Allegations fly in School Board recall process

Petitioners seek to remove three Chatham members

Posted: Sunday, July 08, 2007

Following months of educational turmoil in the rural villages of Angoon and Tenakee, sponsors have filed paperwork to recall three members of the Chatham School Board.

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Petitioners say School Board members Edward Gamble Sr., Irene Paul, and Shelly Wilson are "incompetent, and have failed to perform their prescribed duties." The petition also accuses the three members of misconduct.

Paul is the president of the board. She and Gamble represent Angoon. Wilson represents Tenakee. Two additional School Board members have not been named in the recall.

School Board recalls are not common, said John Greely, spokesman for the Association of Alaska School Boards.

The petition on file with the Alaska Division of Elections shows the primary allegation in the attempted recall is the district's hiring of two unqualified people for administrative positions in the small district.

Additionally the petitioners said the School Board failed to provide an evaluation system for teachers and administrators, violated the open meetings act, and failed to adequately supervise the superintendent.

Responding to the recall petition, Gamble said, "It's the voter's prerogative." As founding member of the Chatham School Board Gamble said he plans to run again "regardless of the outcome."

No contact information could be found for Paul, and Wilson did not return numerous calls.

In April and May 2006, the School Board approved Superintendent Vance Cortez-Rucker's recommendations to hire Kathryn Carl and Rita Ellen Robinson as administrators in the district. Petitioners said neither person holds a state certificate required to work in school district administration.

Eric Fry, spokesman for the Department of Education and Early Development, confirmed that neither Robinson, nor Carl, have administrators certificates on file with the state. The pair does have teaching certificates in their educational fields, Fry said.

Jonathan O'Quinn, spokesman for the Department of Elections, said the petition has been forwarded to the Department of Law for an opinion.

The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that not all allegations must pass review for the recall to continue. The court said that a recall election should be held even if only one allegation meets statutory grounds.

If advanced by the legal review, the recall will be conducted at a state level, O'Quinn said.


Many of those who signed the petition said the petition against the School Board is one way to deal with problems they have with Chatham's new superintendent, Cortez-Rucker.

"I intend to expose everything this man has done and what the board allows," said Angoon Associate School Board member Donald Frank.

"This all started when they hired (him)," added Angoon para-educator Lillian Woodbury.

According to Woodbury and others, Cortez-Rucker is tied directly to the School Board's failing duties because he created two new administrator positions and then brought friends in to fill them.

The small district of less than 200 students now has six administrators overseeing 12 teachers.

"The board rubber-stamps whatever the superintendent wants," said former Tenakee teacher Megs Testatmata.

Former Chatham School Board President Dan Zobrist resigned in 2006 to avoid a growing rift with Cortez-Rucker. "I didn't feel comfortable working with the superintendent," Zobrist said.

With a background in legislation and government, Zobrist said he differed with Cortez-Rucker in the roles of elected officials and hired administrators.

After asking for written questions on the long list of allegations against him, Cortez-Rucker refused to answer a single one. Attempts to contact others in district offices have met no response and phones there go unanswered.

In a November 2006 letter to parents of Angoon students, Cortez-Rucker responded to community criticism of his hiring "friends."

"I accept that," Cortez-Rucker said. "These two professionals know and understand what needs to be done here in Angoon."

Carl was hired as a special education administrator, Robinson to direct reading and writing programs.

Last winter Kevin Frank Sr. filed a special education complaint with the state education office on behalf of his son. Frank said the district failed to provide Kevin Jr. with the required Individual Education Plan, speech therapy, and physical-occupational therapy.

"These are the things that go with special education," Frank Sr. said. "Aren't they supposed to serve my kids?"

An investigator was assigned, and things started happening for his son, Frank Sr. said.

Fry confirmed that the state did investigate the Chatham School District, but laws protecting students prevent him from giving specifics.

Frank Sr. said the state since has required the School District to make up for his son's lost education.

Woodbury said there is no evidence that Robinson has ever worked with students, or conducted reading and writing laboratories in the district.

The lost chance to review

The second allegation of misconduct by the three board members accuses them of failing to provide any vehicle for the review of district staff and administration. The review process is required by state law.

The inability to review certified employees angered students, staff, and the community who seek an official voice to criticize Cortez-Rucker and the school board for various actions.

One source - a School District employee whose identity is being withheld by the Juneau Empire because of fear of reprisal - accused Cortez-Rucker of cronyism, racism, and financial mischief. Cortez-Rucker's methods of running the district have been described as "draconian."

