During a volatile meeting of the American Indian Model Schools (AIMS) board Friday, the board members lost two of the schools’ most fierce defenders: AIMS Director Sylvester Hodges was fired during a closed session, and board President Toni Cook resigned soon after the closed session and left the meeting. AIMS site administrator Jennifer Avelino was also fired. The four board members who were present conducted no public discussions on the matter and gave no reasons for the dismissals.
Board members tried to respond to the demands of upset AIMS teachers and parents at a follow-up emergency board meeting Sunday, but the meeting was cut short because three of the board members said they had to leave early.
Teachers and parents at both meetings were outraged. Public comments at Friday’s meeting lasted almost two hours and attendees often broke out into yelling at the board and chanting “Resign now!” Each meeting completely filled up the area on the third floor of the American Indian Public Charter School II where AIMS board meetings are held. The meetings were often interrupted by information being demanded of the board or questions being asked out of turn. On Sunday’s meeting, the entire room booed one of the board members for answering his cell phone during the meeting.
“What am I supposed to tell my students when they ask me where Ms. Avelino is?” asked seventh grade teacher Matthew Wienclawski, addressing the board Friday. “None of what you’re doing is good for the kids or the community.”
Avelino came prepared to Sunday’s meeting with a speech that she read during the public comments section of the meeting, accusing board members and administration of corruption and intimidating teachers and staff. “Every employee and board member who has been involved with the operation of these schools for the past twelve years should be subpoenaed,” she said, reading off a piece of paper. “Many of these people are afraid for their lives or reputations, or have been intimidated to keep quiet.”
The meetings came about three weeks after the Oakland Unified School District revoked the charters of all three AIMS institutions: American Indian Public Charter School, American Indian Public Charter School II and American Indian Public High School. The vote to revoke came almost three months after AIMS administrators submitted a response to a “notice of violations” given to them by the district in September. The notice was one of a series given to AIMS administrators alleging improper business contracts with AIMS founder Ben Chavis’ businesses, inappropriate credit card usage and lack of school board meeting documentation.
Chavis stepped down from his official position at AIMS in 2010. Administrative and board appointments since then have been frequent; high faculty and administration turnover rates was one of the “reasons for revocation” given to AIMS by OUSD board members. Hodges was appointed director this January and the month after that, Cook was appointed board president.
The AIMS administration is planning on appealing the charter revocation to Alameda County, but if they are unsuccessful, the three schools in the AIMS system are scheduled to shut down in June. Over 1,000 students will be displaced.
Since his appointment, Hodges has been working to cut off the schools’ and staff’s relationship with Chavis, including meeting with OUSD members to find new buildings for the schools, following recommendations given to him by the district. (The AIMS schools are currently located on properties belonging to Chavis.) Hodges and Cook both spoke passionately at the OUSD school board meetings leading up to the revocation vote keeping the hopes of keeping the schools open.
At Friday’s meeting, the AIMS board tabled decisions to hire a charter finance management organization and a property management organization, both without public discussion. They unanimously agreed to hire public relations services.
Many people who addressed the board called for the resignations of the remaining board members, accusing them of being controlled by Chavis, while defending Hodges and Cook. Teacher Colyn Flynn addressed the board to say that Hodges was determined to fix the issues at AIMS. “I’m extremely disappointed in the board for dismissing him and I want to hear the reasons for that,” he said. “OUSD accused us of having a high turnover rate in their reasons for revocation. You have, once again, proven them right.”
An AIMS mother, who declined to give her name, with two daughters in the AIMS system addressed the board with disgust. “I am not a politician, I am not a board member. But I will tell you that I am a mother. I am a college-educated mother. And I am shaken,” she said. “I need this school. My two black daughters need this school and these teachers. And you need to get out of the way of that.”
After hearing the comments on Friday, board members took a ten-minute recess. They returned to the meeting at 9 p.m. to vote on, then table, the action items regarding hiring the PR firm and other management organizations. By 9:02 p.m., the motion to adjourn the meeting was passed. Shocked attendees were quiet for a few seconds, reacting to the meeting’s abrupt ending, before they began to yell at the board.
“Can you answer any of our questions?” asked one teacher. “Don’t let them out!” yelled another.
After Sunday’s second meeting was cut short due to several board members needing to leave, board vice president Ronald Grant said there would be yet another follow-up community meeting on Tuesday, April 16.