By Jennifer Grimes
Triplicate staff writer
Walt Hanline set out three years ago to jump start and remake the Del Norte County Unified School District.
And in many respects, hes done that.
When I got here, they didnt have a vision of what a quality district is - and they do now, Hanline said.
As school district superintendent, Hanline has added more staff positions and ordered more construction projects and land acquisitions than at any time in recent history. Hes also revamped the way teachers are evaluated and shuffled principals twice.
While that job is winning him some friends on the school board which hired him, it is also earning him some critics who claim hes too hot-tempered, too authoritarian and too quick to cut employees out of the loop.
In just the past few months, a group of parents, frustrated over Hanlines dismissive and curt responses to a variety of their concerns, asked the board to reprimand him.
Soon after, union contract negotiations between non-teaching staff and Hanlines administration began to falter. Now the two sides are at an impasse.
During these union negotiations, teachers came out in support of the non-teaching staff and both groups made public the long-standing problems with morale between the staff and Hanline. School district employees started wearing Its about morale buttons on their lapels, teachers elected a new union president and critical letters to the editor started showing up on the Triplicates editorial page.
Hanline and four of five members of the governing board said they arent surprised by the grumbles, but said the big picture is more important.
There has been tremendous change in this district in the last three years and a lot of upheaval and people arent sure of the ground under their feet, said longtime school board member Phil Freneau.
But he is following the directives of the board and we feel were following the directives of the community, Freneau said.
Other board members, including board president Faith Crist, Bob Berkowitz and Steve Parke echoed Freneaus sentiments.
But, board member Bill Parker said he fears Hanlines empire building is a house of cards destined to collapse.
I had no awareness that we wanted someone to come in and change everything. I think we actually had a solid district before he came in.
My concern is that when the state stops giving away all this money, how are we going to maintain all these new buildings and alternative programs? Parker said.
More than 10 significant building projects have been presented by Hanline to the board and passed in the last three years.
Among them is a new County Alternative Education Complex, a new gym/community center at Mountain School, at least 12 portable classrooms, a new and improved McCarthy Education Center and a $250,000 parcel of land for new practice ball fields next to Del Norte High School.
Hanlines administration has also added at least 90 new staff positions.
Yet, the total number of students enrolled in school is the lowest it has been in nine years. Enrollment has been declining for the last six years.
As enrollment is going down, were trying to improve the infrastructure of the district, Hanline said last week.
He added that under his leadership, the district has moved from the dark ages into the 21st century.
Computers have been added to classrooms, Internet connections are available and technical classes have been added. In the works are plans to renovate every library. With expanded facilities the district is now ready to face the future, Hanline said
Look at what Ive done and what this board has asked me to do. I feel real good about what we have done, Hanline said.
When asked about his perspective on the morale of his staff and his rapport with employees, he admitted there have been some problems.
To change, you go through a storming process and shake things up. Have I made their lives more difficult? Yes ... Am I sorry about that? No, he said.
The core moral and philosophical dilemma is: are you paid, from a market point of view, a comparable wage? If the answer is yes, quit whining about it, he added.
Although, teacher Ryan Bouchard, who is now president-elect of the Del Norte Teachers Association after speaking out against Hanlines management style, said morale is an issue that desperately needs attention by the board.
The problem is youre told youre going to be in the center of decision-making, then they give us a program and tell us how to do it. Its making the decision and then sharing it with you, Bouchard said.
He added teachers fear expressing their dissatisfaction because if youre the nail sticking up, you get pounded down. Bouchard said some teachers and classified staff were moved to less desirable positions after questioning administrative decisions.
Board member Parker said he sympathizes with the teachers position.
The teachers and classifieds and management are a three-legged stool. They have to have harmony and respect to work together and I think weve strayed from that.
I think there are ways to go out and accomplish things without kicking people around, Parker said.
I dont believe in a lot of things the district has been doing. People are calling me all the time with complaints.
Parker is the only one on the board that feels that way, however.
Berkowitz said he thinks the morale problem is a figment of peoples imaginations and simply a ploy of the classified staffs union to win in the negotiations.
This school district was way below par. Now were winning financial awards, he said. We hired (Hanline) to bring the scores up.
Board President Faith Crist did admit Hanlines management style causes friction with staff. She said he used to send out hot-tempered e-mail messages regularly, but after the board asked him to tone it down, he has improved.
You cant just be a manager of a building, you have to be an instructional leader, she said.
Its hard with change and a lot of the changes have come down from the state. He is doing what the board has asked him to do, she said.
As superintendent, Hanline said he is misunderstood, and that its hard for others to realize what its like to be in his position. He also had staff morale problems in his previous district in Kings County where he served 12 years as superintendent.
There, some upset taxpayers accused him of trying to pass a bond to build a new school they claimed wasnt needed.
I would say I may be loved more here than there, he said.