The Ravenswood City School District community has become increasingly divided in the weeks leading up to Thursday's scheduled vote on the renewal of Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff's contract, with public accusations of corruption and grassroots protests putting the district's top leader on the defensive.
Parents have kept their children home from school twice in the last month, first to protest Hernandez-Goff's sudden removal of Belle Haven Elementary School's principal and on Wednesday to speak out against renewing her contract. Most schools recorded normal attendance rates on Wednesday except at Belle Haven, where 30 percent of the school's 451 students were absent, and Los Robles Magnet Academy, where 12 percent of students were absent (compared to 5 percent the day before), according to the district. Some parents called the Belle Haven front office to say their children were out of school because of the protest.
In separate letters on Tuesday, the president and vice president of the school board urged parents against this form of protest, and Hernandez-Goff warned teachers that "appropriate disciplinary action" would be taken against any staff found to have used work time or district resources to advocate for the boycott.
Parents, teachers, staff and community members, including East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica, plan to march against Hernandez-Goff for the third time on Thursday, before the school board is set to vote on her contract. They have accused Hernandez-Goff of nepotism, misuse of public funds and creating a hostile work environment.
Hernandez-Goff — along with the district's lawyer, chief budget official and public-relations representative — briefly addressed some of these allegations in a press conference on Wednesday. The accusations are "lies on top of lies," the superintendent claimed, coming from a minority opposed to the reform she was hired to bring to the long-struggling East Palo Alto district. She did not take questions after the press conference.
In recent weeks and months, Ravenswood teachers and staff members who previously feared speaking out for risk of retaliation have become emboldened by their concerns about Hernandez-Goff remaining in the district. They have spoken publicly at board meetings and organized privately, with some considering running for school board in November if the current trustees renew Hernandez-Goff's contract.
The Weekly interviewed more than 30 current and past employees of the district who have separately described a culture of dysfunction and reactive leadership that they say is directly harming the students of the small K-8 district.
Hiring, personnel concerns
Chief among the criticisms of Hernandez-Goff is an allegation that she has committed nepotism by providing employment to her son and granddaughter and a volunteer position for her husband during her tenure as superintendent.
Her son, John Denos, is the only one of her relatives still employed by the district. Denos was hired by the district in 2014 as a California English Language Development Test tester but has also helped with human-resources software implementation and database analysis, according to information provided by the district in response to a Public Records Act request filed by the Palo Alto Weekly in 2017. He is currently employed as a data quality support technician in the district office with a salary of $86,696.
Her granddaughter, Ciana Lucero, was hired for less than two months in 2015 to support the district's compliance with a federal audit, according to the district.
In response to the public records request, the district said last year that Hernandez-Goff "has had no supervisory, managerial or evaluative role in any aspect" of Denos' or Lucero's employment.
District attorney Janae Novotny said at Wednesday's press conference that Denos' hiring followed proper procedures, including the classified union approving the job description and salary and the school board approving his employment in a public meeting.
Hernandez-Goff's husband, Duane Goff, volunteers as a site leader for a Second Harvest Food Bank distribution program for district families.
Others have questioned the hiring of Glenda Savage, who is Board of Education Vice President Sharifa Wilson's domestic partner, as director of the Child Development Center (CDC) in 2015. Savage retired last summer after being disciplined for her handling of a student safety incident at the preschool.
Staff have also criticized the rehiring of former district employees as consultants, including former Chief Budget Officer Prima Singh and Facilities Director Mahendra Chahal, in light of a financial crisis that forced the board in February to cut more than $5 million from the budget, including many classified staff positions, to remain fiscally solvent in the coming fiscal year. The district did not respond to a request to confirm Singh's and Chahal's employment dates and salary information.
Todd Gaviglio, the former Belle Haven principal, filed a complaint against Hernandez-Goff for discriminating against administrators with young children, including by making "derogatory statements" and engaging in "practices to negatively impact their employment status," his complaint states.
"This includes bullying, denying promotions, removing people from their current jobs, and making people feel bad about having children," Gaviglio wrote.
