Another Shove From The Right

The battle over fundamentalism in Valley schools has claimed another casualty with the forced resignation of a Phoenix principal who spoke out against ultraconservative pressure on his school.

New Times has learned that Richard Boyer, a 31-year veteran of the Washington Elementary School District, was forced to resign midsemester after he publicly challenged demands for curriculum changes made by a small group of parents at his school. Earlier this spring, Richard Thomas, a principal in the Glendale Elementary School District, was forced to resign by a newly elected conservative majority on the school board.

Boyer, who had served as principal of Acacia Elementary School in northwest Phoenix for seven years prior to leaving his post in mid-May, resigned after his superiors in the district administration charged him with insubordination and told him his contract would not be renewed. Boyer came under fire for speaking out at a school-board meeting against the administration's decision to institute a "back-to-basics" reading program, promoted by conservative political groups such as the Concerned Women of America, at his school.

The program would be offered as an alternative to the district reading program in one class per grade level but Boyer opposed it, saying it represented a politically charged, divisive movement. Under Boyer's tenure Acacia students have consistently outscored the district average in standardized testing and had the third-highest scores among the district's 32 schools in this year's tests, according to official announcements made Thursday.

Boyer declined to comment last week on his resignation, saying he was concerned about retaliation by district officials. However, in a statement made public at a community meeting shortly after his confrontation with district officials, Boyer said, "The politics surrounding textbook adoption have been orchestrated at higher levels than your local school.

"I have attempted to keep the politics out of our school, but now recognize that our school is probably targeted for more than just [an alternative reading program]," he said. "Political strategies are not always open and honest; and as your principal, I refuse to be intimidated by this level of mediocrity and have retired."

Assistant Superintendent Jim Ritchie declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Boyer's retirement, but said, "I would not acknowledge he was forced to retire. He made his decision for his own reasons."

Ritchie defended the district's decision to offer an alternative reading program at Acacia School, the fourth school in the Washington district to face such pressure from conservative parents. "All we're trying to do is respond to those parents," Ritchie says. "Offering an alternative is an eminently reasonable and eminently fair way to resolve the problem."

Melanie Sahli, an Acacia parent who has helped spearhead the effort to establish a back-to-basics reading program, denies that the group has a "hidden agenda" or has targeted school officials such as Boyer for removal.

"I know he told at least two people that he was fired because of me but that is totally untrue," she says. Sahli, however, acknowledges that she supports establishment of a separate, so-called "traditional" school for parents who believe their children would benefit from a school experience more similar to the one they knew as kids.

Last year, Sahli also fought Boyer's efforts to introduce a program to help students develop decision-making skills. Sahli opposed the program, which is highly regarded by educators nationwide, on grounds that it involved "humanistic values clarification."

The circumstances surrounding Boyer's resignation and the district's decision to introduce a fourth "alternative" reading program in Washington schools have provoked outrage among some parents and teachers who accuse the district of pandering to a right-wing minority. Noting that fewer than 15 percent of parents have signed their children up for the alternative reading program at Acacia, teacher aide Angie Dailey says district leaders seem "unable to say no to such a small, vocal minority."

Dailey says she and other parents have gathered about 140 signatures on a petition requesting the district board to reject the establishment of separate educational curricula at their school. Last week, Dailey notes, her group also sent a letter to state Superintendent of Education C. Diane Bishop asking for a formal review of the district's decision.

If neither tactic succeeds, she says, the group may withdraw its support for the district in a crucial budget election coming up in November.

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Kathleen Stanton

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