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.