Another administrator who has since left the district and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told the Weekly that the superintendent had suggested to her that "you're first a mother and then a principal" and that "you can't do both" jobs. The former administrator said she was notified while she was on maternity leave that she was being reassigned for the next school year.
Gaviglio and a former teacher have also accused Hernandez-Goff of inappropriately disclosing confidential personnel information. In two separate meetings with Gaviglio last March, he said she told him about job changes for two vice principals and two principals before they had been notified, according to contemporaneous notes he took.
Hans Schmitz, who taught eighth grade at Cesar Chavez Elementary School from 2015 to 2017, said he and two other teachers were told in a December meeting that a member of their grade-level team was being moved to another district prior to that teacher being notified of his job change. When he and the other teachers pushed back, Schmitz said Hernandez-Goff told the teachers that the teacher was being removed due to concerns about his performance.
She "indicated that he had not yet been informed so our meeting had to be held in confidence and could not be spoken about," Schmitz said.
Schmitz said he contacted Director of Human Resources Gina Sudaria several days later to voice his concern about the meeting. He said he was told a consultant would be contacted since the complaint was about the superintendent, whom Sudaria reports to, but he did not hear anything further after that.
Alleged misuse of district funds
Gaviglio, who was reassigned to the district office to help with a federal program audit, said the district is out of compliance in several areas that will be scrutinized by the state during the audit. He has accused of Hernandez-Goff of improperly spending federal Title I funds, which are provided to schools with high populations of low-income students.
The district budgeted $530,000 in Title I fund expenditures this year, according to a district document. Title I funds are designated for extra services, such as reading specialists or interventions, to help low-income and minority students meet state academic standards. Title I-funded programs and personnel must supplement rather than "supplant" services the district is required to provide.
Gaviglio believes the district's decision to fund library instructional-media-specialist positions at the schools with Title I dollars is inappropriate. The library instructional-media specialists support staffs' use of technology for "core curriculum," manage textbooks and curriculum and supervise the libraries, a job description states.
Gaviglio contends these are direct services that local funds should be paying for. He raised this concern in October in an email to Hernandez-Goff, Chief Budget Officer Steve Eichman and Compliance Coordinator Toni Stone. None responded, he said.
Hernandez-Goff said in a statement that the library instructional-media specialists are an "acceptable use" of Title I funds because they "provide support to students that they would otherwise not receive."
In Gaviglio's experience, the process for allocating Title I funds -- which he described as one of the best resources for a principal to improve outcomes for students -- was top-down rather than collaborative with school staff.
Gaviglio said that in his three years at Belle Haven, the district did not meet a key Title I requirement: to create and distribute a parent and family engagement policy and school-parent compact. The documents are meant to create a sense of shared responsibility between the district and parents for supporting students' academic success.
In an email shortly after his transfer to the district office, Gaviglio voiced his concern about the absence of the policy and compact to Hernandez-Goff, Stone and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Lorena Morales-Ellis. He said he did not receive a response.
Hernandez-Goff said Wednesday that recently completed site-level compacts and parent-involvement policies will be brought to the board for approval in May and then distributed to parents. An existing, district-level parent involvement policy will also be distributed at the next District Advisory Council and District-level English Learner Advisory Committee meeting in May, she said.
Numerous teachers allege that under Hernandez-Goff's disorganized and dysfunctional leadership have eroded internal processes and made it difficult to support students.
Teachers describe her leadership style as micromanaging, controlling and reactive. Grant applications have to be pre-approved by the superintendent, teachers said, and are often delayed, sometimes leading to missed opportunities. (They said the message from top is that the schools should be equal, but they argue instead for equity — giving all schools what they need to be successful rather than treating them all the same.) In one case, teachers paid their own way for an out-of-state professional development opportunity for fear it would not be approved by Hernandez-Goff in a timely manner.
Hernandez-Goff's approval is required for all travel reimbursements.
Calls from the schools to the police are closely monitored given the superintendent's concerns about protecting undocumented students and families, but this concern stretches as far as requiring, in at least one incident, that staff wait for her permission to initiate a psychiatric-hold call for a student in crisis, according to Belle Haven teacher Bronwyn Alexander. The district said that the superintendent is notified when a student is in crisis but does not give approval for a psychiatric hold.
