School community charts new path in wake of leaders resignation

The new leader of MITCH Charter School wants to change things.

John Liljegren, the interim director of the public charter school in Tualatin, told a packed crowd of parents, teachers and staff last week that he wants to move the school forward after years of tension and conflict.

“We will do everything we can to continue maintaining what is an excellent charter school and build it up where possible,” Liljegren said.

MITCH (which stands for Multi-sensory Instruction Teaching Children Hands-on) started in 2002 by founder Debi Lorence.

Lorence resigned unexpectedly Jan. 7, bringing to light a series of conflicts between parents, teachers and staff at the small school.

Liljegren and the school’s board met with teachers and staff in meetings to address concerns, and Liljegren said he plans to meet with teachers and staff one-on-one.

“They can be candid about the schools’ weakness without feeling like their job is at stake or other insecurities,” Liljegren said.

His goal is to open lines of communication between teachers, staff and parents.

“There has been a great deal of tension, and conflict, and questions and issues,” he said.

In 2010, a former teacher at the school filed a lawsuit against Lorence and the charter school after she claimed she was fired after she asked why she didn’t receive paid maternity leave, as promised.

The school's board asked the Oregon School Board Association to investigate the school in September, citing complaints from an employee. A sixth grade teacher resigned at the beginning of the school year in protest to “fear” she said all teachers and staff were subjected to at the school. And enrollment at the school has dropped during the past several weeks as parents pulled their children from the charter school to enroll them in nearby Tigard-Tualatin schools.

The conflict came to a head last October when parents and teachers expressed their concerns to the school’s board of directors, saying they could no longer recommend the school to friends. They said the school had developed a “systemic silencing at MITCH through policies, fear and shame,” according to meeting minutes.

At last week’s meeting, teacher Sandra Ottley praised Lorence for her tenacity and boundless energy for MITCH, but said things needed to change.

“We have a long road ahead to rebuild the trust that we lost, and there are many wounds that still need to be healed, and this will not happen overnight with a simple resignation,” said Ottley, who has taught fourth grade at the school since 2006. “However, we are committed to the hard work and the responsibility that lie ahead of us.”

Ottley said she could already see improvement in the few weeks since Liljegren took over the helm.

“As things escalated these last few weeks and months, I had almost lost hope that anything would change,” she said. “Our working environment had not been healthy or productive for quite some time. The only thing that kept me here year after year were those big bright 52 eyes that looked at me each day for guidance. But today, I am hopeful that this process will work. This school does not belong to just one person. It belongs to all of us because we all had a hand in making it what it is today.”

Board Vice Chairman Wayne Laird said that while changes were necessary, the school should hold onto the ideals it was founded on.

“Things weren’t always the best,” Laird said, holding back tears. “I know there have been disagreements with how things were run, but there is a foundation here that we shouldn’t forget ... There does need to be some changes, but it is not a total wipeout of what we have been doing for the last 13 years.”

There is no timeline in place as to when a new director will be hired.

Before the search can begin, the school’s board of directors will have to discuss a number of issues, including an option that might restructure the job into more than one position.

“There has been some talk that there is enough work for more than one person,” said Board Chairman Norman Russell.

MITCH Charter School is located at 19550 S.W. 90th Court in Tualatin off Southwest Tualatin-Sherwood Road.

Editor's note: This story contained an inaccurate quote which was fixed. An earlier version of this story had teacher Sandra Ottley say "...we are committed to the hard work and the responsibility of life ahead of us.”

The quote should have read "...the responsibility that lies ahead of us."

The Times regrets the error.

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