More than 44 percent of students attending Belle Haven Elementary School in Menlo Park were absent Wednesday, many of whom boycotted classes to protest the East Palo Alto-based school district's sudden transfer of principal Todd Gaviglio.
According to the school administration office, 199 students of 451 did not attend school Wednesday. The boycott came after two days of protests at the school by parents who are angry that Ravenswood City School District Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff summarily transferred Gaviglio to the district's Curriculum and Instruction department on March 19. Hernandez-Goff has said he was reassigned to work on "important instructional projects."
Her decision did not sit well with parents and many teachers who credit Gaviglio with turning the underperforming school around. Gaviglio's removal occurred in the middle of the school year, just days after he filed a discrimination complaint against Hernandez-Goff. Gaviglio has joined others in asking the district not to renew Hernandez-Goff's contract when it expires in June. He has accused Hernandez-Goff of misusing funds, nepotism, divulging confidential information and falsifying compliance during an inspection.
He and many parents said the superintendent's actions are retaliatory.
Hernandez-Goff said in a statement provided to the Weekly in late March that Gaviglio was moved to the district to help with a "routine" federal program audit. The California Department of Education's website describes the Federal Program Monitoring as an "overall determination of whether the local educational agency (LEA) is meeting statutory program and fiscal requirements for categorical programs," including proper use of Title I funds. Gaviglio received training in August on the compliance review, which will affect all sites but will focus on Belle Haven and Costaño elementary schools, Hernandez-Goff said.
"Because of his newly acquired background, and his intimate knowledge of Belle Haven, he was selected for special assignment to support the district on these efforts," she said.
Gaviglio said that the superintendent never discussed with him the possibility of changing roles to federal compliance monitoring.
Parents put together a Facebook page, Support Our Principal Mr. Todd Gaviglio, to garner protesters. The district sent parents robocalls telling them to send their children to school, which only angered the parents more, they said. The parents are also planning to show up at the April 26 district board meeting to demand Gaviglio's return to Belle Haven.
In a letter this week, protest organizers asked parents to keep their children home and to call the school office and state the reason was due to the superintendent's removal of Gaviglio.
"By keeping our kids home the district will lose money and start taking us seriously." The letter was signed by "A fellow concerned Belle Haven parent."
The protest organizers have circulated to other parents a letter addressed to the school district board that praised Gaviglio for innovative programs, which have dramatically increased attendance and improved teacher retention and stability at the school. He partnered with the Buddhist organization Tzu Chi to give students incentives for good attendance and behavior with certificates to the campus Tiger Paw store where they can buy supplies, stuffed animals and Halloween costumes. Parents and students are recognized for perfect attendance through banquets, which include a ceremony and flower bouquets.
He also instituted the Parent University that holds sessions three times a year to raise awareness and develop practical skills such as sleeping patterns, eating right and helping with homework.
"We want Mr. Gaviglio to be immediately reinstated as principal of Belle Haven. If reinstatement does not immediately take place, Belle Haven families will continue to boycott, ultimately affecting the district financially," the letter stated.
Nicole Sbragia, a mother of two boys worked at the school as a paraeducator with special needs children until this year. She was laid off because of the district's ongoing budget deficit. She was offered the job back again, but she had to find another job elsewhere to support her two sons, she said.
Both of her sons attended Belle Haven, with one still there. That son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, returned to Belle Haven after attending a charter school where he hadn't done well. The boy had bad behavior because of his condition, but Gaviglio and the special education team remained committed to helping him. He went from throwing chairs in the air to swinging his sweatshirt at another child just once this year, she said.
"I'm so worried about our schools and the special ed department," she said.
Sbragia said the Tiger Paw store was always stocked with plenty of prizes of all kinds for the students as incentives and rewards. But since Gaviglio was removed, now "it's really undernourished," she said.
"It was always well stocked because of his love."
Sbragia is one of the boycott organizers and parent leaders seeking to get Gaviglio back.
"He's a very special person," she said.
She didn't think the parents would be as impassioned about calling for Hernandez-Goff to leave if she hadn't removed Gaviglio as principal. But she and other parents remain committed to his return -- and to the superintendent not having her contract renewed. Just on Wednesday she dropped off 42 letters signed by parents to the district office, she said.
"Our fight isn't just to get him back. No, it's to get her out," she said.
The next boycott will probably involve the entire school district and would occur after the spring break, she said.
"Other schools want to speak out against her (Hernandez-Goff). If they don't want to give the parents what we are asking for, well, then, we'll just have to keep pushing back."
Belle Haven teacher Bronwyn Alexander said the district likely lost thousands of dollars based on state per-pupil-count funding, but also because the school was fully staffed. She estimated the district lost about $10,000 due to Wednesday's absences. The school was fully staffed and had all of the breakfasts and lunches prepared for full attendance.
"There were a lot of leftover corn dogs," she said. "It was probably a pretty big financial hit. Hopefully the district board members will do something about it."
District spokesman Rolando Bonilla did not comment on the amount of lost revenue by Wednesday evening. But in an email, he said "Although we are always supportive of the right to protest, the District disagrees with the idea of stripping away valuable classroom time from our students as each day is critical in the pursuit to prepare them for success at the high school level.
"Nevertheless, today was another great day at Belle Haven as our teachers have spent the day providing instruction to students that were in class today."
Asked if the protests will alter the district's stance on Gaviglio, Bonilla said: "Mr. Gaviglio will not be returning to Belle Haven."
Alexander said that in her 27 years working in schools, this is the first time she has seen a principal removed mid-year. She said Gaviglio was not on a list of principal assignments for the next school year.
"As far as we can tell it was completely retaliatory," she said on Wednesday.
Gaviglio was a longtime teacher before being appointed as Belle Haven principal in 2015. Alexander said he reduced teacher turnover to practically nil and has raised morale. He also brought resources to the school, such as volunteers and donors.
"I'm staring at an entire reading system that costs $6,000 each. I have it because of his donors," she said.
His programs have also raised the school's attendance dramatically.
"Student attendance was absolutely the worst in the district. Now it is No. 3," she said. "Now the children are excited to come to school."