A group of parents, staff at Orchard Elementary demand principal's removal

PTA presents a petition with 21 signatures to school board
2013-07-16T18:45:00Z 2013-07-18T06:17:09Z A group of parents, staff at Orchard Elementary demand principal's removalBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A group of parents from Orchard Elementary School is demanding the district remove the principal there, expressing deep frustration with her leadership style.

"The whole atmosphere of the school changed this year," said Jaye Ramirez, the school's PTA president. 

Ramirez has been PTA president for six years and decided to compile a petition this spring demanding the principal's removal after hearing numerous complaints from other parents and staff at the school. 

Accompanied by a group of 15 parents and school staff, Ramirez presented the petition to district trustees during Monday night's board meeting. It had 21 signatures. 

Julia Mattson is the principal, finishing her first year at Orchard. 

Speaking briefly Tuesday afternoon, Mattson said she hadn't heard that parents spoke at the board meeting or presented a petition.

"I was unaware," she said. 

She declined to comment further, wanting more time to learn what had happened. 

Some of Ramirez's frustration stems from location. She knows much of the community is quick to dismiss the South Side -- Orchard is on Jackson Street just south of State Avenue.

But she said parents on this side of town love their children, too, and want for them a quality education.

"Our kids deserve just as good an education as the kids at Boulder or Bitterroot" schools, she said. 

Ramirez and her supporters worry that a quality education isn't possible if a school has a high teacher turnover. 

A group of teachers requested transfers to leave Orchard in June. The parents see that as a symptom of Mattson's leadership, arguing that good principals retain good teachers. And Orchard in the past has had excellent teachers, Ramirez said. 

Parents also were upset that Mattson missed the first day of school and missed Orchard's award ceremony on the last day of school. They also want more open communication with Mattson.

Superintendent Terry Bouck expressed some frustration of his own.

"When I look at dealing with personnel issues," he said, "you deal with them in a private and professional way."

That can't happen at a board meeting. 

Speaking generally of complaints against school administrators, Bouck said the issues raised by parents or staff represent just one side of a story. 

As superintendent, he has a responsibility to get at every side of a story, ensuring in the process that he's utilized his own staff to thoroughly understand the whole issue. 

That also means speaking at length with the administrator at the center of a complaint.

"When there's an issue, you always work with the individual," he said. "I try to work with people no matter what."

The large, sudden departure of staff from the school is a concern, Bouck said. 

"You look at that," he said. "Of course you look at that." 

But he pointed to an early point in his career when he was made principal of a failing middle school in Tacoma, Wash. He was tasked with shaking up the school and turning it around. 

Over the course of five years, test scores went up but so did staff turnover, he said. 

"I had people leave," he said. 

The district takes seriously the concerns of parents and so it will look into the complaints made by the parents against Mattson. 

However, Bouck said he'll do it methodically and fully, so that he and his staff can come to a "quality decision."

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