A group of Eureka High School students and teachers showed up to last night’s meeting of the Eureka City Schools Board of Trustees to confront the board and Superintendent Fred Van Vleck over their management of the district.
Taking turns at the microphone, the students lamented the recent and abrupt departure of several beloved educators, and they urged the board to remove Van Vleck, saying his bullying of staff has created a climate of fear. When Board Chair Lisa Ollivier responded with a prepared statement about how recent events are being “interpreted,” the students collectively groaned and jeered before walking out of the meeting.
Many of them wound up sticking around, though, waiting in the hallway or outside the district office for more than an hour while the board met in closed session. And when the meeting resumed, more attendees, including two Eureka City Council members, stood up to address the board, urging its members to take this crisis of faith seriously and to ensure that students feel heard and appreciated.
The board, for its part, defended recent accomplishments of district staff and leadership, pointing to the adoption of a new strategic plan and increased test scores at nearly all of its eight schools sites.
They also tied the recent resignation of Eureka High Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Ed Sonia to his alleged failure to promptly notify the administration about the November 2 arrest of volunteer basketball coach Nathan Hentley on child sex charges.
Despite the public outcry, the board stood firmly behind their superintendent. Just last month they unanimously approved a new four-year employment contract for Van Vleck, giving him a base salary of more than $246,000 plus retirement, health and welfare benefits and cost-of-living increases.
In the prepared statement, Ollivier said, “We are proud of the impact Fred has made over the past 10-plus years, and we look forward to working with Dr. Van Vleck in the years to come.”
Students, teachers and their supporters gathered outside the district office ahead of the meeting. A portable table was set up on the sidewalk, and the assembled crowd ate snacks and sipped hot chocolate from styrofoam cups while talking among themselves and waiting for the meeting’s 5:15 start time.
Twice in the past two weeks, hundreds of Eureka High students have walked out of class in protest, marching the two blocks from EHS’s main entrance to the district office to wave signs and shout messages to the administrators inside. Van Vleck has yet to directly address the students’ concerns, deferring media inquiries to Interim Eureka High School Principal Rob Standish.
When last night’s meeting finally got under way, Ollivier announced that public input would be limited to 20 minutes, with a strict three minutes allotted to each speaker. She asked the audience to refrain from cheering or clapping because it would count against the 20-minute running clock.
The first student to address the board was junior Jordan Phanh, who spoke about the departure of former teacher and athletic director Kristina Christiansen, who resigned last year and is now suing Eureka City Schools for harassment, a hostile work environment, sexual discrimination and retaliation.
“She claimed to have informed the Eureka City District about the issue, but no action was taken,” Phanh said, adding that district employees don’t feel supported or respected. He also spoke to Christiansen’s impact on him and other students in Eureka High’s AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program.
“She was more than just our teacher,” he said. “She was our supporter, our mentor and our biggest motivator.”
Phanh alleged that the board had contradicted its stated values and misused its power, leading to a widespread lack of trust in their leadership. He then addressed the superintendent.
“There is an apparent trend seen,” he said. “That trend is the resignation of our admin after having a direct conversation with Mr. Van Vleck. This is a trend that cannot be ignored.” He said Van Vleck needs to receive training on how to behave with employees and should have someone else present whenever engaging in direct conversations with them.
“If Mr. Van Vleck cannot comply with this or any of the suggested solutions today then I am confident that students will continue to voice and protest until Mr. Van Vleck resigns from his position.”
Throughout the meeting, Van Vleck sat behind a table stage right, his whiskered chin slightly raised, his face stoney and inscrutable.
Senior Sidney Madsen also spoke about the toll that recent staff departures have had, saying Sonia’s abrupt resignation was particularly painful because “he didn’t even say goodbye or even clean out his office — other people did it for him.”
Yet another district employee, instructional aide and assistant athletic director Cara Heddinger, had just resigned earlier in the day, and Madsen said many students were in tears because of it. AP Biology and Chemistry teacher Rebecca Baugh, meanwhile, has stepped into the assistant principal position left vacant by Sonia’s departure, and Madsen said her departure from the classroom has negatively impacted student achievement.
“And being in that class now feels like distance learning again,” she said. “There’s no connection anymore. There’s no motivation.” Grades have gone down and students are suffering from the removal of educators with whom they’ve built relationships, she added.
Junior Nicola Costanzo brought up a change.org petition to remove Van Vleck, which has garnered more than 600 signatures.
“As a community we’ve done all that we can do,” Costanzo said. “We’ve mourned. We’ve fought. We’ve protested. So now we call on you. Ultimately, the decision to remove Fred Van Vleck isn’t in our hands; it’s in yours.”
Jenica Huddleston, associated student body treasurer, quoted from the Eureka City Schools governance handbook, saying the board has fallen short of its mandates to promote good decision-making and create the best learning opportunities for all students.
“I can firmly say, on behalf of the students, that we do not feel that we are in a positive culture, and there has not been good decision making and policy,” Huddleston said.
The tide of public commentary briefly shifted as former EHS principal Jennifer Johnson, who recently took a job in the district office, addressed the board on behalf of herself and the instructional side of the executive team. She defended that team and “our leader, Fred Van Vleck,” saying they are passionate about students and firmly on “team Eureka City Schools.”
She said the district has implemented a variety of positive measures in recent years — bringing in instructional coaches and delivering professional development, for example — and was gaining traction until the pandemic hit. At that point, the district had to pivot, “and Eureka City Schools did that better than any district locally,” Johnson said.
