Community members protest learning conditions at Marin City school

Jocelyn Overmyer

Around 8 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 3, a crowd of concerned community members congregated outside Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, a public K-8 school in Marin City, to protest the school’s learning conditions in comparison to the district’s other school, Willow Creek Academy.

“I want to see equality in the school district and this is not about black, white or which school is better; it’s about education and that’s what our demands are about,” said community leader Kelly Thomas, who grew up in Sausalito and is now a grandparent of three children who attend Bayside MLK.

The week of the protest, Sausalito Marin City District Superintendent William McCoy sent an email to community leaders, stating his respect for freedom of speech and the right to assemble as well as voicing his own concerns about the school.

“I am also concerned about the education of our children, especially our middle school students,” McCoy wrote.

Concerned community members protest outside of Bayside MLK

Concerned community members protest outside of Bayside MLK

The state-funded Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) released a report this August that largely blamed the five-member Sausalito Marin City school board for preferential treatment and funding of the Sausalito charter school Willow Creek Academy (WCA). The FCMAT specializes in reviewing and resolving financial and resource management within local education agencies.

“If it was my child, I would be boycotting the school,” Thomas said.

At the time of the report and subsequent protests, four out of the five board members had direct ties to WCA, one of whom was the school’s founder. FCMAT received a request for review of the Sausalito Marin City School District this March from Mary Jane Burke, the Marin County Superintendent of Schools.

However, two of the five board members were up for re-election on the Nov. 8 ballot. Incumbent member and founder of Willow Creek Academy Bill Ziegler lost his seat to Debra Turner, a Sausalito graphic designer who has volunteered at Bayside-MLK for nearly 18 years. Additionally, incumbent member Caroline Van Alst won another term on the board.

The protest also comes after former Sausalito Marin City School District Superintendent Steve Van Zant was convicted of a felony violation of the Political Reform Act earlier this year after he helped contract his company EdHive to work with a San Diego school district for which he was the superintendent.

In the days before the event, an email was circulated through the community from Jamal Graham, who is an assistant to one of the event organizers, Pastor Rondall Leggett.

The email detailed issues within the school and encouraged recipients to support Bayside MLK students at the protest.

According to the email, there is only one full-time middle school teacher at the school, while the rest work part-time.

“The science teacher is now there three days a week instead of the two days a week that she was at the beginning of the year, but she is still a contracted part-time employee and not considered part of the staff. If students need help with a science project or assignment, they need to wait until the teacher returns to school to get assistance,” the email stated.

The FCMAT report also noted that besides a lack of consistent instruction, the school also had a shortage of credentialed teachers.

“Bayside MLK has no teachers with single-subject credentials teaching courses for middle school students, including math and science courses and widely varying salaries for management and administrative staff, some of which are not comparable to those in similar districts. The small number of central office staff makes it difficult to implement improvements while also maintaining the day-to-day operations,” the FCMAT report stated.

The FCMAT report also detailed concerns regarding special education programs at WCA.

“In addition, WCA will not enroll students who have an individualized education plan (IEP) that requires a special day class (SDC). The district’s governing board should have identified this illegal practice as a concern during normal oversight processes,” the report stated.

In direct response to the FCMAT report,WCA released a 31-page response refuting many of the claims made and research methods used in the FCMAT report.

“Regrettably, the report makes unsupported and incendiary charges that pit local schools–and the groups of high-need families they jointly serve–against one another, adding strife to a community already challenged by a long history of racial and economic tension,” stated the WCA response.

One section of the response directly addresses the FCMAT claim that WCA refuses to enroll students with an IEP and those in need of a SDC.

According to the response, during the 2015-2016 school year the special education program at WCA had “between 12 and 20 students enrolled in SDCs.”

During a phone interview, WCA Head of School Tara Seekins said the school has a history of supporting students with disabilities.

“I do know that Willow Creek was definitely enrolling kids with SDCs and IEPs. I know that for a fact,” Seekins said.

