PALMER —The Mat-Su Borough School District School Board meeting was unusually packed for a June meeting.
The board met on Wednesday to determine what action could be taken on Superintendent Dr. Monica Goyette’s recommendation of Jason Marvel to fill the vacant Wasilla High School principal position.
After 90 minutes of heated debate, Marvel will have the opportunity to accept what he calls his “dream job.”
District five member Ryan Ponder issued his letter on May 23 to move to rescind the approval of Marvel by the school board, basing his argument on material Marvel included in his curriculum while Marvel was a teacher in the school district. On June 6, Marvel requested that the matter be handled with an open discussion, rather than away from the public in executive session.
“The Wasilla community and Warrior Nation run in my blood,” Marvel choked through tears. “I have always desired to be the principal of Wasilla High School because I want to serve the school and community that has given so much to my family and to myself. I will continue to work closely with the office of instruction and will not disappoint the board.”
MSBSD Attorney Saul Friedman illustrated to the board that the power to hire or fire at that level is given to the superintendent.
“I believe the board has overstepped its authority,” said Friedman.
The board began discussion centered around the curriculum taught in Marvel’s classes on three separate instances during his 17 years as a MSBSD teacher. It ended with a lesson in the board’s role in hiring and firing employees at a principal level or above. The meeting required a board vote on only two issues, Goyette’s contract and Marvel’s contract. Marvel’s contract, reintroduced to the board by Ponder, was hotly contested and even the discussion of the legality of taking action was questioned. Ponder asked Goyette a series of questions to attempt to determine what oversight was given to the curriculum before it was introduced in the classroom.
“I’m deeply disappointed in them and no, I do not believe they reflect the values of the community,” Goyette said. “Curriculum in the state of Alaska is local control, so that curriculum reflects the values of the local community. That should not be an individual, that should be a collective group of stakeholders.”
District three member Ole Larson questioned what standard the materials were held to for the objective of the English class in question. Three separate instances were brought to the board attention of complaints made about Marvel when he served as a teacher. In 2004, Marvel was asked to not include the novel “Blindness” by Jose Saramago in his curriculum. In 2010, unbeknownst to Marvel, a complaint was brought forth about a poster in his classroom, an exercise in analyzing a quote from Jimi Hendrix, and a classroom activity requiring students to take a stand on issues introduced by Marvel. Ponder referenced his time serving as a substitute teacher in one of Marvel’s classes where he was asked to oversee the instruction around “Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut. Ponder was told by a student that the week prior, the class had read “The Girl With The Blackened Eye” by Joyce Carol Oates.
Marvel detailed improvement in atmosphere and achievement during his tenure as Burchell High School Principal. Graduation rates rose from 28% to a projected 87% for this school year. In three years, suspensions decreased from 48 to 22, and office referrals decreased more than six times from 194 to 31.
“While a teacher, I had the perspective of the classroom only, and in that perspective didn’t fully realize how some of the curriculum I taught would affect the broader community. I ask for grace and I ask that you judge me by what I have done as a leader at one of the most challenging schools in the district,” Marvel said.
Marvel went over some of the disturbing details of BHS as he began as an assistant principal in what he described as learned helplessness. The chaos of student lives constantly made its way into the classroom, and Marvel has worked to improve the community around the school in part by asking community members from Wasilla Bible Church to serve as mentors to BHS upperclassmen.
“Over the past four years we have worked hard to create a culture of structure, predictability, and high expectations,” Marvel said. “We knew that in doing this we would empower students to rise above their circumstances and become more than they ever thought possible.”
Board discussion focused around the materials taught in Marvel’s classrooms, but was redirected when District two Member Ray Michaelson asked that board members stay on the topic of the personnel matter and refrain from discussion concerning district approved material. In 2010, MSBSD adopted standard reading material for English classes 1 and 2. The elective English courses remain without an adopted reading list and are thus not subject to the constraints of the district approved reading lists for English 1 and 2. Goyette brought up prior case law citing Parducci v. Rutland which also hinged on Vonnegut’s “Monkey House.”
“No person should be punished for conduct unless such conduct has been prescribed in clear and precise terms,” Goyette read. “This situation illustrates how easily arbitrary discrimination can occur when public officials are given unfettered discretion to decide what books should be taught and what books should be banned while not questioning either the motives or good faith of the defendant.”
Ponder asked where the case law that Goyette referenced was given and Goyette’s response summoned giggles form the assembled crowd when she said that the law came from Alabama. Over 50 members of the community attended the meeting to show their support for Marvel. While audience members are asked to refrain from applause, the multitude of MSBSD employees insubordinately clapped when the decision came down.
Goyette went over two different board policies that seemed to contradict each other, raising the question of whether or not the board had power to rescind recommendations, hire, fire, promote or demote principal level hires and above. Board Clerk Sarah Welton recalled that in her 16 years on the board, she only remembered one instance of the board failing to approve a superintendent’s recommendation. Welton later questioned if the board had been breaking its own bylaws in her 16 years. Michaelson made sure to confirm that if Marvel’s recommendation was not upheld, he would remain the principal at BHS. While both positions are principal positions, the WHS position would serve as a promotion.
“The only way he can be removed from that would be through a dismissal action, which does not emanate from the board. The board does not have the power to dismiss somebody,” Friedman said.
Goyette’s contract was approved by a 4-3 vote earlier in the meeting. Members Larson, Ponder and Tom Bergey voted against renewing Dr. Goyette’s contract yet did not give an explanation. Trimmer asked that the board undertake a review of policy for future recommendations. Marvel’s contract was not subject to board approval, though it was brought to the board for a vote. Ponder stated that he wanted to bring the facts before the board. The materials in question in 2013 took place in Marvel’s senior contemporary literature class. Each student who took the class was required to have the syllabus signed by a parent prior to the start of the semester. Marvel sat up front next to his wife and daughter, with a myriad of Wasilla High School and Burchell High School teachers and supporters. In 2015, Marvel helped begin No More Mat-Su to end domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Where at any point did you take into consideration that there were people in our class that had been victims of sexual assault,” Ponder asked Marvel.
Ponder served in the Army in Iraq and went over some of the gruesome and highly sexual details contained in the reading materials. Marvel countered by detailing his methods of teaching “Welcome to the Monkey House” in conjunction with Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in an effort to teach what happens when society takes choice away from individuals.
“That story is a satire. Are you familiar with satire,” Marvel asked.
Ultimately, Larson moved to table the discussion on rescinding the board approval of Goyette’s recommendation of Marvel indefinitely, which passed unanimously.