Teacher Dearest

The free market alone was supposed to control charter schools, but the state is stepping in to clean up Gail Battistella's mess at Dragonfleye Charter School

Miller scrambled to find a short-term loan so that the school could remain open. Brouse, meanwhile, had burned himself out with the demands of opening the school, and was already frustrated from dealing with Battistella on a day-to-day basis.

"It was very obvious that she was the queen bee and that she intended to be in full control and intended to run her school," he says. "All the rest of us looked at each other and said, 'Wait a minute, aren't we part of this program?' And it was plain very early on that none of us were."

Greg Miller still stood behind Gail Battistella when she felt that Brouse was failing to keep up with the principal's duties.

Battistella wanted Brouse out, and Brouse couldn't agree more. When Greg Miller showed up at the school to counsel him, Brouse quit.

At first Battistella was delighted. But Miller grew increasingly concerned that Battistella, despite claiming that she worked until midnight every evening, never had time to unpack the lab.

The science lab, of course, was supposed to be the hands-on centerpiece of the school, the reason that parents sent their children there. Instead, it was hands-off, as unused and untouched as the sofa in the front room that Mom won't let you sit on. Students would come in and clean cages for a couple hours each day, and they could pay to come in after school. In essence, it was Battistella's private petting zoo and students were only being used as free labor. And, according to Brouse and Miller, Battistella refused to set up a schedule to rotate all the students through the lab or set a date when it would be fully open.

Instead, Battistella spent her days rolling paper through the spindle of her typewriter, churning out page after page of stream-of-consciousness memos. There would be a paragraph to Greg, one to Lon, one for every teacher in the school, listed each after the other. She questioned every invoice, the quantity of photocopying a teacher was doing, the soap in the ladies' room, an extension cord someone had borrowed without permission.

When the first-grade teacher asked that her class be given time with the physical education teacher, Battistella wrote a long rant to Miller, saying, "In my mind, this is one more example of the TEACHERS UNION forming down at yonder end, pushing their luck in wanting more, and more, and more. I advise strongly to cut back and cut back strongly before they get out of hand. [. . .] This is just a repeat performance of what I left behind at Paradise Valley."

Downtown at the offices of the State Board of Education are several fat files chronicling the events leading to the first big explosion. In those files, there are literally hundreds of pages of in-house memos and letters to and from various parents and teachers and state agency personnel that appear to substantiate the claims of Battistella's foes.

In January, the record shows, the lab was still not running to the satisfaction of the other board members, who felt that Battistella was increasingly showing signs of stress and strain. Miller suggested that Battistella take a month off and recuperate, then come back and get the lab going.

Battistella was furious with the suggestion, and instead dug herself a bunker and prepared for a long siege.

The letters in the Board of Education files detail the board members' concerns. According to those letters, Battistella was berating students, sometimes publicly.

"Mrs. Battistella was threatened and intimidated by any student who asked her a question she couldn't answer," says Lon Brouse.

Miller claims that Battistella reduced an eighth-grade boy to tears in front of an audience at an Arizona State University science fair because she mistakenly thought he was not where he was supposed to be. Letters in the downtown files reveal that on another occasion, a parent brought an entomologist from the University of Arizona to see the lab, and Battistella, who was already fuming over other matters, unceremoniously chased them both away. The parent was so embarrassed that she charged back into the lab after the professor had gone and called Battistella a pig.

Battistella's long memo to Miller explaining the outburst shows the state of her mind at the time. It begins: "Shortly after I wrote you the first memo about [the parent], as I was sitting at my typewriter having an ulcer attack and debating whether to call 911, she walked in with the entomologist from UofA."

In early March, the board, now firmly under Miller's command, decided to redesign the school's flow chart so that Battistella would have to report directly to Miller, who was now president, CEO and principal.

The State Board of Education and the Department of Education refused to allow that change.

Miller's attempt to consolidate power only polarized the school further, with teachers and parents lining up behind Miller and Battistella and trading threats and rumors. Marie Coleman, the former office manager for the school, claims that one parent, Michael McNally, threatened her when she refused to hand over Miller's confidential personnel records.

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