s
s
Sections
Search
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?
iPhone

This fall, culinary arts teacher Mary Schiller and her students at Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High School cooked up a storm in a new food truck, steering their career-prep program to the next level.

Today Schiller, who’s seen her charges excel in kitchen-skills competitions and go on to land good jobs in the restaurant industry, is on a mandated administrative leave of absence and worries that she may be fired.

“It’s just unbelievable to me,” said Schiller. At 55, she has led the culinary program at Maria Carrillo for nearly 14 years and for much of that time has directed students involved in an ambitious catering operation. “It’s my dream job,” she said.

Though Schiller has worked at a Santa Rosa city school, she is employed by the College and Career Readiness Department of the Sonoma County Office of Education.

She said superiors at SCOE issued her a letter of reprimand alleging “highly risky behavior and improper judgment” related to her use of the new food truck to serve people displaced by the October fires.

A short time later, Schiller said she was seen by an SCOE supervisor sipping wine on a Maria Carrillo catering job. She said she was placed on leave Dec. 4, two days after the catered party.

She admits two of the allegations against her. One was a failure to comply with a superior’s order a few days into the fire disaster that she stop serving out of the Santa Rosa school district’s new food truck, and return it.

“I know I was insubordinate,” Schiller said. “But in my heart I felt it was important to keep feeding people.”

She acknowledges also that during a subsequent catering event that she and some Maria Carrillo students performed in early December at a church in Santa Rosa, she “had a couple of sips” from a half glass of wine she’d been offered.

Schiller denies or takes issue with the other complaints against her. And she maintains that, especially if she is terminated, she is being punished more severely than is justified by her offenses.

“It would be different if I’d done bad things all along,” she said.

Asked about the disciplining of Schiller and her current employment status, John Laughlin, the county schools’ associate superintendent of human resources, said, “I can’t say anything.”

Public school officials are generally not allowed to publicly address personnel matters involving employees.

At Maria Carrillo High days ago, a large group of Schiller’s students staged a protest, holding up signs and chanting, “Bring Mary back!”

For years, the culinary program and its catering enterprise have been hailed among the major successes of the Rincon Valley high school.

It was a cause for celebration when, in late September, students from Carrillo and from Piner High served burgers, bacon-wrapped tater tots and other temptations from the new food truck Santa Rosa City Schools purchased with money from a state career and technical education grant.

The truck gives kids in the culinary classes at Carrillo and Piner the ability to expand their catering services and gain more real-life experience.

Two weeks after the students showed school officials what they could do with the truck, the firestorms struck. The disaster forced the cancellation of Carrillo students’ scheduled Oct. 10 catering in Petaluma of an event for the Career Technical Education Foundation.

Schiller, a Sonoma County native and Santa Rosa High graduate, said that to prepare for that catering, she’d checked out the food truck the weekend of Oct. 7 and 8 and drove it to her home off of Santa Rosa’s Brush Creek Road in order to spend more time becoming familiar with it. The first full day of the fires, Oct. 9, she decided to make complimentary coffee in it for neighbors and others who’d lost power or had left their homes.

She said she texted her supervisor, Debi Batini, Santa Rosa Schools’ director of career pathways, to tell her that she had the truck at her house and was going to start cooking free meals for people in need. The truck was stocked then with food purchased for the canceled catering event in Petaluma.

Word spread and graduates of Schiller’s efforts, and one current Maria Carrillo culinary student, showed up to help prepare and serve food.

Schiller said that on Oct. 11, Batini texted her and told her to return the truck to the district offices. Schiller said she replied, “No, I’m not. I’m cooking. I’m feeding people. I’m not bringing it back. This is important.”

Oliver’s Markets and the John Ash & Co. restaurant donated food to the truck, and Schiller and her helpers continued to cook. Schiller returned the truck to the district on Oct. 13.

In a Nov. 27 letter of reprimand, Stephen Jackson, the county Office of Education’s director of college and career readiness, told Schiller she had misused school-district property, committed insubordination, misrepresented her reasons for checking out the food truck, violated “regulations from the Health Department regarding the protocol for using the food truck,” and placed students at risk “by engaging them in an unauthorized non-school sanctioned activity and allowing them to prepare food in the food truck without permission.”

The letter of reprimand, which Schiller shared, removed her as chair of the Career Technical Education department at Maria Carrillo and instructed her to follow procedures and to obtain prior approval for any off-campus caterings.

The letter of reprimand also declared, “You are not to use the food truck again.” Schiller said that in addition she was told that she would be supervised at future catering jobs.

Days after she was served the Nov. 27 letter, she and some of her students catered a Christmas Party of the men’s club at Holy Spirit Catholic Church. The food truck was not used.

Schiller said one of the party guests handed her half a glass of wine, which she placed in a refrigerator. Later, she said, she removed the glass and sipped from it.

Her SCOE supervisor saw her, she said, and took her to task. A short time later, Schiller said, she was told that she’d been placed on paid administrative leave and was not to speak to students or anyone else at Maria Carrillo High.

Show Comment