Middle School Dispute Handed To Mediator

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The Payson Unified School District has hired a professional mediator in an attempt to resolve an ongoing dispute between Rim Country Middle School Principal Frank Larby and more than half of that school's teachers.

Twenty of the school's 36 teachers signed a letter to the PUSD Governing Board dated Dec. 10, 2002, asking for outside assistance to improve a "school climate that has eroded to the point where many teachers are unable to foresee a positive outcome."

While acknowledging Larby's advocacy of technology at the school, the teachers question his "ability to provide leadership." Specifically, the teachers charge that Larby harasses certain teachers, besieges the faculty "with sudden mandates for which no prior warning has been given," and is "often unable to control his temper."

In a letter to the RCMS faculty announcing the mediation initiative, PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels expressed his disappointment that a series of meetings involving the warring factions have so far failed to resolve the issues.

"In our commitment to assist the high quality staff at RCMS to improve the general climate, many things have been tried and a lot of time has been devoted to the issues," Weissenfels wrote. "I would have wished for more positive results, but reality says efforts are still needed."

Weissenfels emphasized to the Roundup that both sides must share a portion of the responsibility for the dispute.

"It's a touchy (situation) right now, and it's not a one-way deal at all," he said.

Weissenfels also denied that RCMS parents are being intentionally excluded from the mediation process. Several parents have expressed their concerns to the newspaper about Larby's leadership.

The letter to RCMS teachers from Weissenfels included a meeting with parents on the mediator's schedule. That meeting was subsequently changed to a meeting with the school's site council, a body made up of both parents and teachers.

"There is no attempt to exclude parents," he said. "It's not a parent's issue. It's a workplace issue."

RCMS guidance counselor Ginger Sparks, former president of the Payson Education Association and a spokesperson for the RCMS faculty, agrees that parents should not be included at this time.

"Parents need to be handled in a different format," Sparks said. "This is about what's happening here with us."

One parent who has had problems with Larby disagrees.

"We absolutely need to be involved," Sheelah Golliglee said. "We're the ones that are concerned about the things that are going on in that school. We're the taxpayers."

The mediator, Bruce Myerson, is a Phoenix attorney. He will spend the day on Feb. 3 meeting with Larby, the faculty, and the site council.

"He's an attorney who's done mediation before in several arenas including schools, so he is trained in that regard," Weissenfels said. "There will be a follow-up to the Feb. 3 meeting, most likely on Feb. 5. The nature of that will depend on what he picks up on."

Larby, who is in his fifth year as principal at RCMS, declined to comment on the mediation.

"It's a personnel thing and we don't usually comment on personnel matters," Larby said. "There are (sensitive issues) and the more I go into detail just kind of muddies that."

Both Weissenfels and Larby emphasized their belief that a lot of positive steps have been taken since the Christmas vacation.

"(Larby) has developed some programs ... meant to identify personalities and so on so they match up with each other and understand each other a little bit better, so he's already done some things to try to create improvement and a better atmosphere and some working relationships," Weissenfels said.

"We're going to do more work with that at a faculty meeting (Friday), and we're also taking a look at ... a program that focuses on enjoying your workplace and supporting one another," Larby said.

Sparks agrees that progress has been made.

"I personally already have seen positive changes taking place from both sides," she said. "What everybody hopes for from the mediation is healing. What we're all hoping for is improvement of the climate here.

"I can tell you as a guidance counselor that when there are relationship problems, there are problems both ways," she said. "Although I do not agree ... about it being 50-50, I do know when two people are involved there are always two frames of reference."

It is bringing those two frames closer together that Weissenfels hopes will be the outcome of the mediation process.

"In a case like this, you've got a lot of good people involved all the way around, so it's going to be an awkward situation," he said. "So this is probably the best attempt we can make now to try to get it to work."

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