The response stated that for the 2016-2017 school year, the SDC program was moved to the Bayside MLK campus and “[Sausalito Marin City School District’s] Special Education Director encouraged—but did not require—the SDC students to enroll at Bayside/MLK rather than WCA.”

This, according to the report, was to better align the schedules of SDC students and their teachers, who are district employees following an 180-day school year as opposed to WCA’s 176-day school year.

The methods used by the FCMAT team to reach the conclusion that WCA is illegally refusing enrollment to special education students were also called into question by the WCA response. According to their report, FCMAT interviewed “multiple individuals,” asked a WCA representative and observed slide eight of the “Sausalito Marin City School District Special Education Report – April 5, 2016.”

According to Seekins, as well as the WCA response, those actually in charge of special education were not interviewed by FCMAT.

Infographic by Jocelyn Overmyer

“[FCMAT] didn’t talk to the Special Education Director, they didn’t talk to me, they didn’t visit any classrooms,” Seekins said.

The WCA response claims it to be “unfathomable” that FCMAT made allegations without contacting either the District’s Special Education Director or the then-Assistant Head of School who oversaw special education.

The response also noted that only one “WCA representative” was consulted.  

“The lone WCA representative interviewed was not the administrator managing special education at the school, and he may have had only limited awareness of the District’s practice (which WCA never sought to influence in any way) of seeking to align the schedules of SDC students with the schedules of their teachers,” stated the response.

Delores Talley, the mother of two former Bayside MLK students, including Redwood football coach Allen Talley, was at the protest “to support the kids.” She expressed her disappointment with the lack of full-time teachers, a phenomena that one of the parent speakers at the even called “drive-by teachers.”

“I felt they should not have started school until they had it fully staffed,” Talley said.

Talley is a longtime Marin City resident and volunteers at Bayside MLK. She felt it was important for all community members to get involved.

According to Thomas, the protest is coming after a series of community actions.

“The reason why we’re rallying at this point is because we’ve been having conversations with the board, with the principal. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t care. I have no confidence in the board,” Thomas said.

One of Thomas’ main concerns with the school is that 504 programs, plans are tailored by the school to address a student’s disabilities while still allowing that student to participate fully in general education classes, are not being fully implemented. Federal civil rights laws require schools to have 504 plans available. Students who don’t qualify for special education (IEP) might qualify for a 504 plan.

“It is just criminal,” Thomas said. “Some stuff is unethical and some stuff is just against the law.”

When asked about how 504 programs were being implemented at Bayside MLK, superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District, William McCoy, said via email that he was concerned about the statements that 504 plans were not being implemented. However, when he asked a rally organizer, “she could provide no specific examples of issues or people that could be contacted regarding their concerns.”  

Recently Ellen Franz, who taught at Bayside MLK for 14 years before retiring last year, wrote a letter originally sent to the Marin IJ to disclose what she had seen as a teacher and active community member. Franz wrote that she had attended “virtually every school board meeting since 2002.”

She wrote that in 2008 Bayside MLK was named a California Distinguished School and qualified as “excellent” on the Academic Performance Index (API), but has performed increasingly poorly since.

“Since those years in which we celebrated increasing student achievement, I have watched the systematic destruction of essentially all aspects of Bayside MLK students’ educational programs and support systems,” Franz wrote.

She went on describe a specific incident.

“I stood before the board pleading, for example, on the evening in 2015 when four trustees voted to dismantle the successful counseling program. I was told that this simply couldn’t be afforded,” Franz wrote.

Franz said that a few months later, she sat in the district office when three trustees voted to spend $42,000 on a topographical study of the current WCA campus, claiming it essential for the upcoming bond measure.

Superintendent of the SMCSD Will McCoy has developed a ‘comprehensive student education plan’ that he aims to set in motion.

“This plan sets forth the tangible action steps our District must take and speaks to how we are and must continue to augment instruction and learning for each and every student here at Bayside MLK,” McCoy wrote in a letter to parents.

Phillip Logan, a student support specialist at WCA, said he hopes the support continues.

“We weren’t for sure about the turnout but it was good to see so many people come out today,” Logan said. “But hopefully it doesn’t die here.”