GROVELAND, CALIF. — When the school board in this rural community voted to get rid of popular math teacher Ryan Dutton in September, the students at Tioga High School were so upset, the entire school boycotted class the next day. Then they decided to save his job.
What started as a civics class project soon became much more: a campaign to remove all five board members of Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District.
Believing in their teacher, the students organized a petition drive to hold a recall election in this sparsely populated district near Yosemite National Park. With the help of parents, teachers and even their principal, the campaign turned in about 1,200 signatures last week for each board member -- 910 were needed to call a special election. The students expect to learn this week whether the recall qualifies. If so, an election will be held in May.
Dutton, 31, a former professional football player, lost his job over allegations that he cheated in a course he took last spring at Cal State Fresno. The university cleared him and apologized for "any misunderstanding," but the board has refused to reinstate him.
"We didn't like what was happening in our district," said Elise Vallotton, Tioga student body president and president of the newly formed Students for a Better School District. "Many of us stood up at board meetings and explained our point of view. Obviously, they weren't listening. They didn't do anything to try and help us, and that's why we started the recall."
Despite its name, Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District is hardly unified.
With a long history of political infighting and personal rivalries, it has run through seven superintendents in eight years. When Supt. Mari Brabbin was hired last year, one local businessman greeted her, "Welcome to the Gaza Strip."
The recall campaign has brought that bitterness and hostility into the open.
"It's become a dialogue of the deaf," Brabbin said.
Brabbin, who placed Dutton on leave, is also a target. Parents dug up complaints from her previous job. And a preliminary report from the association that accredits schools found that Tioga's "program this year has been totally disrupted because of the decisions of the superintendent and the school board."
The schism in the district was apparent at a tumultuous meeting of the school board in December. Hundreds of people crowded into the Tenaya Elementary School cafeteria to support the students seeking Dutton's return.
Community members peppered the board with allegations of mismanagement, missing school funds, improper teacher transfers, secret board meetings and lack of oversight for school construction projects.
More than a dozen students -- including the Tioga High basketball team dressed in uniform -- appealed to the board to reinstate Dutton. As the students made their case, the board members sat stone-faced.
Krystal Edman-Wilson, a sophomore, told the board she was disappointed that other beloved teachers had been forced to leave. Then she lost Dutton, who she said was "a great teacher and taught me math in a way I could understand."
"The students were starting to feel invisible in the eyes of the school board," she told the board. "Now, recall petitions are being signed. We want a fresh start."
Because most of Tioga's 120 or so students are not old enough to vote, they could not legally circulate petitions. Many parents joined the campaign, including one who provided an RV dubbed the "recall mobile" to collect signatures in remote areas.
"People who didn't get a chance to vote are trying to make a change in a small community in a very big way," said Gloria Marler, a former school board member who is supporting her daughter, Dana, 15, in the recall effort. "Basically, it's the children taking the initiative because their parents are either too afraid or too apathetic."
But the involvement of parents like Marler -- who is expected to run again if the recall qualifies for the ballot -- has prompted criticism that some grown-ups are taking advantage of the students to further their own agendas.
"They are being led by people who may not have their best interests at heart," school board member David Gookin said.
Some of the district's trouble stems from its geography. At 665 square miles, it is almost as large as Los Angeles Unified School District -- but has fewer than 500 students. Most attend Tenaya Elementary or Tioga High in Groveland, a Gold Rush-era community that is the largest in the district with about 3,300 residents.
But there is also Don Pedro High School, perched on the edge of the district 45 minutes down a mountain road.
Many students and parents in Groveland contend that Tioga has been shortchanged while Don Pedro, which draws more than half its 67 students from outside the district, has been favored.
The animosity reached a new pitch after the board hired Brabbin as superintendent and also named her principal of Don Pedro. Combining the two jobs, she says, was "the catalyst for the unrest."