Bitter CVCHS feud ends with Middendorf firing

By Jay Bedecarre on June 9, 2014

CVCHS Sign for website

 

Just two years after a teacher-led movement converted Clayton Valley High to a charter school, strife between the executive director and the administrator who was on the board that hired him, erupted in a firestorm of controversy at the end of the school year. When the smoke cleared, Pat Middendorf, who led the movement to convert two years ago, was without a job. (Photo Tamara Steiner/Clayton Pioneer)A simmering feud between two top Clayton Valley Charter High School leaders exploded in the waning weeks of the school year, resulting in the dismissal of a top administrator.

Pat Middendorf, Director of Operations and Athletics, was terminated without cause by the charter school board at a stormy governing board meeting May 21. This followed a flurry of rumors, intrigue, politics, charges against Executive Director David Linzey, countercharges and complaints, all largely played out in a very public forum on local website Claycord.com.

The bitter battle sharply divided the school and community at a time when the Eagles should be soaring. CVCHS was celebrated for having one of the largest state test score improvements — 62 API points — in California and receiving a maximum six-year certification from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. In March, Linzey and administrator Neil McChesney were invited to Washington, D.C. to speak to the U.S. House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee on the subject of “Raising the Bar: The Role of Charter Schools in K-12 Education.”

Deteriorating relationship

It was just two years ago that Middendorf was on the committee that chose Linzey as executive director to run the newly chartered high school. Middendorf enthusiastically championed the new director and immediately became part of his administrative staff as director of operations and athletics.

But that partnership began to fray late last year over plans to expand the school and Middendorf’s claims of Linzey’s “aggressive and disrespectful management style.” The criticism snowballed with some teachers attacking Linzey’s leadership ability, “top-down structure,” lack of trust and absence of “shared decision-making.”

The antagonism between the two administrators boiled over when Middendorf and other Linzey critics claimed that the executive director overstepped bounds in late 2013 when he submitted expansion plans to the Contra Costa Board of Education without any input from staff, buy-in from faculty or board approval.

Linzey defended his action, referring to the documents as “placeholders” on the county board agenda that could be changed at any time prior to approval. In order to get county board approval in time for the 2014-15 school year, the application needed to be submitted quickly, he said. The required number of credentialed teachers signed the application.

The expansion for 2014 ran into roadblocks with the school’s landlord, Mt. Diablo Unified School District, and has been shelved for the time being.

Besides opposition to the expansion plans, Middendorf and some teachers also objected to the hiring of Linzey’s wife as a Clayton Valley Charter counselor. Linzey says the subject of hiring his wife was addressed at the time of his hire since he said his family would need to find her employment in order to move to this area.

Middendorf and the rest of the board unanimously approved hiring Ms. Linzey as coordinator of guidance and collaborative services for the recently concluded 2013-14 school year. Ms. Linzey was the No. 1-ranked candidate for the position.

Middendorf left imprint

Middendorf‘s firing marked the end of a nearly two-decade career at the school. She came to Clayton Valley as a coach in 1996, began teaching there in 2002 and was a leader in the movement to convert to a charter school in 2012.

As a coach and athletic director she was instrumental in the development of Gonsalves Stadium lights and turf and then spearheaded the formation of United Mt. Diablo Athletic Foundation that picked up the slack when MDUSD stopped funding sports at the six district high schools in 2009. Last year, she reduced her work load and was planning to retire after the 2014-15 school year.

She says “everyone wanted Linzey” when he was hired but their working relationship dissolved to the point that she filed a complaint with the board in the beginning of April and more recently submitted a second complaint. She said “little things began coming up” and she objected to his “in-your-face” management style.

Teachers take on Linzey

A few teachers at the school also targeted Linzey. In May, Cate Sundling and Brian Corbett submitted letters to the board complaining about Linzey and his relations with staff and faculty. Middendorf sent copies of both letters to the Clayton City Council and to the Pioneer.

In her letter, Sundling says, “Our school is at a dangerous crossroads…a significant number of teachers and other staff members have serious concerns that David Linzey is not an effective leader for Clayton Valley Charter High School.”

Corbett said he wrote the board “with a very heavy heart” and as one who calls Linzey “an enormously talented administrator.” He adds, however, “Linzey does not have the support necessary to remain an effective leader [at CVCHS].”

The board has 60 days from early May to respond to all the complaints, which have not been made public. The board has retained an outside investigations group to look into the complaints and report back to the board.

Some students also wandered into the fray, expressing their support of the teachers and critical of Linzey at the May 21 board meeting and on social media and Claycord.com. The student involvement didn’t sit well with Linzey.

