Accusations fly at charter school board meeting
FERRYSBURG — More than 100 people jammed the music room-turned-board room at West Michigan Academy of Arts and Academics on Tuesday night, criticizing school board members and the personnel company involved in the recent firing of the school's director.
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The audience of parents, students, teachers and staff spent almost three hours of comment time denouncing the decision to remove the man they claimed was respected and loved by almost everyone at the school.
Demonstrators were on the street Monday and Tuesday, protesting the ousting of Tom Stout and working to get people to attend Tuesday night's regular meeting of the charter school's Board of Education.
The meeting crowd rose and cheered when Stout entered the room and made his way to a front row seat, moments before the meeting was called to order.
Board President Judy Bregman made a statement claiming the board had nothing to do with the firing. She said they were made aware of it Friday afternoon by the personnel company contracted by the school. Stout was terminated Saturday.
Ed Culberson, of the personnel firm Advanced HR, told the audience that the situation was an ongoing issue that was not resolved. He said Stout was let go because he continued to do things that were not in the best interest of the Ferrysburg school.
Culberson declined to give a specific reason for the firing — indicating it was best that the former director leave now, rather than at the end of six more weeks when Stout planned to retire.
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A new director, Travis Thomsen of California, is scheduled to be in place July 1.
In the meantime, Culberson confirmed that his company had contracted two people — who had helped the school in a search for the new director — as interim directors. David Peterson and Harry Rossi, both former school superintendents from northern Illinois, will be meeting with administration and faculty at WMAAA this week. Peterson arrived at the school Tuesday afternoon and attended the board meeting. Meetings with staff were scheduled for today.
Peterson said he hoped to address parents' concerns about their children's welfare and how they were dealing with the loss of Stout.
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Stout made a statement at Tuesday night's meeting, criticizing the board — most notably Bregman — and accusing board members of repeated violations of the Open Meetings Act and conflict of interest because of her friendship with the school's curriculum coordinator, Connie Stewart. He encouraged the crowd to "question policy and decision-making at every level," and told parents they needed to "take their school back."
Several audience members asked that Bregman and other members of the board step down so the new director can start with a clean slate when he comes to town. Others accused Stewart of bullying teachers and also asked her to step down.
At the beginning of the meeting, eighth-grade students Mackenzie Fairfield and Lorenzo Pretta — who are in Mandy Deboer's Introduction to Film class — made a presentation on bullying and showed a 30-second public service announcement the class produced.
"This has been an ongoing issue in our school," Fairfield said.
Parent Wendy Swenson brought up the topic of the video after a couple of hours of comment on the director situation.
"I teach my children that bullying is not acceptable," she said.
Swenson noted was an underlying theme of bullying brought up by parents and teachers at the meeting, in relation to curriculum and activities. She said the allegations of bullying, conflict of interest and possible illegal activities of a staff member being investigated by Stout needed to be continued.
Bregman said she would reply to questions asked that night by e-mail and the responses would be on the school's website. In response to a question from the audience, Bregman emphasized she would not be able to answer all of the questions.
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Many of the people in attendance directed their comments to Dan Matthews, a representative from Grand Valley State University, the entity that oversees the charter for WMAAA.
Parent Andrew Ross said they needed GVSU's help to eliminate the atmosphere of hostility "which affects our children's learning environment." He asked Matthews to have the university investigate the possible conflicts of interest between board members and staff, and to investigate school attorney Errol Goldman for the same type of issues.
After most of the audience left, Matthews — who gave a report as scheduled on the agenda — said GVSU was bound by state rules that they had to follow in overseeing the charter school.
"We cannot get involved in personnel matters," he said.
Matthews spent most of his time talking about how well the school was doing, despite the conflict.
"When you look at the data, this is a great school," he said. "This is one of the top performing schools in the state of Michigan."
Ron Lindquist, grandparent to a current WMAAA student, said about the only choice parents had was to "contact your (state) legislator and make that board elected and responsible to" the people.
The academy's Board of Education is appointed by GVSU. When there is a vacancy, applications may be filed, but the board then selects the next member.