WHITTIER — In the Los Nietos School District, Charles Menzies used to be the man in the middle, a designated buffer zone between a superintendent and a school board majority at each other's throats. The superintendent has resigned, three school board members face recall, a popular principal has left and a civil rights investigation has sparked charges and countercharges.
But Menzies has survived--so well in fact that he now occupies the hot seat himself.
In its Tuesday night meeting, the five-member school board named Menzies the new Los Nietos superintendent. The vote was 4 to 0; member Sylvia Orona was absent because of illness.
Menzies, a 27-year district teacher and administrator, will direct the future of one of the region's smallest yet most combative districts.
At least to begin with, he will have the good will of most students and staff members, according to the results of a recent survey of 74 district employees commissioned by the district.
In that survey, most respondents said the district is not well managed and that fear, threats, defensiveness and secrecy permeate the organization. Moreover, the governing board received low marks in the areas of confidence, trust and respect.
Adding to district headaches was a report by the federal Office for Civil Rights on the district's programs for students who are not fluent in English. It judged these programs as substandard, citing an acute shortage of bilingual teachers and materials.
Despite the challenges, Menzies sees his promotion as an unlikely upturn of events. His career appeared to be in decline two years ago when he resigned as principal of Los Nietos Middle School. Differences between him and then-Supt. Dr. Terry Giboney were at the heart of his resignation.
"Rightfully or not," Menzies said of his move, "I felt that I was not being effective, because of our personality problems or differences of philosophies, or however you want to put it. Some of my staff would come up to me and say, 'How come we are being treated like a stepchild?' "
Menzies cited as an example a plan he helped develop to eliminate student lockers, an idea now being tested in many school districts. "Admittedly, there was an expenditure involved," he said, "but the superintendent flat out said no. Had we had a good working relationship and mutual respect, I don't think he would have given me an unequivocal no."
Menzies also received his first-ever unfavorable evaluation from Giboney and his first reprimand. Despite student and staff support, Menzies elected to return to the classroom at the very school where he had been principal. He returned to the district's board room just once as a teacher to help his students construct a Latino history project that included chalk murals and hanging pinatas.
Meanwhile, Giboney tried to manage a split school board and divisions among teachers, staff administrators and parents. He fell afoul of board member Adeline Rocha, who became board president after November's hotly contested election.
Rocha accused Giboney of showing favoritism and being autocratic, which Giboney denies. She also objected to his annual gifts of See's candy to board members, likening it to a bribe.
Toward the end of Giboney's tenure, Rocha said, "every vote was going to be 3 to 2 against everything he asked us to approve."
Almost everyone was choosing sides.
By that same 3-2 margin, the board established the job of deputy superintendent in December for Menzies. "It was a position that seemed to be created to usurp most of Giboney's responsibilities and power," said Menzies, adding that his past differences with Giboney were probably one reason the board picked him.
He and Giboney "had an understanding that neither one of us liked the situation we were in, but we were going to make the best of it."
Ironically, Menzies joined Giboney in arguing against notices of possible reassignment for an administrator and two of the district's four principals. The notices passed by the typical 3-2 margin.
In February, Rocha said the notices and the civil rights investigation were linked. Giboney said the three administrators' real crimes were their loyalty to him. In late March, Giboney agreed to a settlement by which he would resign but be paid for the time remaining on his contract, which ran to the end of the next school year.
School board member Gloria Duran, who had wanted Giboney to finish his contract, preferred not to discuss the exact reasons behind the notices. But she said they had nothing to do with the civil rights investigation.
Menzies, as interim superintendent, has already submitted a plan for solving the problems, which includes training and hiring of bilingual teachers as well as updating bilingual materials and student evaluations.