Families rally around a beloved school teacher

Joleen McCauley, a Chautauqua teacher, has gotten a pink slip three years in a row. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Joleen McCauley, a Chautauqua teacher, has gotten a pink slip three years in a row.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

Editor's note: A day before this story was published in the newspaper, but too late for the press deadline, Joleen McCauley learned that she was being reinstated. She accepted the position and will return to Chautauqua as a teacher in the multi-age program.

For the third year in a row, Joleen McCauley doesn’t know if she’ll be returning as a teacher to the Vashon Island School District this fall.

As the district’s newest teacher, she’s in the unenviable position of being lowest on the ladder — the one who gets “riffed” if a budget shortfall necessitates layoffs. Last year, she was let go only to be rehired five days before the school year began. The year before, she was “riffed” and brought back with three days’ notice.

Now, as the district and its new foundation scramble to raise enough money to make up a significant shortfall, her job — this year as a teacher at Chautauqua — once again hangs in the balance.

But McCauley, a tall, striking woman who by her own admission has a sunny disposition, says there’s an upside to her professional precariousness. Parents, friends, even several of her young students are doing all they can to ensure she returns in the fall.

“That has felt really great, to feel so much support,” she said, smiling broadly.

Indeed, as the wife of celebrated rock musician Ian Moore, she’s used to him getting most of the attention in the family. Now, she said, “Everywhere we go, people say, ‘Hey, Ian. So what’s happening with Joleen?’”

Call her the poster teacher for the district’s financial woes.

Much is on the line at the small school district — from Vashon High School’s popular percussion ensemble to the number of Spanish and band classes at McMurray Middle School. But in spirited discussions taking place in pockets all across the Island, McCauley’s name, it seems, comes up a lot.

Parent Mary Margaret Briggs wrote an impassioned letter to the school district seeking her reinstatement — a letter she had signed by 52 other parents who have students in the popular multi-age program at Chautauqua Elementary School, where McCauley teaches first through third grades.

The multi-age kids recently held a bake sale for the Vashon Schools Foundation. A handful of them plan to hold their own live performance of “The Little Mermaid” as a fundraiser this summer. And third-grader Jaden Winn, who had $100 saved up to give to a charity, turned all of it over to the new school foundation.

Last week, Jaden, another classmate and their parents stood at the main intersection in town seeking donations so that, as Jaden put it, “We don’t lose our teacher.” One woman rolled down the window and wrote a $500 check, Jaden’s mother Amanda Winn said. “I can’t tell you the look on Jaden’s face. It was priceless,” she said.

Across the state, school districts are facing huge budget problems — due in large part to the state’s own financial turmoil. Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a budget into law that slashes $5.1 billion from the state’s spending plan, much of it coming out of K-12 public education.

On Vashon, the newly formed schools foundation is attempting to jump into the breach, working to raise $550,000 by June 30 — the deadline needed for the district to shape its 2011-12 budget.

With nearly $340,000 already raised, some of the projected cuts Superintendent Michael Soltman proposed a month ago look like they’ll be restored. Plans to reduce the number of science electives at the high school and consolidate math courses, for instance, have been taken off the table in light of the fundraising to date, and a counselor at VHS who had received a layoff notice will be retained.

But the fundraising hasn’t yet been great enough to reach the proposed “tier two” cuts — where Joleen McCauley’s position sits.

Some parents, as a result, say they’re deeply worried that McCauley — a woman who has built up a sizable fan club over the course of her four years at the district — won’t get saved in the final hour this year, as she has the last two. Ninety percent of the families in the multi-age program have contributed to the fundraising campaign — in large part, parents say, because they don’t want to see the district lose McCauley.

“If I had my own way, I’d shout from the rooftops that we’d be fools to let Joleen go. She’s an exceptional teacher,” said Briggs, who’s daughter is in her class.

“She’s the reason you want your kids to go to school,” said Winn, Jaden’s mother.

“We’re scrambling,” she added. “The next two weeks are critical.”

McCauley’s three consecutive years of pink slips have raised another tough issue with parents — the role that seniority plays in dictating who gets retained and who gets laid off. Briggs, in her letter to Soltman, addressed the issue head on, arguing that the much-celebrated multi-age program at Chautauqua should be viewed differently by the district and that the “last-hired first-fired paradigm” should be set aside in this case.

The reason, Briggs said, is that the multi-age program — where a student is supposed to have the same teacher for first, second and third grade — is premised on the relationship between that student and his or her teacher. Last year, a teacher in the program retired. If McCauley gets laid off, it will mean that some of the kids will have had a different teacher over the course of their three years in the program, Briggs said.

“Please look at the work to be done in the multi-age program and keep the most qualified person in place to do that work,” Briggs wrote in her letter. “In this case, continuity of relationship with the students is the most crucial qualification needed.”

But Jenny Granum, a McMurray math teacher and head of the Vashon Education Association, the teachers’ union, said she’s frustrated by the anti-seniority argument she sometimes hears from parents and other non-teachers. The administration can fire teachers who are not doing their jobs, she said. But the suggestion that younger teachers are better than older teachers “is hurtful to me. ... In what other profession is experience not valued?” she said.

The problem in this case is not one of seniority, Granum added. The problem is that the state failed to find a way to fully fund education. The current situation, with the state slashing funding to public education, “is absolutely unprecedented,” she said.

As for McCauley, she said she believes she’ll find a way through this current situation, just as she has the past three years. In fact, she already has a job offer to teach at a private school, a decision she’ll have to make in a few days.

She sat in her classroom — a colorful place with brightly colored orbs hanging from the ceiling representing the solar system and books the kids wrote lining one wall — as she talked about how much she’s come to love teaching in the multi-age program. Her other offer is attractive, too, she said. But she’d hate to walk away from this particular program, where she gets to know the kids well and where she feels a deep sense of camaraderie with Chautauqua’s two other multi-age teachers.

The constant changes, she said, has made her a sharper teacher: “I’ve had to learn to go from 0 to 60 in just a matter of days.” At the same time, she said, she feels she’s found a place that works for her and her family — with her son in the classroom next door and her other son at neighboring McMurray.

“It’s really frustrating,” she said. “I can do a great job. The parents are happy. The administration is happy. And it doesn’t matter. I can’t keep my job. It feels like you’re in quicksand.”




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