When a Gilbert charter school fired six teachers over a "serious" violation of the school's alcohol policy last month, a letter from the principal was meant to put parents at ease.
"Parents, regardless of circumstances, our priority is to find the best qualified teachers for all students to continue the learning your child deserves and you expect," Imagine West Gilbert Principal Jon Gentile wrote.
But the firings raise an interesting question. As Arizona grapples with a crisis in education — teachers walking off the job en masse, thousands marching to demand more public education funding — how does a school axe six teachers, then reassure parents that they'll find the best replacements? Especially when the firings occurred in the middle of the winter holidays?
For Imagine West Gilbert, the solution was to tap people with previous connections to the public charter school.
On December 29, Gentile wrote to parents to inform them that the school had immediately fired six instructors because of an unexplained event that happened on the elementary/middle school's property. The school's parent-teacher organization later disclosed that the teachers were let go because of an alcohol-related incident.
Late in the day on December 21st, we became aware of an incident involving six of our staff members. This incident took place on school property during school hours. Due to employment confidentiality laws, I am not able to disclose the specifics of the incident, only that it was serious in nature.
As a result of that investigation, which demonstrated a clear violation of our employment handbook policies, we were faced with a difficult decision. I am saddened to inform you that Ms. Bettendorf, Ms. Wilson, Mrs. Pearson, Ms. Kamm, Ms. Chappell, and Mr. Gordon will not be returning to their positions this semester.
Jettisoning six teachers at once has consequences, especially in Arizona. Getting rid of the six IWG employees left openings to teach fourth grade, first grade, physical education, and special education, as well as two teacher's aide positions.
Of the replacement teachers hired by IWG, all but one have connections to the school. They include a parent who was a IWG volunteer and had been asking about a teaching position, should one become available. The school also hired a paraprofessional who had previously worked closely with IWG Vice Principal Donna Driggers in a different job.
Only one of the replacement teachers has no previous ties to IWG. Angela Curtiss, who will teach the fourth-grade classroom, is joining the school with no prior connections to the charter school or its personnel. Curtiss is certified to substitute-teach grades pre-K-12, according to the Arizona Department of Education's database.
Another teacher, Danielle Ramirez, previously taught for three years at IWG. She'll now teach first grade. And Kristin Dean, who was IWG's instructional coach and special education coordinator, is taking over the special education classroom for the fifth through eight grades. They're both certified teachers.
Rhonda Cagle, chief communications and development officer for the Imagine charter network, responded to questions in lieu of Gentile and Driggers. Cagle said that the administrators were busy.
Administrators Gentile and Driggers are both in their first year at the Imagine West Gilbert campus. Cagle credited the school's quick hiring turnaround after the incident to Gentile's and Driggers' "relational skills" within the community.
From this perspective, you could argue that hiring people with school connections is an administrative strength. But it also could be a sign that outside talent is unavailable — or is being ignored for expedience's sake during a staff crisis.
One of the replacement teachers, Cagle wrote in an email, is "a parent who is also a certified teacher asking to be considered if there was ever an available teaching position. This parent had already been volunteering in the school and was eager to join our staff."
Another new hire is a paraprofessional who worked with Vice Principal Driggers "for years and followed her to our campus this school year," Cagle wrote. "She had been serving as an in-house substitute as needed and was pleased to accept one of the positions we filled."
A substitute teacher is covering P.E. classes while a new teacher is not yet employed and is still going through the H.R. process for the available P.E. teacher position, Cagle said.
Two individuals, Ginger Aston and Erick Armenta, were hired for the paraprofessional (also known as teacher's aide) roles that were vacated. However, in one email exchange, Cagle misstated the credentials of these replacement paraprofessionals, describing them as "certified substitute teachers."
When asked why there was no record of those teachers in the Arizona Department of Education's certification database, Cagle apologized and said that this was an inadvertent error — in Arizona, teacher's aides are not required to hold a substitute teaching certification.
The Imagine charter network is a national chain with 60 public charter campuses, 13 of them in Arizona.
A representative of the Parent Teacher Organization for IWG declined to comment, and the fired teachers either did not respond or couldn't be reached for comment. But Jamie Germann, the PTO president, told FOX 10 Phoenix earlier this month that the teachers were involved in an alcohol-related incident that violated the school's employee policies.
"Some more involved than others," Germann told FOX. "The school did what they had to do to protect our children, to protect the teachers."
Now, she said, the school just wants to move on. Germann said, "They made poor decisions and they're dealing with the consequences."
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