In March 2014, teachers and parents of Harriet Tubman Village Charter School filed into a school board meeting to plead their case.

Aimee Nimtz, president of the school’s parent-teacher committee, led the charge. Tubman teachers, in matching blue shirts, clasped hands behind her.

Parents and teachers could stand no more of the school’s divisive leadership and high teacher turnover, Nimtz told the board. One by one, teachers backed her story. The principal was such a bully, staff members said, one teacher suffered a stress-induced seizure, complications from which she later died. Something had to change.

That night, the charter was up for renewal, a kind of review process that happens every few years. School board members look at the school’s test scores, and see whether school leaders are keeping the promises they laid out in the school’s founding document. If so, the school stays open. If not, the charter can be revoked.

Defending herself, Lidia Scinski, then-principal, told the school board: “I cannot apologize for putting children first, because that is what I signed up to do.”

Scinski pointed to the teachers union as the source of trouble. Unlike most charter schools, Tubman teachers are unionized. Scinski accused the union – the San Diego Education Association, or SDEA – of disrupting harmony by planting toxic messages.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

“Imagine how much more our little, little tiny charter school could accomplish if we weren’t under constant and vicious attacks from SDEA,” Scinski said.

On paper, the College Area school looked good, especially for a school that primarily serves low-income students. Enrollment was up. Test scores had risen above the district average. Among similar schools, Tubman ranked at the academic top tier.

The charter didn’t meet the grounds for revocation; it was cleared for another five years.

But the school board did shake things up. It exercised a rarely used right to appoint someone to sit on the school’s governing board, hoping it would improve accountability. That action would have a major impact.

Nimtz seemed just the right fit. On top of being president of the parent-teacher committee, she had two daughters at the school and good relationships with teachers.

After Nimtz joined the board, she and her colleagues threw two other board members out. The board also removed Scinski, the principal. A new one, Jeffery Moore, took her place.

For a moment, things looked up. But it wasn’t long before the same old complaints emerged, this time attached to a new name: Nimtz.

‘Exactly the Same as the Principal She Helped Fire’

A recent letter from San Diego Unified to Tubman sums up the last year, one the district categorizes as a “systemic failure of leadership.”

The district appointed Nimtz to sit on the charter school board in April 2014.

“Since that appointment, Ms. Nimtz has become board president, unilaterally made herself the CEO and taken control of the daily operations of the school,” wrote a staff member from the district’s charter school office.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson
An empty hallway at Harriet Tubman Village Charter School.

Nimitz also fired Moore, a principal who’d been at the school less than a year. He’s contesting the legality of that dismissal, on the grounds that Nimtz and fellow board members violated public meeting laws.

Moore told me Nimtz was meddling in school business, instructing teachers how to lead class, even coming into school to discipline kids. Moore said that after he complained, Nimtz moved to get him dismissed.

Christina Boyd, who resigned from the board after clashing with Nimtz, backs up Moore’s account: Nimtz had gone too far.

The irony is striking. In 2014, teachers and parents complained about a principal who micromanaged classrooms, bullied staff and turned over teachers. Fast-forward a year, and parents and educators are complaining that a rogue board member is micromanaging classrooms, dismissing teachers and bullying staff.

“Nimtz’s style is exactly the same as the principal she helped fire,” said Boyd.

What’s Next

On a stroll through Tubman’s campus, the scene belies the drama that’s unfolded in the past year. Little kids, there for summer school, seem happy and comfortable. The campus is tidy, and a cute, well-used library is stocked with computers and books.

A new principal, Barney Wilson, has been hired. He inherits the school’s baggage, and is faced with the daunting task of turning around its reputation.

Not that Wilson is fazed. He’s tall and cool, disciplined and trained in martial arts. More importantly, perhaps, he’s from Baltimore. Any problems Tubman is facing seem like small potatoes next to schools he worked in there.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson
Barney Wilson and Aimee Nimtz, pictured in June 2015

“Are students happy? Yes. Are they learning? Yes. Does the school’s structure need additional supports? Sure. But it’s already got the most important elements working for it,” said Wilson.

Nimtz also dismisses complaints. She and other board members have made mistakes, she concedes, but the school’s problems are fixable.

