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Published: 12/27/2006

Education chief's exit is traced to reforms

BY BENJAMIN ALEXANDER-BLOCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ERIE, Mich - Board members and teachers say it was perhaps "the nature of reform" that led to Marlene Mills' official resignation last week as superintendent of the Mason Consolidated School District.

Ms. Mills took the helm in April, 2002, immediately before the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Mason Middle School and Central Elementary School were labeled as "failing schools" and placed on the state's school improvement list.

"After I received these report cards, I knew we were in big trouble. We needed to make changes and we needed to make them fast, because we were worried that our schools could be taken over [by the state]," Ms. Mills recalled. "And because of this there wasn't as much time for shared decision-making."

By the conclusion of the 2004-2005 school year, students' scores had improved at both schools and those schools no longer faced the prospect of a state takeover.

"Marlene Mills had the vision. She put on the brakes and said we needed reform," board member William Saul said.

But many of the district's teachers and staff members had a problem with how Ms. Mills implemented the reforms and with what she herself described as her new "laserlike focus."

"She became very overbearing. There was no dialogue that took place and everything that came from her was a directive that could then be turned into a reprimand on us and we were afraid to do anything," said Melissa Fortner, former president of the teachers' union who is now head of social studies at the high school.

Ms. Mills admits that her style of leadership often bordered, by necessity, on "dictatorial."

Mr. Saul called it "tenacity."

"Ms. Mills has a lot of enemies because she is trying to do right by her friends," he said. "She had to do what was right by the kids, and that's what got her in trouble."

He added: "When you follow a reform model you have to go in and clean out groups of people [who] just weren't adding value to the kids. That's what they call the 'bloody edge' - you have to cut through your school district's problems."

The district's staff adopted a "Critical Friends" approach to each other's classroom work, reviewing each other's lesson plans with a critical eye and in a rigid format to see how they might be improved.

The district focused on basics like reading comprehension and writing skills and dedicated more time and money to extensive staff training and opportunities for professional development.

"We didn't like what they were teaching in health class, in math classes, in English, in science. We needed to rewrite their whole curriculums," Mr. Saul said.

"The teachers said we are working too hard, but we're here to educate kids - sorry if that makes you uncomfortable," Mr. Saul said.

But the close monitoring bothered teachers.

"I think that the biggest thing was that we were constantly being accused of being resistant to the reform movement," Ms. Fortner said. "But we were not being resistant to it, we were resistant to the way it was being implemented."

Ms. Mills said such discontent generally accompanies change.

"Change is tough for people. It is really hard and I think a lot of our teachers didn't want to make changes," Ms. Mills said.

"But we had to change the culture to a culture of effective teaching and learning."

Two weeks ago, Ms. Mills sent a letter to the board saying she would leave the district by Dec. 31, but would stay an additional month, if necessary, to ease the transition.

Last week, three business days after receiving her letter, the board appointed Dennis Rottenbucher as interim superintendent.

He started in his new position immediately after being appointed. Ms. Mills said she took vacation days last week because "it felt a bit crowded having both of us in the office."

Ms. Mills, who was paid $109,000 a year, said her contract would not have expired until 2010.

She said she decided to resign because school board members had begun micromanaging the district and usurping her responsibilities.

In July, two new board members - who were supported by the teachers' union - took seats on the board after they were elected in May. Their arrival changed the board's dynamics.

"It's like telling a doctor not to do surgery that way, but to do it this way, and then the patient dies," she said. "They've basically rendered me ineffective."

Mr. Rottenbucher hopes to mend some of the rifts that have developed, both within the board and within the district at large.

"I have to work with all seven board members," the interim superintendent said.

"We have to pull together, everyone in the district, to work together, because I want to do the best I can for the school district."

Contact Benjamin Alexander-Bloch

at babloch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6168.



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