Schmitz of Cesar Chavez said Hernandez-Goff's direction to quickly select a new literacy curriculum for the middle schools in 2015 led to a flawed selection process. Both she and teachers agreed, Schmitz said, that the district needed the new curriculum, but she didn't provide the time teachers said was required to properly vet their options.
Teachers requested to choose two curricula and pilot them in the next school year before adopting one.
Schmitz said the superintendent instead asked one principal to propose two curriculums that would be piloted immediately. She communicated through that principal to the teachers rather than responding to their concerns directly, Schmitz said. He and other teachers have described their frustration with a lack of direct communication from the superintendent, who is supposed to be their instructional leader.
A small group of teachers ultimately piloted two curriculums for three weeks each (which wasn't enough time to complete a single unit in either program, Schmitz said) and the district adopted one of them, StudySync. The next fall, teachers were instructed to treat the 2016-17 school year as a pilot year, so they could select different portions to test out.
The result was a haphazard, difficult-to-evaluate rollout, Schmitz said.
Hernandez-Goff "mandated" that more of the curriculum, including assessments, be used, causing "a lot of strife and invalid data" for teachers who were moving through the curriculum at different paces.
Poor communication, micromanagement and reactive decision-making leaves employees feeling demoralized and the district "stuck in cycles of inaction," Gaviglio alleged.
The unrest felt among teachers and staff led last spring to a "vote of no confidence" letter, signed by 143 of the district's approximate 184 teachers, calling for her resignation.
Hernandez-Goff speaks out
In her public statement Wednesday, Hernandez-Goff said she has no intention of resigning under public pressure. She characterized the public allegations as the "constant negativity of a few" and called on her critics to join rather than "stymie" her efforts to improve the district.
"For those who have opposed my every decision, I ask you this: Why do you want to keep things the same? Why do you support the status quo when clearly it has not been working?" she said. "We cannot afford to destroy another generation of children."
Hernandez-Goff cited accomplishments under her tenure: the district's exiting of a decades-long federal court mandate last year; the opening of a new comprehensive middle school last fall, which is meant to better prepare Ravenswood students for high school; and the addition of maker's spaces at every campus.
Hernandez-Goff does not appear to view her role as collaborative. In a meeting with Belle Haven staff after Gaviglio's transfer, she told them that the decision was her "prerogative as the superintendent," according to a transcription of an audio recording provided by a teacher and corroborated by others who attended the meeting.
"This is not a democracy," she told the staff. "This is your job. And I get to make those decisions."
She said Wednesday that she was firm with teachers at her first all-staff meeting when she arrived five years ago that change would be required of everyone in the coming years.
"I said to them ... I'm very happy to be here; I'm glad that you're welcoming me but let me tell you: Even if you've been doing everything right and to the best of your ability, as we move forward to make change, it's going to require everybody to change. ... because that's what reform and change is about," she said.
Come Thursday night, the district's five trustees will be in the community spotlight for their action on the superintendent's contract. One trustee, Marielena Gaona Mendoza, has been publicly vocal about her criticisms of Hernandez-Goff.
The district has not released Hernandez-Goff's proposed contract. The board approved her current three-year contract in 2015 with a starting base salary of $181,900.
Under her contract, the board is required to confidentially evaluate the superintendent's performance at least once each year "based upon terms and conditions established by the board following consultation with the superintendent."
The board can elect not to renew the employment agreement by giving written notice to Hernandez-Goff 45 days before her contract expires on June 30. If they don't do that, the contract will automatically renew for one year with the same terms and conditions.
The district has not responded to requests for information about the board's evaluation process for the superintendent.
Some parents who kept their children home on Wednesday in protest said Board President Ana Pulido's and Wilson's letter, which urged parents to instead email the board and come to board meetings to voice their discontent about the superintendent, was tone deaf.
"There have been so many opportunities for them to hear the community already," said Jena Bloomquist, whose child, a student at the 49ers Academy, stayed home on Wednesday. "How are things going to change if the board can't listen? My biggest desire is that the board would just hear the community."
Thursday's board meeting will start at 7:15 p.m. at the Costaño Elementary School gym, 2695 Fordham St., East Palo Alto.