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Can Monte del Sol’s original vision survive today’s learning environment?

August 4, 2010, 1:00 am

One significant source of tension involves the personnel changes Ritchie made last fall. Faculty and parents say she eliminated a part-time counseling position without sufficient advance notice.

“We did have the budget cuts in the fall—I think everyone knows about that—and we did lose a position due to that particular budget cut,” Ritchie says. She says she gave the former counselor the requisite two weeks’ notice, and that the position was later replaced with a drug- and alcohol-specific counselor through a grant from Santa Fe Public Schools.

But when a section of choir also was eliminated, parents and teachers worried that the school’s focus on the arts would be compromised. The final blow came when the school’s edible garden coordinator, whose projects included the memorial garden dedicated to the four Santa Fe teens who died in a car accident last summer (two of whom, Julian Martinez and Rose Simmons, attended Monte del Sol), had her hours cut from 30 hours per week to eight. The coordinator ended up leaving the school.

“A lot of the programs that made Monte so beautiful, like the garden and mentorship, are used more as a gimmick more than actually supported,” Dean says. “When people ask about Monte or come and scope it out for their kids, the new head learner will talk about how beautiful the garden is—but they cut the coordinator!” she says.

Ritchie is quick to explain that all the cuts had to do with the budget. Though Monte del Sol receives the bulk of its funding from the state, the garden coordinator’s position was funded through a separate foundation, which couldn’t raise the money to keep supporting a garden coordinator.

No one disputes the school’s budget problems.

“When the state tells you, you have to cut money, it makes for these really difficult decisions,” Lisa Otero, a history teacher and the school’s dean of students, tells SFR.

Van Sickle, too, appreciates the difficulty of the situation.

“[Ritchie] came in at a really ratty time, with all the budget cuts from the state,” Van Sickle says. “I don’t envy her walking into a charter school at the time she did.”

For Van Sickle and many others, though, the problem wasn’t so much the changes themselves but, rather, how they were accomplished.

“Instead of coming to the school community and saying, ‘Look, we’re hugely over a barrel; what can we do?’ they never even told anyone that it was happening—much less gave anyone in the community a chance to step up and say, ‘Choir’s really important for my kid. Let’s do a fundraiser and see if we can’t keep it,’” Van Sickle says. “Those decisions were just made. The whole atmosphere of openness and tolerance seems to be closing down.”

Gretchen Gordon, a congenial blonde who joined Monte del Sol in its first year as the school’s nurse, says that not only were the staff changes not transparent, but that they were also used as leverage.

“There were constant threats—‘The budget is tight; positions are going to be reduced,’” Gordon says.

Ruiz says that especially in the context of a school based on inclusiveness, Ritchie’s top-down approach to balancing the budget led to anger and frustration among faculty and community members.

Some parents and students were upset when the coordinator for Monte del Sol’s memorial garden (top) had her hours cut and then left.
Credits: Photo: Alexa Schirtzinger

“The changes may not be good, but [they’re] necessary,” Ruiz says. “The problem, quite frankly, was in the execution of those changes—the way staff was treated, directed [and], in fact, reprimanded.”

By late fall, faculty morale was so low that Gordon felt compelled to contact the National Education Association to ask for information on joining the teachers’ union.

“Once I started that, it was this constant coming into [Ritchie’s] office to explain myself,” Gordon says. “I felt I was being harassed and intimidated.”

Ritchie denies she was ever opposed to the union.

“I was in the union myself until I came here,” she tells SFR. “I don’t have any feelings about it, really.”

Gordon says her relationship with Ritchie continued to deteriorate, and she resolved to leave Monte del Sol at the end of the school year because “I’d feel complicit if I stayed.”

For students like Dean, the division within the school hit home.

“Our teachers were stressed out and upset and angry,” Dean says. “It started to get really distracting because there was such a huge rift in the faculty.”
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