The executive team supports the strategic vision put forward by the board, she said, adding, “We are excited about the direction and steps our superintendent and cabinet have taken to support our work in increasing student achievement.”
However, faculty support is not unanimous. Teacher and former coach Garett Montana, for example, spoke about the inspiring impact that late EHS coach Ray Mechals had on him and said this generation of students is having their role models taken away from them.
The assembled crowd largely ignored Ollivier’s request to refrain from clapping, and Montana’s comments earned an enthusiastic round of cheers.
Fellow teacher Tim Olson, a 27-year district employee, said teachers and students have tried to sound the alarm, “but it’s not getting through.”
“We met with Fred,” he continued. “We talked with Fred. We said, ‘Fred? This management style ain’t working.’”
He said the district can’t afford to lose people like Christiansen, Sonia and former teacher and coach Ron Perry, who is now principal of
Six Rivers Charter High School Arcata High School.
“Those are all winners,” Olson said. “Where are they? They’re making somewhere else great. They’re not making us great. They changed lives. And why are they going? Why is it common knowledge in this county that people don’t want to work at Eureka City Schools?”
With that, the 20-minute public comment window had closed, and Ollivier pulled out a sheet of paper and began to read the board’s prepared statement. She thanked people for attending and said the board values public involvement. The room sat quietly as she read until she said, “Please know that the board is very aware of recent events and how they’re being interpreted.”
As the students loudly stood and began filing out of the room, Ollivier beseeched them to stay.
“Please wait,” she said into her microphone. “We listened to you. Please stay and hear this out.”
About half of the crowd in attendance left as she continued reading. She addressed Sonia’s resignation, saying he had failed to notify Van Vleck, Interim Principal Standish or Human Resources about Hentley’s recent arrest.
“That’s a lie,” someone from the audience called out. After the meeting, both Olson and Heddinger told the Outpost that Sonia did, in fact, notify Standish about Hentley’s arrest. We caught up to Standish in the hallway of the administrative building to ask if that was true and he said he’d been “kept out of the loop on that.” A phone call and text to Sonia Friday morning were not returned before this post was published.
Continuing her statement, Ollivier said that when Van Vleck confronted Sonia about his “failure to communicate,” Sonia was insulted and resigned on the spot.
“Frankly,” Ollivier said, “the board and Dr. Van Vleck were surprised by such an overreaction, and we were very disappointed that the former AD did not view this as a learning opportunity.”
She went on to say that Van Vleck is increasing his involvement with a student stakeholders group, and she expressed pride in his work before adjourning to closed session.
The meeting was scheduled to resume at 6:30 p.m. but the board didn’t reconvene until 6:54. Following a report from Student Board Member Sadie Smith, public comment was resumed, and more students expressed their concerns.
As did Leah Gee, a former district employee and mother of a Eureka High student. She chastised the board for reading a statement that chalked up the controversy to misinterpretations, a statement that had clearly been prepared before the students spoke. Gee said it came across as dismissive and left the students crying in the hall.
A couple of students echoed that sentiment, saying it feels like the board isn’t really listening.
Eureka City Councilmember Scott Bauer thanked the board for their public service and suggested that they should have extended the original public comment period beyond the 20-minute limit as a means of encouraging young people to participate in the public process.
Fellow Councilmember and Mayor-Elect Kim Bergel said the board’s pre-written response made the kids feel devalued and failed to convey the gravity of the situation. She also suggested that the meeting should have been televised given its importance.
The Outpost reached out to Van Vleck via email on Thursday morning, passing along a list of the questions and concerns that have been expressed recently and asking him to reply before noon today. He did not.
Instead, his executive assistant, Micalyn Harris, issued the following press release this afternoon:
Statement by Eureka City Schools Governing Board
Provided by Board President Lisa Ollivier on Behalf of the Governing Board
November 18, 2022 - On behalf of the Board, thank you to those who attended the Eureka City School’s Board Meeting last night to express your support and/or concern regarding the direction of the District. We respect those who took the time out of their schedules to attend last night’s meeting. We value public involvement in our District.
We recognize the impact on our students due to the immediate resignation of the former Assistant Principal in charge of athletics (AD). The former AD had positive relationships with many of our high school staff and students. While a normal transition period would have been beneficial to our students and coaches, it was not an option, due to the AD’s sudden resignation.
We support Interim EHS Principal Rob Standish in his recommendation of Omar Khattab, a long-time Eureka City School’s employee and former Athletic Director, to fill the position of Assistant Principal in charge of athletics.
To ensure our students and their needs are addressed, two of our Board members, along with Superintendent Van Vleck and EHS Assistant Principal Baugh, met with Student Board Member Smith to learn more about the high school students’ feelings with the AD’s resignation. Additionally, we actively listened to the perspective of the students who addressed the Board last night.
Dr. Van Vleck is expanding his quarterly work with the Eureka High School Superintendent’s Student Stakeholders Group (SSSG) to include a Student Board Member led ThoughtExchange opportunity for all EHS students. (ThoughtExchange is known for allowing students to voice their thoughts and deliver the best solutions to our most pressing challenges.) The results of this work will help guide our direction forward.
As a Board, we have one employee, our Superintendent, Dr. Fred Van Vleck. We are proud of the impact Fred has made over the past 10+ years, and we look forward to working with Dr. Van Vleck in the years to come.
[CORRECTION: This post has been updated to remove an erroneous buy-out figure for Van Vleck’s contract.]