The Carpinteria teachers union is going public with a long-simmering feud between a group of teachers and the principal at Carpinteria Middle School, accusing Felicia Sexsmith of bringing to the school a “culture of intimidation.”
About 25 members of the teachers union — along with about as many supportive parents and citizens — filed into the meeting room at Carpinteria City Hall on Tuesday night to show the Carpinteria school board a survey filled out by teachers throughout the district rating the performance of administrators.
The purpose was to show that the lowest marks, by far, were given to Sexsmith, who has been the key figure in three claims filed by teachers at Carpinteria Middle School through the union with the California Public Employee Relations Board in the past two years.
“We have followed the chain of command responsibly and have been dismissed for two years,” Jay Hotchner, president of the Carpinteria Association of the United School Employees, told Noozhawk. “We are asking the board to look into this immediately, before the culture spreads to the other schools.”
Superintendent Paul Cordeiro and at least two school board members stand firmly behind Sexsmith, saying she has begun to turn the tide at a school that has long suffered from perception problems.
“She’s one of the most skilled administrators I’ve ever worked with,” Cordeiro said. “She’s courageous, and she’s dedicated to the kids.“
Cordeiro added that Sexsmith, who could not be reached for comment, is Ivy League-educated with a graduate degree from UCLA, and is bilingual at a school in which seven-in-10 students are Latino.
He credited her for, among other things, bringing to the school a college-prep program for financially disadvantaged students who plan to be the first in their extended families to attend a four-year college.
School board member Beverly Grant echoed Cordeiro’s praise of Sexsmith, saying she saw no persuasive evidence from the union Tuesday evening showing that the principal should be removed.
“It’s an effort to oust the principal,” she said. “I think she has been a very good principal. I think she works very hard at her job.”
Sexsmith was appointed by Cordeiro to serve as the principal in the spring of 2006, when the school’s leader at the time, Bob Keatinge, fell gravely ill. (He is now retired.)
In terms of test scores, the school is struggling but improving. It is one of two schools in the five-school district to be dinged by the federal government under the No Child Left Behind law for the test scores of its disadvantaged students. But the school’s API scores — which are based on a barrage of math and English tests taken by students — have steadily improved during the past three years.
The problems between the union and Sexsmith began at the beginning of her tenure, in the spring of 2006.
Union officials say the union first let Sexsmith know it took exception to how she paid little if any heed to several long-standing school policies regarding discipline and homework. In the fall of 2006, she did away with them altogether, which drew protests from the union, Hotchner said.
Six months later, Hotchner, a social studies teacher at the school, said Sexsmith drew up a memo that contained about 20 counts against him that he said were malicious, threatening and false, including that he had shown up late for school. (He said at least one of the dates on which he was accused of being late was a holiday.)
Hotchner, who at the time was the school’s union representative, said he believes that she wrote the memo in retaliation for his union involvement.
Hotchner filed a claim with the California Public Employee Relations Board, which reviewed the claim and decided it warranted filing an official charge against the district. Union officials say that in itself was a victory for the union. (A hearing date is still pending.)
The next fall, the union filed another claim with PERB, this time on behalf of nine teachers and staff members. In this case, the union alleges, Sexsmith engaged in “witness tampering” by doing things such as reminding some of the employees that it wasn’t a good idea for them to side with Hotchner.
In June, a third claim was filed by the union involving three employees — a classified employee and two teachers — and the principal. The claim includes separate incidents. In one, the union alleges that the classified employee was strongly encouraged to find another job, and was told that seeking assistance from the union would result in receiving a poor recommendation.
PERB has yet to weigh in on the second and third claims, Hotchner said.
Cordeiro said he can’t comment on any of the claims because his hands are tied by personnel confidentiality laws.
Union President Hotchner said the union also has misgivings about how Sexsmith was handpicked by Cordeiro to lead the school. Sometimes, but not always, potential candidates for principal are vetted by hiring committees that include teachers, administrators, parents and others.
Hotchner added that Cordeiro has long known Sexsmith, who used to work at Washington Elementary in Santa Barbara with Cordeiro’s late wife, Beatrice, who served as that school’s principal until her death of cancer in January 2007.
Cordeiro countered that he knows a lot of people in the regional education community. He added that Sexsmith was among a handful of candidates who were interviewed by a committee when applying for the top job at now-closed Main Elementary School in 2006. Sexsmith, he said, was the committee’s top choice. Cordeiro said he decided to place Sexsmith at the middle school instead of Main School when Keatinge fell ill.
Hotchner said he first brought the staff’s concerns to Cordeiro’s attention two years ago, during a monthly meeting between the teachers union and the superintendent. He said Cordeiro generally brushed off the teachers’ criticism of Sexsmith. Afterward, Hotchner said, the union decided to begin evaluating administrators.
The survey shown to the board Tuesday night was taken in the spring by what Hotchner said was well more than half of the district’s 135 teachers. It was the second consecutive year the district’s teachers took the survey. Hotchner said the union first tried to show Cordeiro the survey in private, at its first monthly meeting with him and other administrators this month.
He said Cordeiro “demonstrated contempt for the document” and reiterated his support for the principal. Two weeks later, he said, the union “reluctantly” decided to go public.
Hotchner said the union takes umbrage with how Cordeiro has handled the situation.
“This has smacked of nepotism all the way,” Hotchner said. “This is not only the fault of the principal, this is a true failure of the leadership at this district.”
Cordeiro said the union is mistaking his disagreement for contempt.
“In any system, people in leadership positions are going to make decisions that aren’t universally popular,” he said.
As for the survey, Hotchner said 72 percent of the multiple-choice responses filled out about Sexsmith by Carpinteria Middle School teachers were negative, and that about 80 percent of that school’s teachers completed the survey. By comparison, he said, for the principal at Carpinteria High School, negative responses accounted for just 1 percent. At Canalino Elementary, they accounted for 17 percent; Summerland, 10 percent; and Aliso, 10 percent.
Meanwhile, Cordeiro actually fared pretty well on the survey, across the district: Only 19 percent of the responses about him were negative.
However, teachers at Carpinteria Middle School were less happy with him; 60 percent of their responses were negative, Hotchner said.
School board member Terry Banks said she is disappointed that the union chose to air its grievances publicly.
“It’s a personnel issue, so it’s a tough thing for us to have any comment on,” she said.
She, too, credited Sexsmith’s performance.
“I’m really pleased at many of the changes at middle school; we had a big perception problem at the school for years,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who didn’t send their kids to our middle school because they thought it was a terrible place to go. … But the school did make some pretty major academic strides in academic improvement, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about that.”
Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at email@example.com.