Photo courtesy of Carles Beckett
In the early 1980s, this group of Madera Unified principals joined Jack Netherton at the Netherton Relays. Wally McFall is in the bottom row, fourth from left.
Madera Unified has had its share of really good principals, and Wally McFall was one of them. For 23 years he served as principal of Eastin-Arcola School, then in 1986 something happened. They fired him! Well, maybe not fired — just demoted, but for a principal, that’s about the same thing.
I have always wondered about Mr. McFall. I worked with him at Berenda School the year after he was reassigned to the classroom. He wanted one more year before he retired, so he tucked in his shirt tail, screwed up his courage, and completed that year with dignity. I watched him go and always wondered what happened.
Not long ago I came across something that grabbed my attention. It was the court record of an appeal Wally had made asking that a lower court decision be set aside. McFall had sued the school district to get his job back and lost, so he decided to appeal.
As I read the transcript, I got a big surprise. MUSD Superintendent Duane Furman had not gone along with the school board’s move to dump Wally.
The record showed that after July, 1985, Furman observed McFall’s work performance, and based upon his observations, he saw “no need for improvement on McFall’s part, no need to evaluate his performance further, and no basis for any demotion or other adverse personnel action.”
When the School Board decided that Wally had to go, Furman stated that McFall’s case was “not normal,” that during his 20 years as MUSD superintendent, the school board had never reassigned or demoted a principal without his agreement.
With that the document grabbed my attention. A quick check revealed that in Nov. 1985, three new members were elected to the Madera school board. Actually only two of them were new; one had been returned after an absence of a few years.
Sometime after November 12, 1985, the Board directed Furman to notify McFall that he was out as principal of Eastin-Arcola, and after the first of the year, he relented. When McFall asked Furman for the reasons given for his dismissal, the superintendent replied that “the Board had given none.”
At that point, McFall went to ACSA (Association of California School Administrators) for help. ACSA agreed to send someone to represent him in a meeting with the school board. That meeting was held in closed session on Feb. 25, 1986.
The ACSA representative went over McFall’s years with the District, his prior service, and his good evaluations. He then requested the Board to follow good personnel practices and continue McFall as a principal for the additional year he was requesting.
It was all for naught, however. When the Board reconvened into open session that night, it voted 7-0 to put McFall back in the classroom for the next school year, 1986-87.
A number of people stepped forward to question the Board’s action, and two former board members, one who had served for 12 years and the other who had served 14 years, indicated that at no time during their tenures as trustees did a situation ever arise where the Board acted contrary to the superintendent’s recommendation on an administrative personnel action. One described McFall’s reassignment as ‘very unusual” and definitely “out of the ordinary.”
Well, as we stated above, McFall sued and lost. He then appealed and lost again. The court cited the California Education Code, which “vests the governing board with the power to employ principals for schools under its control. (Ed. Code, § 35042.) A principal serves at the pleasure of the appointing body. Thus, the governing board has the ultimate authority to determine whether to renew a principal’s contract, not the superintendent,” and that was that.
That court document didn’t indicate why Wally was demoted. It only pointed out that Furman didn’t agree with the action.
After studying the transcript, I shut my computer down and thought back to my first board meeting with the Spring Valley School District trustees as their newly appointed superintendent. They had a teacher they wanted to fire.
After the board grilled the teacher, I was asked what I thought. Frankly, I had not heard anything that supported the contention that he was a poor teacher. He was just unpopular. A group of influential parents wanted him out, so the school board was going along with it.
The next day, the teacher and I had a nice long talk out on the playground — alone. He agreed that he really thought it best to move on but needed a letter of recommendation. He got it, and we got a new teacher. The school board was happy for a while.
I don’t know if there are any parallels between Wally’s dilemma and this teacher’s, but I am just wondering if Wally made somebody mad, so mad that 23 years of service couldn’t get him just one more year as principal.
I don’t know — I really don’t, but I will always wonder.