Concerns and complaints about the North Beach School District and Supt. Deborah Holcomb — along with possible paths to improvement — were aired at a community meeting of more than 80 parents, students, former and current school employees Wednesday night.
The meeting at the Ocean Shores Elks Lodge was organized as a prelude to the next district school board meeting, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 20, at North Beach Jr./Sr. High School.
Dissatisfaction with Holcomb’s performance and her policies were the most common complaints among the 20 people who spoke during the three-hour meeting. Many described inadequate student discipline, poor academic rigor, loss of longtime instructors, and teachers and staff experiencing a lack of support from the superintendent.
Will Oaks, a special education teacher and co-president of the teachers’ union, the North Beach Education Association, noted his group filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Holcomb last month. An NBEA press release was distributed at the meeting, alleging: “Our superintendent intimidates, harasses, and bullies her employees, district parents, administrators and students.”
“Holcomb’s actions and inactions demonstrate that she does not have our students’ best interests at heart. She is creating chaos throughout the district and she has no thought for the repercussions that her actions will have on our entire community for years to come,” the press release said.
Oaks, who has been placed on administrative leave since the first of the year, claimed that before making the unfair labor practices complaint, district employees had “filed a ton of grievances” but the superintendent has “dismissed them out of turn.”
Several parents said they were planning on or contemplating moving out of the district to find better schools for their children.
“We are one of the families that are moving out of the area because of the schools,” said Kristie Bighead a parent of several North Beach students. Bighead cited one teacher’s resignation letter that said lack of discipline means “teachers spend 85% of their time in class management,” leaving little time for instruction. That concern was echoed throughout the evening, by students as well as parents.
Senior Natasha Fruh said the loss of almost all advanced placement classes meant she “had to turn to Running Start to get me on the level of education that was suitable for me.” She said her decision “was because of my experience in the class environment, which was horrific” due to lack of discipline.
Many who spoke suggested that the problems also stem from a school board that they said seems to be ignoring the issues that have led to more than 20 employees leaving the district since Holcomb assumed the position in September 2016.
Former North Beach teacher Melissa Van Horn said she left the district last year because “I got no support.” She complained that the superintendent’s embrace of a disciplinary concept called “Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS)” resulted in students threatening and committing acts of violence in her classroom “not being suspended.”
Van Horn had four suggestions for remedies: First, “ask a teacher what you can do to support them.”
Second, she said, is to tell the school board that the PBIS concept is not effectively addressing severe discipline issues. Third, she said “we’ve got to fund a resource officer” at the high school because “we have a drug problem, a big one.” Finally, “you need academic buy-in from high-flying students who leave for Running Start.”
In the NBEA press release, it was noted that a recent union survey showed that 89 percent of teachers at the Jr/Sr high and 73 percent of elementary teachers do not plan to return if Holcomb remains superintendent. “The district has also lost at least 25 students this year. Recently another 13 students were confirmed to be leaving the district specifically due to Holcomb’s failures,” the press release said.
At a union meeting in February, 88 percent of NBEA members voted no confidence in Holcomb’s performance, the press release said. Local parents have organized a petition of no confidence for school district stakeholders, and they say they currently have more than 290 signatures.
School Board President Doreen Cato on Thursday confirmed the board previously learned the labor complaint was filed with the state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), and served on the District on Feb. 16. She said the District filed an answer denying the complaint on March 14, and PERC has not set a hearing date yet.
“Regarding Deborah Holcomb. I am unable to comment until the entire board has had a chance to meet on Tuesday,” Cato said.
Holcomb did not return a phone call or email request for response to the allegations and issues raised in the wake of Wednesday’s community meeting.
Oaks, who is awaiting the outcome of the PERC filing, said the district faces a dilemma if it tries to replace all the teachers who have said they are leaving because of concerns about Holcomb: “We’re operating in a day and age where there is a national teacher shortage, and we work and live in a hard-to-staff area.”
“When you boil this all down, Deborah Holcomb is in charge. The buck stops with her,l” Oaks said “These issues are hers. She is trying to turn it on us and say that we are failing. We need more support than we are having. We are not being given the tools we need.”