For the second time in as many years, Palo Alto Unified art teachers, students and parents are protesting the consolidation of a district-level art position, a decision they said was made without consulting those who would be impacted by it.
Superintendent Don Austin announced in a weekly message earlier this month that the district's secondary-level art coordinator and music coordinator roles are being merged into one visual and performing arts coordinator.
"Throughout the school year, we have been reviewing our district's organizational structure, including the arts, to identify areas in which we can make student experiences more consistent and coherent," he wrote. "By reallocating funds from administration into classroom art instruction, we are able to establish consistency of art instruction for elementary students."
The change will save the district about $100,000, according to Austin. The current music coordinator, Nancy Coffey, will become the visual and performing arts coordinator.
In 2017, Austin's predecessor, Max McGee, faced backlash after proposing during budget reductions that the district cut a visual arts coordinator position, which oversaw the elementary schools' SPECTRA art program and staff, and give that person's responsibilities to a coordinator in charge of both music and physical education. The proposal, opposed by the board at the time, was prompted by the retirement of the former longtime art coordinator, Sharon Ferguson. The district hired Li Ezzel to replace her.
Mark Gleason, a longtime Gunn High School arts teacher, told the school board Tuesday night that Austin's decision has placed the arts department in a "state of alarming distrust" and "fear for our subject area."
"This episode makes our leaders seem as if they are oblivious to the people they are trying to serve," he said, adding that neither he nor his colleagues had previously met or spoken with Austin. "Some foresight in communication about proposed changes to structure ... would have gone a long way."
Gleason told the Weekly that he and other visual arts teachers first learned about the reorganization in an email from Ezzel on April 10. Ezzel informed them that "there will be a re-structuring, and that he will not be included," Gleason said.
Soon after, Ezzel was placed on administrative leave and teachers were told by their instructional supervisor not to contact him, Gleason said. Austin confirmed this and said that Ezzel has since resigned but declined to comment further. On his resignation letter, signed Feb. 26 and effective June 30, Ezzel marked "personal" as his reason for resigning.
The news generated such "unrest," Gleason said, that teachers considered boycotting the district's annual K-12 youth art show at the Palo Alto Arts Center but they ultimately decided against it.
Speakers emphasized at the board meeting, like they did two years ago, the need for specialized leadership in the visual arts, a program that provides everything from glass blowing at the high schools to ceramics at the middle schools. Gunn junior Jocelyn Wang, a graphic illustrator and artist, described the art coordinator as the "backbone" of the program and the "bridge between our peers, parents and mentors."
Paul Gralen, who teaches art, ceramics and sculpture at Greene Middle School, said the fact that the school has four kilns is a "mark of a program that places high value on visual arts leadership.
"None of this would have been possible without the sustained and disciplined commitment of a specific leader in the visual arts, he said.
In an interview Wednesday, Austin said Chief Academic Officer of Elementary Education Anne Brown and Nancy Coffey brought the consolidation proposal to him. They have since met with groups of teachers to discuss the change, he said.
"Arts have been, currently are and will continue to be a supported, necessary, vital part of our district," Austin said. "I wouldn't read anything into this other than we found a different way to provide administrative services."
Under the reorganization of the arts department, a new part-time elementary-level lead arts teacher will provide "increased support" to other instructors and develop K-5 art curricula, Austin wrote in his message. A part-time theater integration specialist will help teachers to incorporate theater art skills into core curricula.
At the middle and high schools, a secondary steering committee will continue to provide support to the art departments.
"This model is consistent with the way we handle all secondary disciplines, none of which have a subject-specific coordinator at the district level," Austin wrote.
Coffey told the Weekly that there's a "misconception" about the change, which she described as consolidating all of the arts-related administrative responsibilities under one person, freeing up staff at the school level to focus on instruction and professional development.
"That's exciting in that we're removing a district office position and putting it into the classroom to work directly with teachers," she said. "I think that hasn't been said enough."
Because the art coordinator issue was not on the board's agenda on Tuesday, board members could not respond to speakers.