Madrone Trail Public Charter School first-graders Evan Kremer, left, and Nicholas Brown protest their teacher’s firing in front of the school Thursday. - Bob Pennell

Parents angry over firing

At least one parent removed her children from Madrone Trail Public Charter School and two more families said they planned to withdraw students Thursday after the first-grade teacher was fired in the latest of conflicts over the governance of the primary school.

The Medford School District's first charter school, which uses Waldorf instructional methods, has been beset with turmoil since shortly after its debut last fall stemming from a power struggle between parents, teachers, the school director and the school board, parents said. The conflict reached a boiling point Thursday when parent Karolina Thompson removed her first-grader and second-grader from the school to protest first-grade teacher David Witt's termination. Other parents said they also would withdraw their children from the school, where they feel School Director Corinne Brion and board members don't give enough weight to parents' opinions in their decision-making.

"The administration wants to decide what's happening, and they don't want us involved," said parent Calleen McDonald.

A group of about 20 people gathered in the school parking lot Thursday to protest Witt's termination. Some of them held signs that said, "No More Secrets" and "Teacher fired. Why?"

Madrone Trail officials couldn't discuss reasons for firing Witt because of confidentiality laws concerning personnel. A substitute teacher will take Witt's place until the end of the school year.

The school's plans call for students to remain with the same teacher in first through eighth grades, which is characteristic of Waldorf.

Witt said in a phone interview that officials cited "insubordination" and "profanity" as the only reasons for his termination. The profanity likely referred to an incident during a faculty meeting in which he cursed as he expressed his displeasure about a lack of communication among Brion, teachers and parents, he said. Witt had recently signed a form agreeing that he and other teachers could be fired without cause.

Thompson described Witt as a kind and compassionate "Mister Rogers" character who taught her child division and multiplication. Others parents, such as Shari Wyne, said Witt had a negative outlook on life, which he couldn't disguise from the children. Her son told her he was "mean," she said. (See correction note below)

Some parents want to dissolve the school board, which they view as "secretive," and change the bylaws to allow the board to have an elected parent representative. Parents already are on the board, but they are nominated and selected by fellow board members under the school rules, a system commonly used in charter schools.

Board members and Brion said they have tried to increase communication with parents with meetings and e-mails, even answering questions from the parent council in writing. They said they do consider parental input in their decisions, but they must remain accountable to the Medford district in order to maintain their charter. The agreement calls for a director who is responsible for the success of the school, and as the responsible party, Brion must have a certain amount of authority, said Daniele Anderson, board member and parent founder.

The conflicts apparently have not put the school's existence in jeopardy, Madrone Trail officials said. While about 20 students have been withdrawn from the school, another 20 have taken their place. Not all of the departures were related to disagreements with the administrators and board members, Brion said.

Medford School District officials said Madrone Trail is responsible for solving its own problems as long as it meets conditions of its charter, which include enrollment, testing of students' reading skills and other requirements.

"We hold the charter but they govern themselves," said Rich Miles, elementary education director for Medford schools. "The way parents express dissatisfaction with the school is talking to the Madrone Trail board or withdrawing their students."

Even some of the most displeased parents praised the education their children have received at the school.

"But it's very polarized among the parents," said Wyne, whose son began attending in February. Wyne said the board has been open about giving her information about the school and reasons for its decisions.

"All of the issues we've addressed openly and in writing," Anderson said.

By most accounts the conflicts began in the fall when a committee was formed to research and recommend equipment, materials and layout for the playground.

The committee brought the board its recommendations, but school officials decided to go against their suggestions and purchase playground equipment not meant for commercial use, parents said. The playground equipment ultimately was returned because it didn't meet the standards set by the school's insurance company. The parents ultimately had their way on most of the design of the playground, but some of the bitterness continued, said Jennifer Lewis, co-chairwoman of the school's parent council.

"Some of these parents will speak to specific incidents they didn't like, but it always essentially leads to the issue that the committees don't have decision-making authority," said board member George Briggs. "They present a proposal, and the school director makes the ultimate decision. We fully understand that each decision is not going be embraced by everyone."

"Brion said she does consider the voices of parents, but sometimes the lines of communications are entangled. It's natural in that some parts of the school are still being established, and there is a lot of decision-making," she said.

"We don't feel parents aren't heard," Brion said. "We feel we do work as a team."

Witt said the board also didn't give the teachers the autonomy that is customary in Waldorf education. Typically, Waldorf teachers decide what happens in their classroom and as a group are responsible for all firing and hiring.

"Part of the problem was teachers were not able to let go of the college-of-teachers concept from Waldorf and realize this is a charter school," Lewis said. "The other problem is the board has presented the attitude: 'By God you are going to do what we say because we're the board.' There was no seeing the other side."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly paraphrased a parent's comments about teacher David Witt. This version has been corrected.

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