“It’s easy to play Monday-morning quarterback, but we did the best we could to get the school through a tough year,” she said. “Tubman’s biggest problem is Tubman. There were problems before this year, and there will likely be problems after this year.”

In the past, Nimtz said, too much power rested with the school’s principal. Moving forward, she said, the board will set policy and governance, but the principal will lead daily operations.

Nimtz acknowledges that in the past year she’s stepped in to make day-to-day decisions, something that’s relatively rare for a board member. But she said the school’s bylaws allowed for that when leadership is in flux.

“I didn’t come in and say give me this duty or else. It was out of necessity,” Nimtz said.

The district found it problematic. The district’s charter school office has given Tubman a “not-in-good-standing” status, which can be a precursor to revocation of the charter. But revocation is messy and expensive. The district has to find new schools for kids, learning is lost while they settle in – not to mention money the district invested in the charter school.

The charter school office has recommended a series of changes at Tubman, including one to dismantle the current governing board and create a new one. Nimtz plans to expand the charter board, but has no plans to step down as board chair.

The charter school office can’t force Tubman to actually implement all of its recommendations. By definition, charter schools are autonomous, freed from the rules that bind most district schools.

The charter school office, as an oversight branch of the district, doesn’t get involved in daily operations at the school. So when disgruntled parents call the district, asking them to address problems at Tubman, the district is in an awkward position.

“Our job is not to step on the shoes of the school and operate it,” said Susan Park, a program manager in the district’s charter school office.

In order for Tubman to thrive, it will have to shake off its image as a problem child. For all the school’s conflicts, and regardless of who is to blame, a charter school’s reputation is its most important currency.

If parents perceive that a charter is in chaos, they’re likely to pull their kids out of school and enroll them elsewhere. Funding follows kids out the door. With a cash-strapped budget, schools are less likely to meet their financial obligations, or deliver for kids academically.

Nimtz and Wilson are optimistic they can pull it off.

“I think we finally have all the pieces in place to pull Tubman out of the spotlight for the negative things, and put it into the spotlight for its positives,” said Nimtz.

    This article relates to: Charter Schools, Education, Must Reads

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    11 comments
    mlaiuppa
    mlaiuppa subscriber

    The teachers of Tubman unionized specifically because of the bullying of the principal. And the principal fired the union rep right after that even though she was a highly effective teacher. She didn't know her place and dared to defy the principal but organizing the teachers to join the union. The union's sole job is to protect the rights of teachers under their contract. If the principal was violating that contract, then it was the job of the union to protect the teachers. If the principal is complaining about the union, that's a red flag. 


    You cannot put students first by putting teachers last and disrespecting them. 


    Sounds like they got rid of King Louis only to end up with Napoleon. 


    A shining example that a school is more than it's test scores. 


    This school met it's criteria and is still dysfunctional. It's amazing any teaching and learning happens in such an environment. 


    Just another example of the amateurs running the show and telling the professionals how to do their jobs. 

    Troy Murphree
    Troy Murphree

    @mlaiuppa Not one board member has any educational training.  The one who did left due to the dysfunction.


    francesca
    francesca subscriber

    Checks and Balances:  Counterbalancing influences by which an organization  or system is regulated, typically those ensuring that political power is not concentrated in the hands of an individual or groups.

    It does seem, that since the school district grants the charter, that the district should have some regulatory position in supervising charter schools.

    As it stands, due to laws written by irresponsible, politically biased groups, these schools are only regulated by the very biased school site boards.  Many of the charter board members in San Diego, sit on more than one schools site board. 

    In the case of Tubman, a very unprofessional and punitive principal was unleashed on the teachers.  Most board members were personal friends and supporters of Ms. Scinski, so she ran the school like a dictator.

    Checks and Balances could only be applied by the district,  when she violated the Brown Act, regarding conducting open meetings and keeping adequate minutes of meetings.  Also the school district checked into charges of erasing test answers and changing them to improve scores. 


    Another charter school ran into difficulty this week.


    Old Town Academy...which has been frequently written about in VOSD as a model of a good charter.


