Tensions linger between Yosemite Unified officials, staff, and the public

Yosemite Unified’s Board of Trustees listens as Suzette Combs lays out criticisms over potential cuts to extracurricular activities during a school board meeting Monday at Yosemite High School.
Yosemite Unified’s Board of Trustees listens as Suzette Combs lays out criticisms over potential cuts to extracurricular activities during a school board meeting Monday at Yosemite High School. Sierra Star

Close to 150 people attended the Yosemite Unified School District’s Board of Trustees meeting Monday, with several voicing criticisms of the board and the district’s new superintendent.

Concerns included growing class sizes, that superintendent Dr. Cecelia Greenberg has ignored or remained silent with staff since she came on board July 1, that numerous longtime employees across the district have left with their positions - including principal of Yosemite High - still unfilled as the school year begins Thursday, and how teachers and classified staff, such as bus drivers, are still without contracts after two years of negotiations.

“What we as teachers did, we took on larger class sizes, we took on extra duties, we did more things, and we said okay, that’s fine, we can save the school money,” said Carole Calderwood, a YHS teacher, referencing longtime tensions between the district and staff over budget issues. “What did they do with that money? Did they bring it back to the classroom? No. They sent it to management.”

One example of growing class sizes is at Rivergold Elementary, where a restructuring of third and fourth grade - including creation of a combination class for both grades - will have 33 students to each teacher, parents and staff said. Calderwood said in previous negotiations with former superintendent James Sargent, those class sizes were supposed to be at a maximum of 28 students.

Steve Browning, three time teacher of the year at Yosemite High School, with 28 years at the campus teaching Spanish and political science, said he believed the district has been too focused on improving administrative salaries while ignoring other staff.

“Last year I discussed a ripple effect with you, and I’m reminding you that all of your decisions have ramifications and repercussions,” Browning said. “Currently these ripples are becoming waves, and those waves are becoming larger, as you can see. Hopefully, this district chooses to put us on top of the wave, and not drown us in any ripples it may cause.”

The size of the crowd forced the meeting to be moved to the school’s theater.

Last year, Yosemite Unified Teachers Association President Gina Hansen-Sedor said the district offered a “slap in the face” in the form of a 1% raise.

Every speaker who offered criticisms of the district, and Greenberg, were met with applause from the crowd. Many expressed worries that if the district continues through what they see as a rapid decline, they’d be forced to transfer their children into other districts, possibly into nearby Chawanakee or Mariposa Unified.

Such transfers would lead to further losses in average daily attendance funding, one of the key economic sources for any school district.

“We need to keep our students first,” Karl Oswald said. “And I think in a lot of ways, this district isn’t following that mentality. This could seriously turn into a problem that has great financial ramifications for our district. I don’t want to see that happen to our parent groups, our communities, our teachers, and our students.”

Greenberg said seven positions still need to be filled in the district, including for special education classes, culinary arts, and nutritional services.

Trustees address rumors

On the district side, trustees praised Greenberg for taking on several roles to fill outgoing positions while working to get the district’s budget, a source of turmoil before her arrival, approved by the county.

Greenberg, addressing the crowd, said in multi-year projections that in two years, the district would fall $400,000 behind budget and be unable to meet its required 3% reserve level. In three years, that gap would reach $600,000.

Though she said her number one priority is to find a YHS principal - several candidates were close but dropped out for various reasons including pay and location - she added she is working with staff on options to enhance revenues in the budget to reduce any necessary cuts.

Greenberg added Tuesday she was meeting with Hansen-Sedor and other staff to get to know each other, with contract negotiations to come after the district’s budgets are finalized.

“I understand where teachers and classified staff are coming from and I want to make sure we have our financial figures in place so we can make the best decisions possible,” Greenberg said. “I want the best for this district, and that includes everyone, from students to parents to our staff.”

At Monday’s meeting, trustees also addressed several rumors being spread on Facebook and elsewhere they said were false.

When asked, Tammy Loveland said neither the district’s Academic Decathlon team or its International Baccalaureate classes were being cut, and a rumor about sports trophies and plaques being removed from facilities was also untrue.

“I apologize to you if you feel we have not served you properly,” Loveland told the audience. “Every decision we make is trying to make the district better. We don’t try and make decisions to hurt kids, or hurt people ... just because you heard something on Facebook doesn’t make it true ... these are clearly inappropriate falsehoods. I don’t know why they start. I don’t know why people feel the need to say such outlandish things.”

Trustee Smith Responds

In a prepared statement after the meeting, trustee Joe Smith defended and praised Greenberg.

“Given the number and significance of the hurdles Dr. Greenberg has had to face since joining us only July 1, it’s truly noteworthy how many of these very important issues she has been able to address in just this short period of time,” Smith said. “Losing our high school principal only days after her being named the new superintendent would have been a tremendous challenge for any incoming school superintendent during their first month on the job.

“But add to that the fact that she (Greenberg) then had to deal with replacing the director of nutrition services and special projects, the Special Ed director, a key business office staffer and just weeks before the start of school, one of our elementary school principals. Any reasonable observer would think that this avalanche of open staff positions would be too much to handle for a lesser experienced and qualified professional - but Dr. Greenberg did not flinch in the face of the situation, and took steps to find the new hires we’re so happy to have on board already, even as she continues to finalize the search for a principal for YHS.”

Smith added that Greenberg is also dealing with the fact that the County Office of Education the board that the budget and the state-mandated Local Control Accountability Plan (known as the LCAP, which ensures that districts’ goals and resources are aligned) were being rejected due to incomplete inclusion of necessary data and budget information. “The plans and budgeting data were prepared by the previous administrative team, long before Dr. Greenberg joined YUSD.

Dr. Greenberg is working on finding cost-savings which can help bolster our ability to serve kids better in the classroom. We thank her, and we thank the community for taking the time to truly understand what we’re facing, and how Dr. Greenberg’s skills and experience are being brought to bear in the best way possible, despite this demonstrably challenging set of circumstances.”

Board President Christine Wilder was unable to attend the meeting.