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In March 2014, teachers and parents of Harriet Tubman Village Charter School filed into a school board meeting to plead their case.
Aimee Nimtz, president of the school’s parent-teacher committee, led the charge. Tubman teachers, in matching blue shirts, clasped hands behind her.
Parents and teachers could stand no more of the school’s divisive leadership and high teacher turnover, Nimtz told the board. One by one, teachers backed her story. The principal was such a bully, staff members said, one teacher suffered a stress-induced seizure, complications from which she later died. Something had to change.
That night, the charter was up for renewal, a kind of review process that happens every few years. School board members look at the school’s test scores, and see whether school leaders are keeping the promises they laid out in the school’s founding document. If so, the school stays open. If not, the charter can be revoked.
Defending herself, Lidia Scinski, then-principal, told the school board: “I cannot apologize for putting children first, because that is what I signed up to do.”
Scinski pointed to the teachers union as the source of trouble. Unlike most charter schools, Tubman teachers are unionized. Scinski accused the union – the San Diego Education Association, or SDEA – of disrupting harmony by planting toxic messages.
“Imagine how much more our little, little tiny charter school could accomplish if we weren’t under constant and vicious attacks from SDEA,” Scinski said.
On paper, the College Area school looked good, especially for a school that primarily serves low-income students. Enrollment was up. Test scores had risen above the district average. Among similar schools, Tubman ranked at the academic top tier.
The charter didn’t meet the grounds for revocation; it was cleared for another five years.
But the school board did shake things up. It exercised a rarely used right to appoint someone to sit on the school’s governing board, hoping it would improve accountability. That action would have a major impact.
Nimtz seemed just the right fit. On top of being president of the parent-teacher committee, she had two daughters at the school and good relationships with teachers.
After Nimtz joined the board, she and her colleagues threw two other board members out. The board also removed Scinski, the principal. A new one, Jeffery Moore, took her place.
For a moment, things looked up. But it wasn’t long before the same old complaints emerged, this time attached to a new name: Nimtz.
‘Exactly the Same as the Principal She Helped Fire’
A recent letter from San Diego Unified to Tubman sums up the last year, one the district categorizes as a “systemic failure of leadership.”
The district appointed Nimtz to sit on the charter school board in April 2014.
“Since that appointment, Ms. Nimtz has become board president, unilaterally made herself the CEO and taken control of the daily operations of the school,” wrote a staff member from the district’s charter school office.
Nimitz also fired Moore, a principal who’d been at the school less than a year. He’s contesting the legality of that dismissal, on the grounds that Nimtz and fellow board members violated public meeting laws.
Moore told me Nimtz was meddling in school business, instructing teachers how to lead class, even coming into school to discipline kids. Moore said that after he complained, Nimtz moved to get him dismissed.
Christina Boyd, who resigned from the board after clashing with Nimtz, backs up Moore’s account: Nimtz had gone too far.
The irony is striking. In 2014, teachers and parents complained about a principal who micromanaged classrooms, bullied staff and turned over teachers. Fast-forward a year, and parents and educators are complaining that a rogue board member is micromanaging classrooms, dismissing teachers and bullying staff.
“Nimtz’s style is exactly the same as the principal she helped fire,” said Boyd.
On a stroll through Tubman’s campus, the scene belies the drama that’s unfolded in the past year. Little kids, there for summer school, seem happy and comfortable. The campus is tidy, and a cute, well-used library is stocked with computers and books.
A new principal, Barney Wilson, has been hired. He inherits the school’s baggage, and is faced with the daunting task of turning around its reputation.
Not that Wilson is fazed. He’s tall and cool, disciplined and trained in martial arts. More importantly, perhaps, he’s from Baltimore. Any problems Tubman is facing seem like small potatoes next to schools he worked in there.
“Are students happy? Yes. Are they learning? Yes. Does the school’s structure need additional supports? Sure. But it’s already got the most important elements working for it,” said Wilson.
Nimtz also dismisses complaints. She and other board members have made mistakes, she concedes, but the school’s problems are fixable.
“It’s easy to play Monday-morning quarterback, but we did the best we could to get the school through a tough year,” she said. “Tubman’s biggest problem is Tubman. There were problems before this year, and there will likely be problems after this year.”
In the past, Nimtz said, too much power rested with the school’s principal. Moving forward, she said, the board will set policy and governance, but the principal will lead daily operations.
Nimtz acknowledges that in the past year she’s stepped in to make day-to-day decisions, something that’s relatively rare for a board member. But she said the school’s bylaws allowed for that when leadership is in flux.
“I didn’t come in and say give me this duty or else. It was out of necessity,” Nimtz said.
The district found it problematic. The district’s charter school office has given Tubman a “not-in-good-standing” status, which can be a precursor to revocation of the charter. But revocation is messy and expensive. The district has to find new schools for kids, learning is lost while they settle in – not to mention money the district invested in the charter school.
The charter school office has recommended a series of changes at Tubman, including one to dismantle the current governing board and create a new one. Nimtz plans to expand the charter board, but has no plans to step down as board chair.
The charter school office can’t force Tubman to actually implement all of its recommendations. By definition, charter schools are autonomous, freed from the rules that bind most district schools.
The charter school office, as an oversight branch of the district, doesn’t get involved in daily operations at the school. So when disgruntled parents call the district, asking them to address problems at Tubman, the district is in an awkward position.
“Our job is not to step on the shoes of the school and operate it,” said Susan Park, a program manager in the district’s charter school office.
In order for Tubman to thrive, it will have to shake off its image as a problem child. For all the school’s conflicts, and regardless of who is to blame, a charter school’s reputation is its most important currency.
If parents perceive that a charter is in chaos, they’re likely to pull their kids out of school and enroll them elsewhere. Funding follows kids out the door. With a cash-strapped budget, schools are less likely to meet their financial obligations, or deliver for kids academically.
Nimtz and Wilson are optimistic they can pull it off.
“I think we finally have all the pieces in place to pull Tubman out of the spotlight for the negative things, and put it into the spotlight for its positives,” said Nimtz.