The superintendent also was accused of spending money without School Board authorization.

"We had lots of account expenditures reported, but I didn't see those come before us [School Board] for approval," said Zobrist.

"We've been through this before, but we've never had a superintendent come in and be so disrespectful," Woodbury said.

At annual meeting before the start of last school year, teachers said, Cortez-Rucker greeted them with a threat, "Welcome back, do good work because I know how to get rid of you."

Melissa Cullum, then an Angoon English teacher, said Cortez-Rucker's threat in August was not the first. Cullum said he was looking directly at her while making the statement.

According to Cullum, Cortez-Rucker is following the union-busting Northwest Arctic Schools model, where teachers are let go before obtaining tenure. Cullum was "non-retained" in June.

"Next year I'm up for tenure," Cullum said.

Angoon Associate School Board member Donald Frank said that Cortez-Rucker and the School Board decided in a meeting last fall to fire Cullum. "They said they were going to get rid of her," Frank said.

The Associate Board made recommendations to the School Board to retain all the teachers in the district this year, including Cullum. But Cullum was let go.

Frank said Cortez-Rucker gave varied reasons before letting the well-liked Cullum go this summer.

"They said a lower percentage of students passed the state qualifying exam, then in May they said it was the budget, then they said it was a personnel issue," Frank said.

Cortez-Rucker sent an e-mail saying contract renewal would depend on student count and legislature.

Cortez-Rucker refused to answer questions regarding Cullum's departure, or alleged union busting practices.

Cullum said the superintendent posted her job as available on a Web site weeks before she received the ultimatum to resign or be non-retained.

"I chose the latter," Cullum said.

With Cullum's departure, the School Board alienated many members of the small community of approximately 600 people. The decision left the School District with no English teacher.

Kevin Frank Sr. said that 240 community members signed a petition to keep Cullum working in the district.

"That's almost the entire voting population," he said.

Cullum is know for inspiring students who gave up on education to return and work hard.

"And they say she is not good for the students," said Donald Frank. "Eighty-five percent of the students supported keeping her."

Zobrist describes Cullum as spark.

"If all teachers had that energy we would have a hell of a team," he said.

Without a review process, public comment did not make the official record.

"They disregard everything we say," Donald Frank said.

Controlling the superintendent

The recall petition alleges that Cortez-Rucker misused district resources by allowing rent-free use of district housing in Tenakee.

Testatmata said Cortez-Rucker allowed a newly arrived local minister, and six children, to live in the school's apartment rent free. Testatmata as a teacher should have had first access to the property.

"I was willing to pay rent," she said.

Woodbury said Cortez-Rucker ran the School Board meeting in May. Contradicting several clams that the School Board allows the superintendent to run the show, Gamble said, "We hired him, and we give him direction."

"I guarantee we ran the meetings when I was president," Zobrist said.

Amid the controversy, Gamble said he is happy with Cortez-Rucker's performance. The School Board signed a new three-year contract with Cortez-Rucker last spring.

Testatmata said it's been difficult to determine when the School Board renewed the superintendent's contract. School Board meeting agendas did not mention the pending action. She said that minutes show the contract only after it was done.

"It's really shady," Testatmata said.

One final allegation that did not make the recall paperwork speaks to the School Board's relationship with Cortez-Rucker. Testatmata, Woodbury, and others said that the board recently required all classified staff to take the HELP Assessment test.

"According to the School Board minutes, the superintendent told the board that all classified staff had to pass the test," Testatmata said.

The HELP test is only for para-professionals to demonstrate their qualifications under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Fry said.

It's used for staff that work with students in reading, writing and math, Fry said.

Cortez-Rucker did not respond when asked if he required all classified staff to take the test.

School District janitors, maintenance personnel, and office staff with no student contact allegedly were required to take a test. Failure on the test meant loss of employment, and several longtime employees lost their jobs, according to Woodbury.


With the recall petition under state legal review, little can be done to squash the petitioners' voice, or counter the allegations made in the supporting documents. By all legal indications, the voters in the Chatham School District may get their final say.

During a similar recall proceeding in the 1980's The Alaska Supreme Court ruled that "factual disputes in recall petitions should not be resolved by election officials. Rather, the public should decide the truth of the allegations against the public official in a recall election."

Woodbury expressed a profound disappointment in the School Board's alienation of its own people in the handling of their duties since hiring Cortez-Rucker.

"The board is there to be the voice of the people and the children, Woodbury said, "The trust is now gone."

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