Gullixson: Food truck fight creates pointless public relations mess

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We talk so much about the heroic moments of those awful nights in October but not so much about the other stuff: The arguments, the things that were said and done in anger and desperation. I remember my son yelling at his sister to get off her cellphone as we rushed to pack the cars, not realizing she was texting a friend who had just lost her home. Moments later my daughter was screaming at me to get in the van as I knocked on the doors of neighbors. “Dad we need to go!” And then it was my turn, snapping at my wife over why we needed to rescue Chinese chicken salad from the refrigerator. Silly stuff.

Many, I know, were parties to far more painful and complicated encounters that have been harder to set aside. But we have to. We all were just doing the best we could in those early chaotic hours and days. Some are not so willing to let things go, however.

Let me start by saying that it’s always difficult weighing in on personnel issues where the public may not be privy to all the facts. But the ones that are known involving Maria Carrillo High School culinary arts instructor Mary Schiller are troubling.

Add me to the growing list of people, letter writers included, who have given a thumbs down to the decision to have Schiller placed on administrative leave for decisions made in those initial days of the October fires, decisions that were well-intentioned but landed her in hot water with the Sonoma County Office of Education, her official employer.

As columnist Chris Smith reported Wednesday, Schiller, who has taught culinary arts at Maria Carrillo for 14 years, checked out the school district’s new food truck the weekend of Oct. 7 and 8 to prepare for a Career Technical Education Foundation event that her students were scheduled to cater on Oct. 10. But as we know, that was the beginning of Sonoma County’s trial by firestorm.

Schiller’s response was to do what came naturally — to cook and feed those who were suddenly without power and, in many cases, without homes. Given that schools were closed, thousands were evacuated and the truck was stocked with food purchased for the canceled catering event in Petaluma, she and her helpers, including students, started cooking for people in need.

Oliver’s Markets and the John Ash & Co. restaurant went so far as to donate food to the effort. As the fires were still burning on Wednesday of that first week, the Office of Education directed her to return the truck, but she refused, noting, “I’m cooking. I’m feeding people. I’m not bringing it back. This is important.”

Perhaps the Office of Education had a better use in mind for the vehicle. But it’s hard to imagine what that could be or how the truck could have been in better hands.

No, it’s not OK to refuse orders from superiors, but sometimes acts of insubordination are warranted in times of crisis. So are acts of conscience. Either way, Schiller returned the truck two days later, even as the need for food still existed. It’s not clear whether the vehicle was put to use after that. What is known is that Schiller was suspended from her teaching duties and removed as chair of the Career Technical Education department at Maria Carrillo. She also received a letter of reprimand from the Office of Education’s director of college and career readiness, telling her that she had misused school-district property, committed insubordination and misrepresented her reasons for checking out the food truck. That last charge is particularly rich. I guess she was supposed to make clear on Oct. 7 that she needed the truck to respond to a cataclysmic event that would occur two days later.

She also was told that she had 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.” Just nonsense. The same charge could be made of the evacuation centers which also engaged student volunteers, including some from Maria Carrillo High School, in “non-school sanctioned activities” during what should have been school hours. And they, too, helped prepare food.

It’s understandable if the Office of Education felt it needed to address Schiller’s defiance in some way. But Schiller, and her students, are more deserving of commendation for their actions than castigation.

There are other issues involved, such as Schiller’s alleged partaking of alcohol at a fundraiser catered by students. But in the context of everything else, many of these additional charges come across as just petty.

It takes courage to fight fires. But it also takes courage to show grace. The Office of Education should cease disciplinary actions and reinstate Schiller. Sonoma County has already lost too much. Let’s not lose a gifted teacher as well.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at or call at 707-521-5282.

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