Chatham School District hires new superintendent

Posted: Monday, April 28, 2008

The Chatham School Board replaced its superintendent earlier this month.

Vance Cortez-Rucker said his attorney and the School Board's attorney had developed an "exit strategy" that allows him to step aside with pay while a new superintendent takes his place.

The multivillage school district has about 200 students spread among Angoon, Gustavus, Klukwan and Tenakee Springs. Elaine Hopson, who once worked in Juneau and served as a state legislator in Oregon, is serving as Cortez-Rucker's replacement.

The move comes on the heels of a shakeup of the School Board, when three of five board members were replaced after a recall vote that accused the now-ousted board members of incompetence and misconduct.

One of the new board members, Melissa Cullum, was an English teacher in Angoon whose contract Cortez-Rucker recommended not be renewed. Her dismissal led to protests in Angoon and fomented community dissent against Cortez-Rucker and some members of the School Board.

Lillian Woodbury, former Angoon para-educator who helped organized the recall, said Cortez-Rucker did not understand the largely Alaska Native community he was serving and described him as arrogant and insensitive.

"I'm just relieved," she said.

Attempts to contact current board members were unsuccessful.

But Dan Zobrist, a former president of the School Board who resigned while Cortez-Rucker was superintendent, said the changes in the district would be good for the students.

He added that he did not trust Cortez-Rucker when he served on the board.

"The distrust was so high," Zobrist said. "You have to be able to trust your superintendent as a board member because they're the ones that give you information."

Cortez-Rucker, who lives in Angoon, said his main responsibility had always been to improve the education of the students in the district, not to seek the approval of everyone in the community.

He said attacks on his character and allegations of misdoings surfaced after he voiced opposition to how some of the schools in the district were inflating the number of students that attended the school to receive large state appropriations.

He said some schools borrow students from the larger school districts in Juneau and Haines in October, when the state asks schools to submit their daily average attendance figures, and use that number to calculate how much state money that school would receive. He said the students then go back to the bigger school districts after the artificially high daily attendance average has been established, leaving the smaller schools with more money than is rightfully theirs.

"The ethics to me stunk," Cortez-Rucker said. "As far as I'm concerned, it was as close to fraud as you can get."

Cortez-Rucker, who said he's in talks with an out-of-state university for a teaching position, added that his departure will not solve district's problem of what to do with the teachers who do a poor job and the low student test scores that result.

"Those questions are still in front of them," he said.

• Contact reporter Alan Sudermanat 523-2268 or e-mail

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