About 75 people packed the North Beach School District Board of Directors meeting this week, most of them in support of Ocean Shores Elementary School principal Rhonda Ham, who abruptly submitted her resignation effective at the upcoming Christmas break.
Ham cited a number of concerns about the direction the district has taken since second-year Superintendent Deborah Holcomb took over and said after the meeting she was still considering what her future might be.
Many of the parents, teachers and assistants who spoke to the board on Tuesday urged the district to retain Ham, who has been with the district more than 30 years. Some of them wanted the board to look into why several popular teachers had left the district in the past year, and they also questioned whether other staffing and policy changes implemented by Holcomb were causing additional problems.
Speaking for the school board, member Doreen Cato said Ham’s resignation was not placed on the meeting agenda because two board members, board Chairman Scott Sage and Jeff Wilson, were unable to attend.
“Personally, I feel uncomfortable not having the other two members present,” Cato told those who came to support Ham. “When they return, that is when we will look at the outcome of our meeting” on Ham’s resignation letter.
Rose Stidham, a 22-year Ocean Shores homeowner who helps with an after-school program at Ocean Shores Elementary, estimates she puts in about 100 hours of work a year in the cafeteria at the school and is part of a voluntary groupof about 14 people.
Stidham said she wants the program continued as a part of the educational experience for the students “because it works. The children have the community enrichment.”
She lauded Ham for helping to make such a program possible: “I congratulate her for that, and I value her for that, because she has opened the door … and every step of the way, she shows us what matters. What matters to her are the children and the love for the children.”
Holcomb in her first year drew some criticism when she started a review of volunteer policies and practices, and she has made several changes in special education instruction and other administrative positions. High School principal Brett Mackey left at the end of the last school year to take a position in Eastern Washington, and popular football coach and teacher Todd Bridge left the district to take the Elma athletic director position. The district also has eight new teachers this year.
In a “Voices” column published in the North Coast News to open the school year, Holcomb said the district would be focusing on “increasing student achievement by improving classroom instruction and using student data and research based on best practices to guide our academic decisions.”
Under a formula she presented to the school board on Tuesday, for example, Holcomb showed a chart that indicated how staffing levels at the different schools compared to class sizes.
“Our student data tells the story. We are currently not meeting state expectations for student achievement in many academic areas and this is across our system, K-12,” Holcomb said in her North Coast News remarks. “Our goal is systemic change in practice at all levels and is based on research that will improve outcomes for our students.”
Ham said she chose to make a stand about the direction the district has taken with her resignation, although not specifically addressing her issues at the board meeting, where even some of her close family turned out Tuesday to state her case.
Her brother Russ Skolrood, a Hoquiam teacher and coach as well as a Grays Harbor PUD commissioner, was the second speaker to address the School Board.
He noted Rhonda Ham is a 1977 Hoquiam High School graduate and former three-sport all-star athlete, who also was class president and valedictorian. Ham started teaching in North Beach in 1986.
“She is everything you could think of as a person you want to lead your schools,” Skolrood said.
“I tried to talk her out of your district,” he added. “She said, ‘No I can’t. I love the kids, I love the community. It’s all about the community to me.’”
She is not resigning “because she wanted to leave you. She is resigning because you have a problem,” Skolrood said. “You have an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Overall, 20 people have left the district in the past year, he continued.
“Somebody has to leave, and I think you know who it is,” Skolrood declared.
Louise McCutcheon, a 40-year resident, referenced a number of the departures, including Mackey, Bridge and athletic director/teacher Maynard Reed.
“What the heck is going on? Rhonda Ham is the last straw,” she said. “Rhonda Ham loves kids. Everyone who knows her knows that, No. 1.”
Christy Moore, past president of the North Beach Education Association and a teacher herself at Ocean Shores Elementary, read a letter from the association in support of Ham.
“Rhonda Ham has been an integral part of the North Beach School District for over 30 years as a teacher, a coach, a principal and a parent,” the letter said. “She has developed strong relationships among the community and the school. Allowing her to leave this way would be a detriment to our district.”
Another part of the letter addresses her relations with others: “The hours she spends at our building seem endless. She is easy to get along with, and because of this, staff, parents and students find her approachable and accessible.”
Neither Ham nor Superintendent Holcomb addressed the speakers directly during the exchange, and Cato respectfully allowed anyone who wanted to speak to have three minutes to state their case. Several speakers broke out in tears in describing Ham’s impact on them and the school, and many of them were wearing red Cougar shirts, the mascot of Ocean Shores Elementary.
Mike Weidman asked Ham to reconsider and find a way to work out differences.
“If all of us can’t work it out, then we should be ashamed of ourselves,” Weidman said. “This is our district.”
He encouraged the board to go out and find “why is everyone miserable. There has got to be a reason. They don’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m leaving.’”
North Beach High School teacher Richard Villar, speaking as a parent and as a former North Beach student himself, was passionate about the fate of the district: “As a small district, we are losing our core set of values, and I just think we really need to take a strong look at that. This is our community. This is our place, our town, where we live, and you need to speak your mind and not be afraid. We all need to be professional. This isn’t a lynch mob, this is a bunch of people concerned about their community and we want to take steps to right the ship.”
Cato said the board will “look at all the comments that were made today” as well as other letters of support that have been submitted.
“We need the other two (board members) to be a part of this,” she said, adding: “There is a lot going on right now and I know it’s been very, very difficult because of the changes that are going on through the district. It’s going to take everybody to make those changes happen. I wasn’t going to make a speech, but a lot of what you had to say was moving.”
The next board meeting is Oct. 17 and Cato invited those who came to support Ham to return at that time.