FPS trustees split on Wood Creek teacher’s contract

With two dissenting votes, Farmington Public Schools trustees voted Tuesday to terminate the contract of a probationary Wood Creek Elementary teacher, despite protests from her school community.

The vote came during an electronic meeting. Trustees have used the WebEx platform since school buildings closed in March, to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Fourth grade teacher Monique Anderson-Pickens requested an opportunity to address the board during a closed session, which was held at around the mid-point of the board’s agenda. Trustees moved into a separate electronic meeting, with the vote to dismiss taken after their return to the open meeting.

Teacher, diversity advocate, praised

Prior to the vote, board president Pam Green read or acknowledged more than a dozen letters from parents and friends praising Anderson-Pickens as a talented and passionate educator who cared for all students, not only her own fourth graders. She led the Equity Avengers, a group of students who promote equality for all in their school.

“She taught me lessons as a young African American girl that I will never forget,” said former student Bianca Smartt.

Writers urged trustees to retain Anderson-Pickens, some mentioning that she was the only African-American teacher in the school.

While trustees referred to an incident involving students that Anderson-Pickens was required to report, no details were provided, due to privacy constraints. In a statement, Superintendent Dr. Bob Herrera said the district does not take the non-renewal decision lightly.

“For this particular probationary teacher, it was found that her conduct did not meet the high standards that we expect of all of our staff members,” he wrote. “As in all personnel matters, a thorough and complete review was conducted.”

‘Retain quality, diverse teachers’

While some trustees felt the incident warranted dismissal, others favored additional training. Terri Weems felt the reporting time was “not excessive” and the teacher had not tried to conceal information.

While she does not believe in hiring on the basis of race, Weems said, “we must do better to retain quality, diverse teachers.”

“I was in the district for 10 years before my children ever had a teacher who looks like them,” she said. “That was Mrs. Pickens… I have personally witnessed her stand up for dozens and dozens of students who were not her own and show very good judgment.”

Board secretary Angie Smith and vice president Terry Johnson both mentioned Herrera’s “zero tolerance” policy, which Johnson said was well known. However, Smith said, “we also have a district that has lacked on training our new teachers.”

“We have two pandemics, we have the coronavirus and we have race relations,” she said, “and this is not helping when we have other staff members who have done things… and because these individuals have tenure, they have been allowed to stay. I have a problem with making this teacher an example.”

‘Zero tolerance is zero tolerance’

“This is not about anything other than decisions Ms. Pickens has made,” Johnson commented. “And more importantly, taking responsibility for those… Zero tolerance is zero tolerance. It does not matter what gender she is, what race she is, how tall or short. The expectation is to make sure that our students are protected, more than anything else.”

Green, a former teacher and principal, said trustees should look at each case individually, look at the facts, and “make a judgment based on what is expected of our community.”

“There are some expectations I have as an educator in making judgements and decisions on that. Primary is the welfare of our students… we must cast aside any of our emotional or personal preferences,” she said.

Trustees Weems and Smith cast the only dissenting votes on the motion to terminate the contract. Green, Johnson, Jessica Cummings, Zach Rich, and Richard Mukamal voted in favor.

Watch the discussion and vote here: farmington.vod.castus.tv/vod/?video=20b93c67-7cda-4ecc-933c-c0b04d22b4a0.

Editor’s note: To clarify, Farmington Public Schools has no district-wide, “zero tolerance” policy. 

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