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

Two days later, Miller was back in justice court, accused of contempt by Battistella's faction. Someone had seen him talking on a cell phone during the May 6 court appearance and assumed he was ordering the looting of the school. Barclay threw the allegations out.

When the dust cleared, 100 families, 135 kids and 10 classroom teachers had left with Miller and held classes for the next three weeks at a local church. Miller says 30 students--Battistella says 50--remained at Dragonfleye, along with one full-time teacher and a couple of part-timers.

Battistella refused to see the dispute as another personality conflict.
"A coup d'etat is not a personality conflict," she says. "It was an attempted theft.

"What you see is a pattern of people not doing the work, wanting to steal something that's very, very good.

"Excuse me, and this is important," she says, "but there is no behavior on our part, at all, ever, at any moment that could be termed impropriety or anything out of line," she says.

"All of it was Greg! All of it!"

Challenge Charter School opened in August in the classroom buildings of Community Church of Joy in Glendale with 88 students, six teachers and the office manager Marie Coleman. Most of them were refugees from Dragonfleye.

Battistella claims that the Challenge teachers and board members stole her enrollment lists and called those students over the summer to say that Dragonfleye was reopening in a new location under a new name. She alleges that the former teachers and employees harass her and her board in other ways, such as making crank calls.

Dragonfleye reopened as well, with a new principal, four new classroom teachers, about 70 students and a drawerful of bills left over from the year before.

Gary Ullom, the Dragonfleye board member who handles finances, says, "When we totaled everything up, we came up with about a quarter-million dollars of unpaid debt."

Ullom, it should be noted, removed his children from the school, even though he sits on the board.

Kate McClaren, the new principal, was at first wary of taking a job at the beleaguered school, but after meeting with the board members, she says, she believed that Greg Miller and his cronies had indeed been a cancer on the school and had stolen the school away while Battistella was buried and busy in the lab. She trusted the new board.

"I was looking at them as the injured party," she says.
McClaren is pert and perky, a 25-year veteran teacher, a specialist in trilingual education--English, Spanish and American Sign Language. She'd been a nun. She'd been a Catholic school principal in Phoenix and in St. Louis. She'd even applied for her own charter, but turned it down when she was offered the Dragonfleye job. That job, as she understood it, was to run the school and report to the board; Battistella's job was to run the lab.

McClaren hired the four new teachers, and the year was off to a fresh start.
But then the scenario started to repeat itself.
The lab never seemed to be available to all students, and of those kids who had a regular lab period, McClaren says, "They cleaned cages for the whole quarter."

"The explanation," McClaren continues, "was that Gail was so busy taking care of business things that she could never really get the lab to where it needed to be."

And then the rule-making began. No one could move furniture without Battistella's permission, McClaren says, even to borrow a chair in a pinch from a nearby classroom. Every piece of paper that teachers sent home had to be approved by Battistella.

One of McClaren's responsibilities was to administer the dress code; she felt that Battistella frequently countermanded her decisions in that regard. And they tangled as to what constituted appropriate discipline.

"[Battistella] told me routinely, she told teachers routinely that she wanted us to tell parents that they should be spanking the children," McClaren says.

The tirades began anew.
"She was being mean and nasty, berating people," McClaren continues. "There was one kid who sat at my desk with his mom over his interactions with Gail, and he sat there and said, 'There is nothing I can do right in her eyes.' And he was right."

When McClaren took her concerns to Battistella, Battistella made it clear that McClaren reported directly to her. McClaren thought she answered to the board, but Battistella told her, "The board didn't matter because she had gotten rid of one board and she could get rid of another."

On October 28, the board presented McClaren with a list of things she could do better. And since the school was financially strapped--they said--they wanted her to step down as principal and take a job as seventh-grade teacher at a lower salary. And they couldn't even afford to pay her at all for the next six weeks.

Not only was the school unable to make payroll, but McClaren understood that it was close to shutting down altogether. In fact, the board and Battistella had put the entire staff on notice of the shortfall and let them know that if they couldn't work without a paycheck for the next several weeks, they were free to go.

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