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Former Administrators Resign

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Patzer, Woolnough quit in wake of reassignments

 

Almost two weeks ago Patty Patzer, former principal of the Lake Pend Oreille Alternative High School, walked into the district's administrative office and handed over her resignation. "I cannot work for those two men," Patzer said. "My integrity will not allow it." And just last Friday, former SHS principal A.C. Woolnough announced he's accepted a position in Bethel, Alaska and will be leaving immediately. 

Both administrators were reassigned earlier this year as part of what the district called necessary financial restructuring in response to a shortfall in next year's budget. Both protested their moves and requested hearings before the board of trustees. Woolnough's hearing was allowed - Patzer's was not. After his hearing, the board upheld the decision to move Woolnough from his administrative position to a job teaching in a juvenile probation facility.

One of the two men Patzer referred to is board chairman Tom Scott, who accused Patzer in a newspaper interview of possible "laziness, sloppiness (or) negligence" regarding attendance records at the school - that same article characterized attendance recording at the school as "cooking the books." Scott later apologized for his remarks, and said attendance problems played no role in Patzer's reassignment this year to a new, at-risk program in the district, a reassignment the board and administration say was nothing more than a budgetary consideration. Administration has said the creation of the new program could bring in approximately $185,000 in revenue to the financially troubled district.

The second man Patzer referred to is Chief Administrator Steve Battenschlag, whose actions in reassigning several district administrators this spring have resulted in his own position coming under fire from the public, despite staunch support from the board. "How could I ever trust that man?" Patzer asked.

It all began back in 1996, with the support of then-Superintendent Max Harrell. Patzer submitted a plan to the State Department of Education to move to a four-day school week at the Alternative High School. The plan, which gave students the opportunity to utilize Fridays for learning outside the classroom, was approved and accepted by then-State Superintendent Anne Fox.

"We were trying to give students an opportunity to apply their learning in real-life practicums," Patzer explained. By voluntarily (and unanimously) donating extra time, giving up their contracted planning periods, staff were able to provide additional instructional hours in the first four days of the week, leaving Fridays available for student projects, while still meeting state attendance requirements.

The alternative high school has been noted for putting student educational needs at a higher priority than in a standardized, typical high school setting – hence the designation as “alternative.”

“We never wanted to interrupt student learning,” explained LPO teacher Eric Schneider. “Fifty minute class periods were never the important issue. If a student was “getting it,” we wouldn’t stop teaching just because the bell rang.”

"I had nothing to do with how funding was accomplished through the central office," Patzer said. "I knew the state was accepting how we met our 990 hour requirement."

In 1999, Superintendent Harrell met with the school's secretary, Jean Austin, to develop procedures for use with the district’s Schoolmaster program- a computerized attendance program used at all schools. "They talked about making sure we were paid for the correct student hours and the packet program we were providing," Patzer said. Because Schoolmaster reporting follows a traditional schedule, there were problems in adjusting to differing timelines. “Back then, it appeared we were under-reporting.”

When Harrell was replaced as Superintendent by Roy Rummler, Patzer said, "I began to get comments from Battenschlag, who was then business manager, that he did not like our four-day week. It wasn't until the next year that we heard anything about the district's auditors not understanding our situation."

The auditors visited the school on a conference day, when only 15 students were present. "Somehow the auditor came to think that all our Fridays only addressed 15 students. I called the auditor, and explained (what we'd been doing)."

Shortly thereafter, Patzer received a positive evaluation for her job performance from Superintendent Rummler. It was the last evaluation she would receive.

In June, Patzer changed the master schedule at the school to include a revolving set of classes for all students on Friday mornings. This was done, she said, "because Battenschlag's attitude concerned me." In order to maintain some of the original intent of the program, some students were still allowed to job shadow or do community service work on Fridays. "This was submitted in the new application, along with schedules," explained Patzer. Again, the application was approved by the state.

In addition, Patzer was communicating frequently with Tom Farley, Bureau Chief for Federal Programs at the State Department of Education, trying to determine how best to report the school's non-traditional schedule within the confines of Schoolmaster. Farley stated both Patzer and the district "were always easy to work with, and would accept and respond to my guidance." He also stated, "I do know that the school was working diligently to serve kids - and that's what it's all about."

Patzer says she was never informed of any "major findings" in the district audits regarding attendance reporting at her school, (nor were any such findings listed in the audit reports made available to the public) but she did begin to hear rumors. "It worried me," she said. Four times, she brought up concerns at district administrative meetings that her program did not align with Schoolmaster. She also informed administration that her secretary was working as receptionist, bookkeeper, secretary and attendance person for the school. "I tried to explain that attendance can be a full-time job for at-risk students, especially with the complexities introduced by Schoolmaster, and we needed additional help to make certain attendance was done daily. In front of witnesses, Battenschlag promised to get us help."

That help never came, so once again, the alternative school's staff stepped into the breach. "The staff met after school each day to check attendance reports. Our motive was to be certain of accuracy."

At those meetings, staff would discover attendance mistakes. Austin would sometimes mark students truant when she would see them leaving the campus; yet many times those students were actually leaving for a scheduled class outside the school grounds. "When the teacher returned and met with us after school, we could catch those kinds of mistakes."