    The school site board there, hired a corporation in Livermore, CA to run the administrative position in the school.


    Maureen Magee had an interesting story about this in the UT, saying, POLICE CALLED, PARENTS KEPT OFF CAMPUS, LAWSUITS AND THE PRINCIPAL FIRED.


    Problem with the whole concept of charter schools, inadequate oversight, ensuring that political power is concentrated in the hands of too few.

     

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    I don't know if I ever called OTA a model of anything, @francesca. I did write favorably of its instruction. The problems at OTA were around its governance structure, not its teaching and learning. What I wrote at the end of this story about Tubman, holds true for OTA as well: the school is taking steps to restore order, and now it also needs to protect its image and reputation. Time will tell if it's successful on that end.


    It's not quite accurate to say the district doesn't have any regulatory power. The district visits charter schools once a year, more in cases like Tubman, which generate complaints. The district's charter school office monitors charters' financial and academic data, and can move toward revocation if problems arise which charters don't take action to fix. What the district doesn't do is step in and get involved in daily operations at a school. If it were to, then it would really switch from being the authorizer to the operator. And at that point, it really wouldn't even be a charter school anymore.  

    francesca
    francesca subscriber

    @Mario Koran

    Yes, I think I did say that the district could step in when charters violate the Brown Act or have complaints, (and photos) of tests being altered to improve scores, and visit "once a year."  Very limited oversight...

    "Problems around it's governance structure" at Old Town Academy?

    I think I read that the solution was to use a professional charter corporation to run the administrative duties at the school, a corporation in Livermore, CA...but who made that decision?  Will they send their corporate principal here?

    A tale of two schools, Tubman and  OTA, left in chaos, by lack of school district support, due to the way the charter law was written, district support that could handle these problems, before they negatively impact the children.

    Police presence, parents locked out, legal challenges, a principal fired, control turned over to a corporation hundreds of miles away...That has to frighten the children.

    Kathleen Schoening
    Kathleen Schoening

    The corporation OTA hired, Tri Valley Learning Corporation is not liked by all. Check out "Friends of TVLC" Facebook page.

    Troy Murphree
    Troy Murphree

    @francesca @Mario Koran Tubman is  paying out a lot to the Charter Management Corporation and to its attorneys, 

    YOUNG, MINNEY & CORR, LLP

    Sacramento, CA. 95825

    Phone: 916.646.1400

    Cell: 916.662.0822

    Fax: 916.646.1300


    It is to their benefit to support and befriend whoever is in power and they do.  First it was Principal Scinski, now it is Ms Nimtz. There is an open communication line between Nimtz and Stroud that no other board members are allowed.   That money would be going to the students if the school were run in an open, professional, and  democratic manner.  



    Jane Ferguson
    Jane Ferguson subscriber

    No one person should have absolute power over what happens at this school.  All of the decisions  made will be based on her personal preferences and what she wants for her own children  I can't imagine how or why this has been allowed, and why the district cannot step in and end the dictatorship.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    Mario doesn't mention it in the article, but is Ms. Nezbit a credentialed teacher or administrator? I thought Charters had the right to ask teachers to give up their union affiliations in order to be hired?  If the teachers at this school did not give up their union affiliation then the school and their board have to follow the contract that the district signed with the union. I still don't understand how the union is to blame for this mess.


    In this day of teacher bashing why anyone would want to become a teacher is beyond me. I can just see where an experienced teacher is teaching a lesson and in walks a board member and demands that the teacher change their lesson and how it is taught. Ya, that's a good one. 

    Mario Koran
    Mario Koran author

    @richard brick No, Aimee Nimitz isn't a credentialed teacher or administrator, which is some of what's driven the complaints. The school has a relatively high number of first and second year teachers, so even if though the contract with the union is recognized, teachers still on probationary status don't have the same protections as those afforded permanent status employees. Still, there are complaints that the appropriate dismissal process haven't been followed, some of which is being litigated. 

    mlaiuppa
    mlaiuppa subscriber

    @richard brick When this charter started it was an at will charter. It was only after several years of abuse by the former principal that the teachers organized and voted to join the union. Just because they are in a charter they do not give up there right to organize.