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School faced criticism for culture of systemic silencing

by: THE TIMES: JAIME VALDEZ - Debi Lorence stands outside the MITCH Charter School building in 2010. Lorence resigned from her position with the school on Jan. 7The founder of MITCH Charter School in Tualatin resigned from her position last week, leaving behind the school she spent years leading.

Executive director Debi Lorence, who founded the school in 2002 resigned on Monday, Jan. 7, in a letter to the charter school’s board of directors.

In her letter, Lorence said she had been considering leaving the school for some time and was stepping down to help other charter schools in Oregon and Washington.

In her place, the school’s board appointed John Liljegren, a charter schools consultant, as interim director until a permanent replacement can be found.

“I’m not a school principal by background,” Liljegren said. “I have legal background and in real estate. For now, my role is to talk to everybody in the community, staff, parents, students, etc. and identify any concerns.”

Fellow charter schools consultant Mark Hazelton — who runs the King’s Valley Charter School near Corvallis — will serve as a consultant with the school.

The school has yet to put together a timeline to find Lorence’s permanent replacement, Liljegren said.

Lorence has been an out-spoken advocate for charter schools for years and currently serves on the League of Oregon Charter Schools Board of Directors with Liljegren.

The school, and Lorence, have faced some opposition in the past. The Oregon State Board Association investigated the school in September citing complaints from an employee. A sixth-grade teacher left the school last year, which caused some families to pull their children from the charter school and enroll them in nearby Tigard-Tualatin middle schools.

In October, several parents went to the school board to express their dissatisfaction with the school, saying they could no longer recommend the school to friends and that the school had developed a “systemic silencing at MITCH through policies, fear and shame,” according to meeting minutes.

Teachers spoke out saying that fear was affecting the way teachers were running their classrooms, and prompted one sixth-grade teacher at the school to resign in protest. In October, the teacher told the board she “stood up to (the) fear” by resigning.

In 2010, a former teacher at the school filed a lawsuit against Lorence and the charter school after she claimed she was discriminated against after being denied paid maternity leave.

The woman claimed she was told by administrators that she would receive six weeks of paid leave, only to be fired after questioning why the school decided to give her 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Liljegren, who started at the school on Monday, said he was not up to speed on many of the concerns currently facing the school.

“I don’t know a lot of what’s going on, and I haven’t met with teachers one-on-one,” he said. “But I am going to try to figure out what the issues are and solve them.

Liljegren said Lorence recommended him to the position of interim director.

“I have known Debi for a long time,” Liljegren said.

Liljegren helped get MITCH started more than a decade ago and helped open a second MITCH charter school in the Sherwood School District.

That school, the Sherwood Charter School, is run independently from MITCH with a separate director and board of directors.

In the meantime, Liljegren said he wants to meet with parents, students and staff to talk about the school’s future and address concerns.

“This is a great school, and I want to keep it moving forward, resolve any issues people might have and make this a terrific atmosphere before the new guys comes in.”

The MITCH Charter School Board of Directors will meet tonight (Thursday) at the school, 19550 S.W. 90th Court, off Tualatin-Sherwood Road, in Tualatin.

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