Still, Patzer was continuing to hear rumors that Battenschlag had concerns with her program; and Battenschlag was now acting as Chief Administrator for the district.

In May of 2001, Patzer gave up. "I told them I was tired of trying to make Friday school work, that it was too complicated.”

Patzer thought the attendance problem was solved, but on the eve of her wedding, she learned differently. "I was sitting at Swan's Landing when (a district employee) said they heard I was in trouble with Steve Battenschlag and the board. I ran Battenschlag to earth that night, and he blew up, yelling that he hated the rumor mill and that if teachers in this district didn't stop their vicious gossip, many of them were going to be fired. I told him that if I was doing something wrong to just tell me, and I would fix it. He reiterated over and over that I had his total support."

By fall of 2001, however, Patzer learned that a vice-principal had been assigned to her school. "I was surprised because she had not finished her training, nor had she begun her internship," Patzer said. "But I was assured that she needed my expertise (with at-risk youth) and that this would provide extra help for Jean as the vice-principal came with her own personal secretary." Indeed, with two people spending much of their time tracking attendance, and with the reduced complexity through changing the master schedule, there were no attendance "errors"in 2001/2002. 

The rumors then suggested the vice-principal, Becky Kiebert, was slated to take over Patzer's position. Patzer says she called Battenschlag several times to ask if this was true, and he again told her it was "the rumor mill."

By February this year, the rumors were so pervasive that 95% of the staff got together and wrote a letter of support for Patzer as principal and for the alternative program itself. Battenschlag came to the school to assure staff that nobody's job was at risk. He reversed that promise in May, when he asked Patzer to meet with him and told her she was being moved.

"He gave me a letter and told me I needed to sign it if I wanted a job come fall," Patzer stated. Amongst other things, the letter, which read as if Patzer herself had written it, stated "I have extreme mood swings and agree to counseling." The letter also required Patzer to take a full battery of heart tests, due to a previous problem with stress-related endocarditis.

"I told him this just wasn't true, and I refused to sign the letter," Patzer said. Battenschlag went on, she said, to tell her that attendance issues at her school had almost cost him his job. "I told him that I wanted to stay at LPO; that nobody loves these kids as much as I do," Patzer said. She says he responded with the comment, "Lady, I'm not asking you (to leave), I'm telling you."

"By this time, I realized he was setting me up," she explained. Already she was hearing new rumors, this time that she personally had been absent over 50 days from the school. "Altogether, the records show I missed 20 days, which used my personal days and my accumulated sick days." Patzer now hears a rumor that she instructed her secretary not to report when she was absent. This was the final straw.

Patzer says she's at a loss as to why this has happened. "I took the school nobody wanted, and the students who weren't succeeding in a traditional setting, and built a successful program," she said. "And my students do well." The love she feels for her students is obvious.

Battenschlag had no comment, as "personnel issues are out of bounds and serve no constructive purpose."

In a letter to the editor, the board has said they are, “(becoming) intolerant of efforts by some to constantly tear the district and its employees down in an attempt to keep us mired in the past.” They go on to state they are committed to, “a central focus on doing what is best for kids.” Supporters of Patzer challenge the board that their decision to move her is hardly “doing what is best for kids.”

Publicly, the board and Battenschlag have said they want those same skills Patzer used to build a successful alternative high school program to be put to use developing a new program for the district targeted for at-risk kids. "I'm not a special education person, and that's basically what this new position is," she said of her decision to resign. "I'm an intervention specialist, not a therapist. Besides," Patzer added, "it takes so much energy to build a program. (For LPO) I begged, scrimped and pleaded. For years, I spent $200 a month of my own money to make this school work. I'm not going to build another program from the ground up for them."

In addition, Patzer no longer feels she can trust either the administration or the board. "Where will they get this money (to build this program)?" she asked. "That question was never answered. There's not a building, not any computers, not any desks." Battenschlag told Patzer he would re-write the federal drug-free schools grant in order to fund the program, but "I refused to be a part of that. The existing grant is what was okayed by the committee, not some new grant." In response to her refusal, she said, Battenschlag told her, "You'd better understand who's running this show."

Scott stated that Patzer, herself, had done nothing toward getting this program off the ground but, she responded, "I wasn't hired to create the program, just to run it. A building and a program should have been in place."

Leonard Parenteau, superintendent at the time Patzer was hired and currently serving as a school board trustee in Priest River, said he was "disappointed to hear," of Patzer's resignation. "She contributed so much to that program over the years and had such an effect on so many children in a positive way. "If we had a vacancy here," he added, "and the decision were up to me, I'd hire her in a heartbeat."

Battenschlag has said the day-treatment program will continue despite Patzer's resignation. Despite the stated necessity of moving Patzer out of LPO and into this program, while hiring a new principal to take over the school, the district will now allow Becky Kiebert to work as both principal of LPO, and head of this new program.

 

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Landon Otis

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education, Lake Pend Oreille School District, funding, AC Woolnough, Patty Patzer

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