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Election monitors. Insults against teachers announced over the school P.A. system. District takeovers in the middle of the week. Just another school day at Lathrop Intermediate School.
The Santa Ana junior high is in the midst of an acrimonious dispute between teachers and Principal Gloria Talley, who recently won a "Woman of Vision" award from a local charity. Although Talley has been the school's principal only since January—the fifth principal for the impoverished central-city campus in as many years—teachers at Lathrop have filed 14 grievances against her with the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) since June, alleging intimidation, public humiliations, and continued breach of the contract signed between the teacher's union and the SAUSD. Five more grievances are on the way, so the Santa Ana Educators Association (SAEA), the union representing Santa Ana teachers, wants Talley out—now.
"When an administrator is breaking our contract, that means teachers cannot properly do their jobs. And that's what's currently happening at Lathrop," alleges Dr. Gladys Hall-Kessler, executive director of the SAEA. "We are not in the business of hiring and firing and we cannot obligate the district to remove anyone. But for us, we have to follow every legal step of the contract."
Interviews with teachers at the school (all who requested anonymity for fear of retribution) paint an atmosphere of a principal run amok, so paranoid that she thinks that teachers dressing in black do so as a form of silent protest.
"She'll call people into her office and scream at them as if they were kids who have gotten into trouble," says one person who works inside the office. "She forbids staff to talk to us. When we asked a union rep to come to the campus and check things out, Talley told the person to leave in 15 minutes or she'd call the police."
The SAEA also accuses Talley of manipulating elections for teacher, parent, and student advisory boards that oversee large expenditures at the school. In fact, on Oct. 31, Lathrop held its fifth election for the teacher advisory committee in the past five months with district and union officials present. The election for the board is supposed to occur every two years, but officials had to monitor the voting process to ensure that Talley didn't nullify the election and write in her own candidates as she had in the previous five tries, the SAEA contends.
But more disturbing for union reps, Talley has pitted teachers against parents in the battle for the minds of the student body, 1,800 on a campus originally built for 900.
"Where there used to be a connection, there is now distance and antagonism," says a Lathrop teacher. She remembers an Aug. 8 meeting held at Lathrop to discuss Talley where there were more than 100 parents present. "It was wild. Every time teachers would try to talk, parents would shout them down. One women kept running up and down the aisles wagging her finger at everyone and telling the teachers that they had no right to be there. Apparently, Talley had been telling parents that teachers weren't doing their job."
And that's one hell of a job everyone has to do. Lathrop is located in a rough neighborhood even by the standards of Santa Ana's barrios, so rough many teachers take computers home with them for safekeeping. Recently released API scores reveal that Lathrop students received the lowest API score of any Orange County school that's not a continuation school. And the school is currently without any vice-principals and has only one full-time counselor.
"There are programs that should be happening that aren't happening, like paid tutoring and after-school programs," says Hall-Kessler. "There's even a budget for this school year that hasn't been done. I'm not comfortable talking about the problems with Talley, but the parents don't know what's going on in their school."
The Lathrop War is so contentious that Superintendent Al Mijares, two assistant superintendents, and a retinue of other district administrators entered Lathrop unannounced on Sept. 3, immediately put Talley on administrative leave, and took control of the school for two weeks. When Talley returned, the district left two senior administrators as advisers to the principal.
But that only helped raise tensions. "When the district finished their investigation and Talley came back, I thought she'd come back with an attitude of starting fresh," says Hall-Kessler. "But instead, she came back with the same aggressive attitude—even worse." The day Talley came back, according to one teacher and verified by Hall-Kessler, "she went on the intercom after the Pledge of Allegiance and announced, 'Your teachers were trying to hurt the principal's feelings. Well, they've succeeded.'"
Mijares confirmed all the incidents but declined to comment on the matter, citing district policy that prohibits speaking publicly about personnel matters. He did stress, however, that Lathrop was scheduled for the Sept. 3 "evaluation" anyway. "It's standard procedure for us to evaluate schools every couple of years, and Lathrop was due for its evaluation," Mijares said. "We knew that there were some issues at the school, though, so we made sure that they were one of the first schools to be evaluated."
Talley did not return calls for this story.