In a two-hour interview with the Pioneer last week his only sharply-worded statement was, “There is an unwritten rule in education, an ethic that everyone agrees to: You don’t use kids when it comes to politics and in an administration vs. teachers matter. Several teachers have chosen to use kids in the worst way possible. I’m ashamed for them.”

City support for Linzey

Despite the criticism, Linzey has widespread parent and community approval, including the full support of the Clayton City Council. In a letter to the board prior to the May 21 meeting, Councilwoman Julie Pierce called Middendorf’s charges “Un-substantiated accusations, half-truths and outright lies,” and urged the board to “excise the cancer for the health of the remaining organism”

Among those most vocal in his support of Linzey and the board is Clayton Vice Mayor David Shuey, a leader in the charter school conversion effort. Shuey also took to the Internet to make his feelings known.

In fact, it was a posting by Shuey that first alerted Middendorf to the fact that her complaints, aired online, might lead to termination. “I never thought I’d be fired…until reading Shuey’s comments on Claycord.com,” she said.

Middendorf fired back, immediately posting her own letter on the site, setting off a firestorm of back-and-forth comments – mostly anonymous – between supporters of Middendorf and the teachers in her corner and the administration and Linzey on the other side. Many comments were blistering personal attacks. Family members also took up support of Middendorf and her board ally, athletic director Amber Lineweaver.

Contentious board meeting

By the time of the once-postponed board meeting on May 21, the CVCHS multi-use room had more than 250 people facing the eight board members.

Most in the audience seemed to have pre-formed opinions and reacted with cheers and applause to speakers reinforcing their viewpoint. A large number of CVCHS students were in attendance.

Because they are school employees with an inherent conflict of interest, board members Middendorf, Lineweaver and Diane Bailey were not eligible to participate in discussions or vote on agenda items in the closed session that would follow the public comment.

About 20 people spoke during the public comment period. City council member Howard Geller and long-time Clayton Valley coach and teacher Dennis Bledsoe both urged a satisfactory resolution of the Middendorf-Linzey issue. Geller said, “We should be celebrating not mudslinging.”

Most of the other speakers spoke passionately on one side or the other. There seemed to be no middle ground.

After an hour of public comment, the board adjourned to a closed session in the school library to decide the Middendorf matter as well as a new employee contract (see separate story on Page 1.)

During the closed session deliberations, which lasted nearly four hours, Bailey went to her school office while Lineweaver and Middendorf waited outside the library.

Terminated without cause

Eventually board president Tom Branich and school attorney Jim Young came out to inform her that the board had voted to “terminate her without cause.” She was offered the chance to resign but “I declined,” Middendorf said. Branich, reportedly a close personal friend of Middendorf’s, passed on a request to speak to the Pioneer for this article.

Bailey and Lineweaver returned to the board meeting. Middendorf, accompanied by husband Jim, joined the audience in the multi-use room.

The final vote was 4-1 in favor of termination with Branich dissenting. April Winship, Megan Kommer, vice chair Ted Meriam and Dick Ellis voted in favor.

When the board reconvened in public session they announced the actions and then listened to dozens more speakers. A CVCHS parent called it “brutal.”

Among the most critical of Middendorf’s firing was Debra Gonsalves. She and husband Steve are Clayton Valley alums, members of the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame and heavy financial supporters of the school. The football stadium bears their name. Within days after the board meeting they informed the board that “we are unhappy with the apparent current culture that exists at Clayton Valley” and withdrew committed capital funding for the football field and any “future capital requests.”

Linzey says the school will make up the estimated $250,000 needed to supplement Measure C funds, and that the stadium renovation and expansion – which has been a pet project of Middendorf’s – is set for completion by early September.

CVCHS ‘in good hands’

Before the new school year begins Aug. 13 Linzey and his administrators can reflect on a statement the new director made to the Pioneer in June 2012 when he first came on board: “For me, test scores are a signal, a sign that you’ve done good work. But more than that, did we create a culture where the staff is united?”

Linzey answered his own question last week by saying, “Parents love the school. We have a 97 percent approval rating. We were united for the first year and a half. There will always be a diversity of opinions and issues to debate but at some time you need to agree to disagree and get things moving. Our test is to get everyone reunited for the good of the kids and our school community.”

“We are very proud of CVCHS and the success we have achieved to date,” Linzey said in a prepared statement to the Pioneer.

“The distraction created the past several weeks is truly unfortunate for our community. I am very confident CVCHS is in good hands. There is tremendous support from our community in the leadership of their great school.”

He added that the May 29 commencement ceremony at the Concord Pavilion went off without a hitch or protest. “It was a great event and best grad night ever,” he added.

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