Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) has replaced a district-level administrator, Li Ezzel, with a lead teacher, Nancy Coffey, for the role of art coordinator despite visual art staff’s concerns and confusion.
According to Superintendent Don Austin, Coffey will take on all the roles Ezzel had with minimal disruption to the arts programs.
“She is capable of coordinating the program, much like our site administrators support, hire, guide and evaluate teachers in disciplines outside of the administrator’s credentialed area.”
But photography teacher Margo Wixsom said the decision to terminate the art coordinator position, previously held by Ezzel, was made by District administrators without discussing the move ahead of time with the visual arts teachers.
“The visual arts teachers right now are very upset and very concerned with the lack of support of the visual arts in PAUSD because the decision to terminate the art coordinator was done without talking to any of the teachers,” Wixsom said.
The first notice the Paly art teachers received about the decision came through an email without warning or a subsequent meeting, according to Wixsom.
“It was basically leaked through an email, and we found out it was going to be recommended to the school board in a very quiet, sneaky way,” Wixsom said. “This was deeply insulting and insensitive to us as a visual art staff. They did this right at the beginning of setting up the Youth Art district show at the Palo Alto Art Center, which is usually mainly run by the art coordinator himself.”
The other Paly art teachers, including Sue La Fetra and Kate McKenzie, declined The Campanile’s requests for interviews.
Despite Wixsom’s concerns, Chief Academic Officer Anne Brown said she sees this change as necessary in adjusting to the resignation of Ezzel. Brown was part of the process of appointing a new teacher to coordinate the visual and performing arts and worked with other District administrators to find a new candidate to take on the responsibilities of the previous art coordinator.
“(The resignation) gave us an opportunity to reevaluate these positions,” Brown said. “As a result, the coordinator positions have been consolidated into one Visual and Performing Arts coordinator. This coordinator will be responsible for (both) responsibilities, which will result in a more consistent and coherent experience for students.”
According to Brown, the PAUSD art and music coordinators have similar job descriptions and the District doesn’t favor performing arts over visual arts.
“They are responsible for providing leadership and coordination for their respective programs. (This includes) hiring, supervision, curriculum oversight, staff development, budget, etc.”
Wixsom’s concerns about these changes, however, have to do partly with the unfavorable history of arts coordination in the district.
Due to a lack of funding in 1976, she said PAUSD replaced all of the credentialed art teachers for elementary schools with one staff member to supervise and assist the visual arts at all the schools in the district, a position known as the art coordinator.
“They decided to keep all of the music teachers. They decided to keep all of the physical education teachers,” Wixsom said. “So for elementary schools, the only subject area that was targeted for cuts was the visual arts.”
Fast forward to this month, and Wixsom said the District’s timing for their most recent announcement also showed a lack of respect for the visual and performing arts.
She said the District art teachers had to shoulder the work of setting up and presenting a community-wide art show run by the district without Ezzel, who was put on administrative leave on the second day of the show this year, leaving the other art teachers in charge of the show.
Austin and Brown both said they could not discuss Ezzel’s departure since it is a personnel issue. This news did not satisfy Wixsom.
“It’s like when the theater is putting on a big play, and it’s opening night, but then somebody decides to cut all the backstage crew and the show must go on with no backstage help,” Wixsom said.
To respond to emails from community members concerned about the decision to remove the visual arts coordinator position, Austin announced in a letter to the visual art staff that the District was going to hire an art coach and a new theater specialist to step in, Wixsom said.
“These were totally new terms,” Wixsom said. “We really don’t know what they mean. To me, it just means they’re getting rid of credentialed teachers.”
Despite the loss of a coordinator in the program, Austin said there will not be any systematic changes to the VAPA program as a result of the recent personnel change.
“There will be no change in programs for students,” Austin said. “The only difference that may occur is more resources directed to the art classrooms.”
However, Wixsom said the removal of the art coordinator will cause logistical issues within the District visual arts program.
She said, “I really believe that the students do deserve standards and alignment, which means you have to treat the visual arts the same way that you treat other classes.”