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Big turnout for specially called Mabton meeting

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Mabton Superintendent Sandra Pasiero-Davis fields questions from parents during a town hall style special school board meeting held last Friday.

MABTON - From the number of cars that filled the parking lot at Mabton Junior/Senior High School Friday night, you'd think there was a championship basketball game going on. Instead, the crowds that filled the gymnasium weren't there to cheer on their hometown team. Instead, they were there to learn more about a situation that last week led to many students being absent from class.

More than 100 parents and community members attended the special meeting of the Mabton School Board last Friday night to learn more about the situation involving Artz-Fox Elementary School Principal Fabian Castilleja, whose employment contract is not being recommended for renewal.

During the meeting community members heard from the school board, school district attorney Jeanie Tolcacher, Superintendent Sandra Pasiero-Davis and from the investigation firm of Pinnacle Professional Services.

Bryce Cain, chief investigator with Pinnacle Professional Services of Spokane, explained that the firm had been brought in by the school district to conduct an unbiased investigation of two complaints that have been brought against the school district. He added that since beginning the investigation it appears that there may be bigger issues taking place, and that the school district has asked the company to expand the scope of its investigation.

"Our role is fact finding," Cain said.

He explained that the company has been working to interview people, gather evidence and will eventually create a final report.

"We report what we find to the administration and from there they take the information and do what they need to do with it," Cain explained.

He added that with the investigation ongoing this team is bound by state confidentiality laws, which stretch between the company and Tolcacher.

"To that effect, we don't talk to the media or anyone else [about the investigation]," Cain said.

Tolcacher then took time to talk about the appeal process that is used when a teacher or administrator's contract is not renewed.

She first stated that every certified staff member in the district, including teachers, vice principals and principals, is evaluated every year. Tolcacher added that according to state law the evaluation is done based on the person's job description.

"It's the superintendent who makes the initial decision as to whether or not the principal's contract will be renewed," Tolcacher said. She added that all certified staff are notified by May 15 as to whether or not their contract is being renewed.

She noted that anyone who receives a notice that their contract will not be renewed has the right to appeal.

"This is one of the most important parts of the process," she said.

She explained that a lot of people are under the impression that an appeal is something that goes before the local board. Instead, she said a neutral party is found, someone who is independent of the school district and usually from outside the local area, and that person makes a decision on the issue.

"The person that would hear the appeal is someone who doesn't know anything about us or the issues," Tolcacher said.

She added that during the process it's the employee who decides whether or not they want to make it a public issue. She said it's not the school district's decision.

"The employee has the right to keep matters happening with their employer private," Tolcacher said.

Mabton School Board President Manuel Guzman then opened the floor to a group of parents, who were selected to present a list of 22 pre-determined questions to the board. The questions were submitted to the board in writing following a parents meeting in Mabton last Monday night. The questions touched on everything from why the superintendent doesn't make an effort to meet with children to why parents weren't informed of Castilleja's contract not being renewed.

"I would like everyone to listen with their ears and think about the issues with your heart," Guzman said before the board started fielding questions.

Roberto Diaz asked the board why it took so long for them to meet with parents and talk about the issue.

Pasiero-Davis explained that one reason for the delay is because of the legal issues that surround the incident. Castilleja has filed a lawsuit against the school district, Pasiero-Davis and Guzman.

She said the district administration had to consult with its legal counsel and other appropriate individuals before talking with parents to ensure that the information they gave out was accurate and within the legal limits of what they could say.

Pasiero-Davis added that one good thing that came from the delay was that parents were able to come together, talk about the issue and come up with a list of the issues they are concerned about in totality.

As for how it was that students at the elementary school were talking about Castilleja's contract not being renewed before parents knew, those in the audience wanted to know why that was.

Tolcacher explained that employees have a right to privacy and that the district can not answer questions about Castilleja's employment.

"That information did not come out of my office," Pasiero-Davis said. "I do not know the source of that. Perhaps the investigation will reveal that, because that is not our policy."

Another parent added that they wanted to know how the information got out because there were kids coming home from school crying because their teacher had told them that Castilleja wasn't coming back next year.

"When the investigation is complete we will have these answers," Guzman said.

Pasiero-Davis added that she has talked to staff and administrators and has advised them that it's inappropriate and unprofessional to talk about a colleague's private issues.

The board then faced the question of how many children have to miss school and how many days of school does a child have to miss before it becomes an issue. Earlier in the week parents pulled their students out of class at Artz-Fox Elementary School as a protest of Castilleja's contract not being recommended for renewal.

Pasiero-Davis said she was concerned with the idea that parents had encouraged their children not to come to school.

A parent in the audience said the reason they opted to take their students out of class is because they were looking for a way to get their message across to Pasiero-Davis.

When asked how many principals in the history of the Mabton School District have been fired, Pasiero-Davis said in talking to parents in the district she has learned that there have been two principals who have been fired in the past.

The board was then asked why it has not solicited input on the situation from local children.

Guzman explained that there have been two successful town hall meetings held on the subject and that students have given their input during the meetings.

Mabton parent Connie Beeman then got up and noted that she is still torn between the two sides of the issue.

"I'm trying not to lose sight that we are here for the children," Beeman said.

She said with families fighting so hard for Castilleja, she has to question whether or not Castilleja has fought hard for the children when it comes to the different issues that are being brought before the board. She pointed out that before issues from the elementary school go to the superintendent they go through the building principal.

"What happened with all of these things when they went to the principal?," Beeman asked.

Although the school board managed to get through many of the questions that were on the list, Guzman noted that anyone else who has a question can submit it in writing to the board and if enough questions are received another special board meeting will be held to answer them. The Mabton School Board will meet again tonight (Monday) for its regularly scheduled board meeting.

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