Healdsburg students protest school district’s decision to put teacher on administrative leave, staff reductions

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At least 70 Healdsburg Junior High students walked out of classes Monday morning, protesting the school district’s decision to place a veteran math teacher on paid administrative leave amid additional expected staff departures on campus.

Demanding district administrators bring back seventh grade math teacher Greg Costa, students chanted “We want Costa” as the 10 a.m. protest morphed into an hourslong march through several Healdsburg neighborhoods. Costa was put on leave April 26, according to the school district and the teachers union president.

“You can’t silence us,” said Sofia Villa, one of Costa’s students who helped organize the walkout. “We want to learn from the best.”

Costa did not return messages on Monday. However, several students and a parent said Costa was placed on leave soon after he announced to his classes he planned to retire at the end of the school year because of ongoing disagreements with school and district leaders about school operations.

Among them was a concern that the Healdsburg Unified School District was “consumed with savings and the wholesale turnover” of teachers this year, said Michael Villa, Sofia Villa’s father. He said he spoke to Costa this past week about the paid administrative leave.

“This is a signal to the rest of the rank and file,” Michael Villa said. “They came down so hard on this guy, they lost sight of who is really being punished, which is the kids.”

The school board in an email to parents Monday acknowledged eight teachers would not be returning to the school next year. “We recognize that these departures represent a big change and raise understandable concerns,” the email stated.

The email did not specifically say why Costa, a 31-year veteran at the district who previously taught and coached basketball at Healdsburg High School, was placed on leave. However, it stated board members were “deeply disappointed to learn that some employees may have used instructional time to share their personal complaints regarding administration directly with our students.”

Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel declined to provide additional details, citing employee confidentiality laws.

“There’s always more to the story than what you’re hearing,” Vanden Heuvel said. “Unfortunately, I can’t share any more.”

He said Costa was one of six veteran employees in the district who planned to retire at the end of the school year after voluntarily accepting a retirement incentive in the form of a cash payout.

The incentive was negotiated with the teachers union as a cost-saving measure for the district and was offered to more than a dozen employees who fit age and years of service requirements, Vanden Heuvel said.

In addition to Costa, two other Healdsburg Junior High teachers took the retirement incentives, Vanden Heuvel said.

Five additional instructors from the school, which serves 360 students and employs 18 teachers, are slated to leave at the end of the year for various reasons, including one who accepted another job in another school district, Vanden Heuvel said. The school has hired for all but one position of those leaving, he added.

Vanden Heuvel disputed claims that there was a concerted effort to push employees out of their jobs.

Ever Flores, the president of the Healdsburg Area Teachers Association, called the district’s decision to place Costa on leave “aggressive” and in letter to Vanden Heuvel last week said removing Costa, a dissenting voice, was a matter of public concern.

Flores said Costa’s direct supervisor, Principal Christopher Miller, never approached Costa with any complaints about his performance prior to April 26.

“It’s the due process and progressive discipline that we’re asking for,” Flores said.

“These systems have left our membership feeling that we have very little say as to what we can do for our own improvement.”

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