose him from a group of applicants.

"I had been looking at Mabton for years," said the Toppenish native.

At a previous job as a counselor and recruiter for Eastern Washington University, Castilleja had visited the school district and wanting to be near his expansive family, he's one of 16 siblings, he looked at returning to the Lower Valley.

"Mabton is still a small town with a small town feel," said the 44-year-old.

With his mother living in Granger, he wanted to bring his family back to where he grew up.

Becoming the principal of the small school Castilleja said he encouraged having a welcoming atmosphere in the school.

"The parents feel welcome in the school," he said. "I encouraged the staff to be more welcoming."

Castilleja had staff call the parents of students they would have in their classrooms this year prior to the start of school and invite them to a barbecue.

"We had over 600 people there," he said.

He said that activities that involve the parents, such as the barbecue, are a benefit to the school.

"We've had parent meetings here and taken surveys, which we used to drive school planning," he said, adding that he has also surveyed teachers, which has been used for school improvement planning.

Castilleja said he feels it is important to include parent input in decision making in the school.

Besides involving parents, students at the elementary school have become more involved, he added. A student council has been started and this year, the students had their own Red Ribbon Week activities, which promoted drug and alcohol-free living.

A dance was part of the Red Ribbon Week activities and a Valentine's Day dance was also planned for the students.

For the recent Cinco de Mayo celebration, which concluded a week-long program entitled "Celebrating Our Cultures," more than 500 parents and students attended a program with traditional folkloric dancers.

"It was a great program and great turnout," he said.

Most importantly, Castilleja is trying to create a family feel in the school.

"It's a long process to change the climate of a school and incorporate different groups of people in a school," said Castilleja. "We've had a first step."

"I've worked in a lot of small towns and the schools are the hub," said Castilleja. "A large percentage of the population are in the schools every day."

He added that how people perceive they are treated is important.

Allegations are that Castilleja hasn't been performing his duties as principal and that discipline has been declining in the school since he took over the role.

He said that the discipline record will be part of a report due at the end of the school year.

"Through the ESD (Educational Service District) computer base we can show and document the different kinds of things we have dealt with in our office," said Castilleja.

Also alleged is that Castilleja has treated teachers poorly.

"I'm working with a group of folks who are getting to know me and I'm getting to know them," said Castilleja. "Sometimes the process is a little bit tough. We're going through that process. That is stuff we need to work out amongst ourselves."

With a large portion of his school walking out of the classrooms this week, there were 184 students out of school Monday and 209 on Tuesday, according to Castilleja, he continues to work with the students who continue to come to school.

"I'm at work every day," he said. "I work with the students who come through the door. We want kids in school. That's what we're here for."

He added that he is just trying to do a good job for the kids and the community.

Tuesday marked the second day students cut class to support Castilleja.

Rachel Ruelas, one of the parents concerned that the school district will be letting go of Castilleja after this year, said picketers were out again today (Wednesday) in front of the Mabton School District central office.

Although one school board member said the parents were teaching their children to be rude and disrespectful, Mabton Police Chief Raul Almieda said the picketers have been pretty good the past two days.

"They've been pretty peaceful," he said.

Mabton police have contacted the group due to complaints of horn honking and to remind the protesters to stay on the sidewalks, he added.

"A lot of students did go back to school today just because parents were worried they're going to get in trouble," said Ruelas.

After another parent meeting planned for tonight at Magana's dance hall, she hopes there will be more students missing from school tomorrow.

Parents upset with the school district's decision to not renew Castilleja's contract have been pulling their students out of school since Monday.

Ruelas said they are trying to keep things friendly as they picket so no one will get in trouble.

With more than 100 students and 30 parents lining the streets Tuesday, she said at times it was difficult.

Ruelas, who is a distant cousin of Castilleja's, said she didn't know Castilleja before he was hired by the Mabton School District.

From a large family, Ruelas, who attended Mabton schools and whose children attend school in the district, said she was in the school district long before Castilleja was hired for the principal position.

She also noted that she was not a member of the committee that selected him.

Some of the committee members who were in on the principal selection process are now on the picket lines supporting their choice for principal.

The questions raised by concerned parents continue to grow as they feel they are being ignored by the superintendent and school board.

Carol Zavala, the grandparent of seven in the school district, said, "I just want to know answers. I want to know why he wasn't given a chance. Whatever she (Sandra Pasiero-Davis) says, I might agree with her, I might not."

Mabton School Board Chairman Manuel Guzman said the school district is not discussing specific areas in Castilleja's contract, which are the reason for not renewing his contract. Guzman said that Castilleja was not meeting the responsibilities laid out for him in his contract. Guzman added that Castilleja was given "ample opportunity" to perform as his contract required.

"He made it a public matter," said Guzman. "We're trying to protect him. He chose to fight, involve the community and incite upheaval."

Guzman said that similar situations have occurred in three or four other school districts Castilleja has worked for, adding that Castilleja incites the citizens.

Guzman said the issues with Castilleja's performance were not brought to light in the interview process. He added that the school district did not conclude an independent background check on Castilleja.

"We hired a firm to come up with candidates," said Guzman.

Setting the parameters the community wanted, which included that the new principal be an Hispanic male, the firm began the search of possible candidates.

"We set technical requirements, experience and accreditation," said Guzman. "He met all those requirements."

Guzman said the firm they hired completed the background checks before sending the final candidates onto a committee made up of Davis and Mabton parents.

"Any school district does that (hires a firm) to find the candidates and narrow it down," said Guzman.

But, in a poll of local school districts, Sunnyside, Grandview, Granger, Zillah and Prosser, none of the districts profess to hiring a firm to come up with a list of candidates for principal positions.

Debbie Holwegner, Human Resources Director for the Sunnyside School District, said they use the Washington Association of School Administrators to advertise for vacant principal positions. After receiving the applications the district completes a screening process.

"We do not normally hire a search firm," she said.

The Zillah School District also uses the state's free website to advertise for vacant principal positions.

Dr. Ray Tolcacher, Superintendent of the Prosser School District, said in the 13 years he has been with the school district he has never used a search firm.

"We do our own searches," he said, adding that he may consider using a firm to hire a director of curriculum and instruction for the school district, which is a very difficult position to fill.

Granger and Grandview also do not employ the services of a search firm to hire principals.

Rachel Ott of the Grandview School District said the school administration puts together a team with the superintendent to review all of the applications and picks the finalists for a principal position.

Guzman said Castilleja is a great people person. "Nobody's saying he hasn't enamored the community and the students.

"I think quite frankly, he tried to hide some things," said Guzman.

Taking another look at his resume, Guzman said there are pieces of his work history missing.

"It's a shame the employer can be held hostage over letting someone go," said Guzman.

Guzman pointed out that the school board did not hire Castilleja.

"The function of the school board is to allocate funds to get things done," said Guzman. "We don't fire or non-renew a principal. That's the superintendent's job. The superintendent reports to us."

With parents still not satisfied, Ruelas said the picketing will continue.

"She (Davis) will not meet with us as a group," said Ruelas. "She said she will meet with parents individually and privately, which is not what we want."

"It's gotten really dirty and nasty and it's going to get worse if she (Davis) doesn't meet with us," said Ruelas.

Davis has not returned telephone calls to the Daily Sun News. Through a secretary, Tuesday afternoon, she said she had no comment.

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