This story has been updated to include a statement from Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel about union representation.
Healdsburg Junior High School students walked out of their classrooms on Monday, May 13 at 10 a.m. in a planned protest demanding the return of 30-year veteran math teacher, Greg Costa, who has been on a paid administrative leave since April 29.
Students peacefully carried signs with phrases such as, “Bring Costa back” and “Is paying the little extra money not worth our knowledge?” and walked in front of the campus on Fitch Street. Some even walked down to the Plaza and in front of the Safeway chanting things like “Free Costa.”
When asked why he wanted to take part in the walkout, eighth grade student Te Wright said, “Because a bunch of teachers are getting fired for no apparent reason other than speaking out against the principal. They don’t have a right to do that.”
The Tribune reached out to Costa for a statement, however, he declined to comment.
“I can’t say anything regarding Mr. Costa being on leave besides the fact that he is, because it is a confidential personnel matter,” said Healdsburg Unified School District Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel. “I approached several of the leaders today of the protest and asked them if they were interested in talking with me after school sometime so I can hear their specific concerns and be able to address what I could and I have met with some of the parents and explained to them that there are a lot of different factors going on and unfortunately I can’t give the whole story.”
Vanden Heuvel added with all that said Costa has been a revered coach and teacher for 31 years.
He also added that even though some students left campus during the protest, the district encourages kids to “use their voice in a productive way.”
“We encourage them to take a stand in what they believe in,” he said.
While Costa is still on paid administrative leave, there are eight (including Costa) teachers who will not be returning to Healdsburg Junior High for various reasons.
According to a letter to the HJH community from the Healdsburg Unified School District Board of Trustees to the community, three teachers, including Costa, took the district offered payment as an incentive to retire.
According to the letter, the offer was negotiated with the teacher’s union and has an incentive with a cash bonus based on 80% of their highest year’s income on top of their retirement package.
Vanden Heuvel said districts do these cost savings benefits often, and that it is not unusual to have teacher turnover once in a while.
Since Costa’s departure triggered the must uproar among the community, the Healdsburg Tribune tried to find the root of the problem in this developing story.
Costa had accepted the retirement incentive, which was approved by the board of trustees at a March board meeting, prior to the paid administrative leave.
Yet his leave still seemed troubling to the HJH community.
According to Michael Villa, a parent to a seventh grade student at HJH, one of the alleged incidents that may have led to Costa’s administrative leave was when he made a statement in class about retirement.
According to Villa’s daughter, Costa mentioned that he was thinking about retirement because he did not support the decisions of the current administration.
Villa thinks the statement was alluding to the fact that teachers Sydnee Mardell and Serina Rasp were allegedly not offered tenure.
“Mr. Costa did not mention Serina Rasp or Sydnee Mardell by name. But he nevertheless was upset by the administration’s decision to not extend their contracts. That upset, in turn, was part of the basis for his statement to his students, my daughter among them and who heard what he said, that, ‘I do not support the administration,’” Villa said in an email.
“I received a call on April 26 from the superintendent letting me know what he was planning to do,” said Healdsburg Area Teachers Association President Ever Flores. “I asked the superintendent if he could wait so Greg could have representation and he said no. I was in L.A. so I couldn’t be here, so he spoke to Greg that day and gave him the letter and asked him to take the leave. I thought the conversation was going to be a reprimand letter, not a paid administrative leave.”
However in a statement Vanden Heuvel said, “We always allow employees to choose whether or not they want union representation at meetings and that choice was afforded to Mr. Costa and our collective bargaining agreement requires this.”
Flores emphasized that usually paid administrative leave is reserved for a serious offense such as drug use.
“These sort of leaves are usually reserved for the most egregious set of offenses, if a teacher is using drugs or if there is inappropriate behavior with students,” Flores explained. “That is what we have the leave for, not because you happen to disagree with your employer.”
Yet, Vanden Heuvel said an administrative leave is typically used anytime there is a concern about an employee that the district feels is serious enough.
In the same letter from the board, the trustees addressed the alleged classroom statement incident as, “Some employees may have been using their exit from the district as an opportunity to undermine certain administrators … This Board of Trustees finds it completely unacceptable for any employee to use students as the messengers for their concerns. Such actions violate our standards for conduct set forth in Board Policy.”
In a letter from Flores to the board of trustees, Flores identified the paid leave incident as “unlawful retaliation.”
In part the letter states, “Mr. Costa, like any unionized worker in the public sector in California, has the right to talk to his colleagues and to concerned community members about matters of public concern. Removing a 30-year educator from the classroom and disadvantaging dozens of his students in order to unlawfully silence a dissenting voice in the workspace, is certainly a matter of public concern, which can and should be shared by Costa and others broadly. Healdsburg taxpayers, as well as HATA, are rightfully concerned about your wasting of thousands of public education dollars in furtherance of a personal agenda of retaliation against Mr. Costa for his protected union activity.”
The letter continues by demanding that Costa be returned to his classroom.
“The union and Mr. Costa hereby again demand he be returned to the classroom and to his students immediately and that you cease further unlawful retaliation against him or other educators who speak up about matters of concern.”
Flores said the handling of the paid administrative leave is also cause for concern.
When a teacher is placed on paid leave, the district has 90 days to investigate the matter.
Flores said he expected the district to investigate it within 48 hours and have Costa be back in the classroom before the end of the school year, however, when he had a conversation with the superintendent about the investigation on May 6 they still hadn’t worked on the investigation.
“He had not started the investigation,” Flores said. “This is when we all lost it, we just wasted a whole week, he then started that same day to investigate what had happened. We were very disappointed and at this point it seemed like he was just trying to let the clock run out instead of actually doing his job to find out what happened.”
Flores continued, “As the union representative I can tell you first-hand that there were some steps that were skipped in terms of Greg Costa. Some issues came to light and the administrators did not talk to Greg about those issues. It is very clear in our bargain agreement that as a site administrator you talk to that person as to what the issues are, so that step was skipped, and two, have a reprimand letter written in case that member doesn’t stop doing that, and of course having union representation in the room whenever that happens. So those two steps were skipped before a heavy-handed set of actions were delivered and he was asked to be on administrative paid leave.”
In addition to student and union demands for Costa’s return, Villa said parents were also adamant about having Costa return. Villa added that at a special board meeting last week the universal sentiment from parents was to allow Costa to come back.
Overall, Villa said of the event, “This is hurting the student’s interest.”
Vanden Heuvel added that is not how he would like to see Costa end his career with the district.
“We are grateful for everything he has done for our kids,” Vanden Heuvel said.