Public outpouring for principal

Iraida Pisano

About 100 El Roble Elementary School parents and students who
believe their principal’s job is in jeopardy rallied behind her
Wednesday night at a public meeting.
About 100 El Roble Elementary School parents and students who believe their principal’s job is in jeopardy rallied behind her Wednesday night at a public meeting.

At a closed session of a March 4 Gilroy Unified School District board meeting, trustees voted 5-2, with trustees Rhoda Bress and Tom Bundros dissenting, to release one of the district’s eight elementary school principals, board President Francisco Dominguez said. Trustees would not give the reason for their decision or say whether El Roble Principal Iraida Pisano was the principal they voted to release.

But rumors circulating among the parents of El Roble students point to their principal as the one in question, said Jennifer Vargas, the mother of a second-grader and a fifth-grader at the elementary school and a member of the school’s site council.

“I’ve been told by other parents that it was her,” Vargas said Thursday afternoon at El Roble. “If they pull Ms. Pisano, I’m pulling my kids.”

Some trustees said that it is possible to revisit almost any decision they make, but would not say if the comments made about Pisano had any impact on their decision to release one of the eight elementary school principals because they could not discuss personnel matters publicly.

Vargas was one of about 20 parents and students who spoke at a joint school board-city council meeting Wednesday night to offer what totaled an hour of glowing reviews on Pisano’s behalf. Several students waved signs with short slogans in support of their principal. Pisano sat in the front row next to her secretary, who patted her on the back several times during the meeting.

Absent from the large group that packed into the Gilroy Senior Center for the meeting were the El Roble teachers who have clashed with Pisano in the months since she came to El Roble.

“Most teachers did not realize that (Wednesday’s meeting) was a forum where we could speak,” one El Roble teacher who would not give her name said Thursday. “But you wouldn’t have had teachers speak anyway because teachers are scared to death. We’re afraid of reprisal.”

A steady string of speakers, including Pisano herself, addressed the board. Pisano spoke briefly and distributed envelopes containing letters with well-wishes from staff at Gilroy High School, where she served a brief stint as assistant principal before heading up El Roble.

“If you let her go, you’re making a big mistake and our kids are the ones that are going to lose out,” Vargas told elected officials Wednesday.

Some parents spoke directly to Pisano at the meeting, praising her for increasing parent involvement and reaching out to Spanish-speaking parents.

“We love Ms. Pisano,” one parent said in Spanish. “I think Ms. Pisano should stay at El Roble.”

Although surprised that so many parents showed up at what was supposed to be a brief meeting between the city and school district to discuss sidewalks, a new aquatics center and the school resource officer, trustees listened attentively as the speakers addressed them in both English and Spanish. Council members said they were caught off guard by the public comment but welcomed the participation.

“Anytime parents come before the board and speak, it does have weight,” Dominguez said. “I can’t say if it has enough weight to reverse a decision but the board always has the opportunity to reconsider its position.”

By law, trustees also cannot respond to remarks made during the public comment portion of their meetings.

However, “just because we can’t respond doesn’t mean we’re not listening,” board Vice President Denise Apuzzo said. “The board absolutely values parent input.”

Like his colleagues, trustee Mark Good would not comment specifically on the concerns raised by El Roble parents but said, “I have reconsidered my position on the basis of outside input in the past, but I can’t speak to this situation.”

On Wednesday, the Gilroy Teachers Association filed an unfair labor practices complaint on behalf of “well over” half of the teachers at El Roble with the California Public Employment Relations Board charging Pisano with threatening, discriminating and coercing employees for exercising their legal rights. GTA President Michelle Nelson mailed the complaint, which is about two inches thick, to the state board and delivered two copies to Superintendent Deborah Flores via process server.

Nelson confirmed what several teachers seeking anonymity have said.

“You can’t use their names because they’re going to be targeted,” she said. “These teachers need anonymity. They absolutely cannot give their names.”

One teacher called Pisano’s leadership “punitive” and said her colleagues had been “publicly humiliated” by the principal.

“Ms. Pisano is, by far, the least effective leader we’ve had at El Roble,” the teacher said. “We’ve had issues from the minute she walked through the door.”

Pisano is the fourth principal to lead El Roble in about as many years.

Pausing to chat with students at dismissal Thursday afternoon, Pisano said she was touched by the outpouring of support from parents and students.

“I can’t say how overwhelmed I am by their courage,” she said. “I am deeply indebted to them.”

When asked if she thought the parents’ and students’ comments made a difference, Pisano said she could not comment. When asked if she knew whether she was the principal the board had voted to release, Pisano also refused to comment, saying she had to tend to an emergency, then hurried away.

According to Vargas, parents had requested that teachers compose and sign a letter pledging to stand united with the parents and principal. If the parents receive that letter, they plan to hold a rally at El Roble Friday under the theme “United We Stand,” Vargas said. Parents feel like they were blind-sided with the news that teachers weren’t happy with Pisano’s leadership and want a chance to work on the issues, she said.

“It blew us out of the water,” Vargas said.

Parents and teachers agreed that the lack of communication about the status of their principal is an issue.

“We don’t know anything,” one teacher said. “We need to be informed so we can get on with our lives. I think the issue is that, bottom line, we need to know.”

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