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

McClaren had signed a contract to be principal and she didn't want to be anything less, and so she chose to turn down the offer for a teacher position, since they weren't happy with her performance anyway.

Wednesday, October 30, was to be McClaren's last day. It had been set aside for parent-teacher conferences, and the students were released early. As McClaren walked the halls, a parent arriving for a conference stopped her and asked if it were true that she was leaving.

McClaren admitted that she was, and as the parent expressed her regrets, a commotion broke out down the hall.

Gail Battistella emerged from the ruckus. She marched down the hall and as she passed McClaren, she spat, "You bitch. Goddamn you."

Before McClaren reached the ruckus, before she could figure out why Battistella had cursed her, another teacher approached her and asked, "Why is Mike [McNally] changing the lock on your door?"

McNally had taken over the school's upkeep under the new regime.
McClaren forced her way into her office to find Battistella on the phone to the police, calling them to have McClaren escorted from the premises for wreaking havoc.

Five police officers arrived and, under their watch and those of McNally and Battistella, she cleaned out her desk.

Battistella's version of the story alleges that McClaren was inciting the teachers to tell parents that they were leaving.

"They had kids crying all over the place," Battistella says. "They had parents upset coming into the office demanding their children's records right then and there. They had kids withdrawing. They had a minor riot here."

And so Battistella did exactly what Greg Miller had done the year before. She called the police and she changed the locks.

"Yes, I called the police to escort the principal out of the school," she continues, "lest there be any more disturbance and lest she steal anything like Greg Miller had done last year."

The school's four full-time teachers left with McClaren; three of them followed her to Glendale and went to work for Greg Miller at Challenge Charter School.

Jan Bingham Meyers, who has been on the Dragonfleye board since its inception, dismissed the teacher walkout as union nonsense.

"You're talking about people from the teachers union. They've all been educated by the same system. They all come from the same mindset," she told a New Times reporter. "They're all liberals. And I guess you are, too."

On January 27, the State Board of Education will hold a hearing to decide whether Dragonfleye School's charter should be revoked.

Although there are myriad complaints about Battistella's behavior in the files at the state board, they are not cause for revocation in themselves.

Kenneth Bennett, the state board president, explains, "It is a frustrating situation where some things having to do with the operation of a school, however inflammatory and frustrating it is for us to look in and see it or hear about it, some of those things do remain within the threshold of the management of the school. When students are leaving en masse, that's very frustrating."

But essentially, it's a personnel matter that can only be dealt with by the school's administration and governing board--which Battistella controls.

"The weakest area [of oversight] right now is the most important area, and that is the academic accountability of the schools," Bennett continues.

"I would like as president of the board to try to move us in the direction of a much more comprehensive accountability of these charter schools."

Ironically, the grounds of possible revocation cited by the state board in its notice of intent was that Dragonfleye had failed to "produce all attendance records, teacher grade books, student evaluations, all financial records, class lesson plans, and all USFR [Uniform System of Financial Records] records."

In short, those are the materials that disappeared when Miller's teachers and parents descended on the school in the wake of the justice of the peace restoring the school to Battistella.

Miller claims that all the records were returned to the best of his knowledge. Battistella says they were not. And the state board doesn't care who took them, but clearly feels that Battistella is responsible for them.

"Whether it's a business or a private school, the IRS wouldn't take too kindly to me saying, 'Oh, darn it, my accountant didn't file my tax returns the last three years and I don't have that stuff anymore,'" Bennett says. "That just doesn't count, blaming it on someone else."

Kevin Ahern, Battistella's lawyer, hopes that the state board will be more interested in allowing Dragonfleye School to fix its problems than in making an example.

"I think there should be a measured and reasoned response," he says, "and if Dragonfleye can demonstrate that it's in substantial compliance, I would hope that would be their goal."

Such a decision would be what in business is called a "win-win situation."
For the children who go to school at Dragonfleye, either way the board decides could be lose-lose.

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